Design's Move to the Grown-Up Table
Bernard’s voice drifted through the humidity of a late spring night over an outdoor dinner table filled with young designers eager to experience how they may use design to make a difference. Many of my favorite moments I spent at PieLab in Greensboro, Alabama, were when dinner turned long—the food and drinks gone, but the conversations rolled on. This particular night, Bernard Cannife was eloquently sharing insights from his experience on the front lines of the changing design world: “Design is, for the first time, at the grown-up table.” For a young graduate, my idealism still mostly intact, the words were high-heart-rate inducing. How exhilarating to enter a field recently given an adult chair! But why now? What had changed? Who did we finally marry to graduate from the kiddie table? What new expectations are placed on us?
For most of history, design and art have been intrinsically linked. But within the last century, design has moved into a field now recognized on its own accord and is more widely understood by the public as separate from fine art. Design was usually considered to be a kind of service shop—one where designers merely fulfill client requests. But today, we’re seeing a shift. Designers, and creatives of all types, are being recognized as a major component of a strong economy, giving those in creative professions more leverage in mainstream culture. Creatives aren’t just bunking up in artist neighborhoods anymore—they now fill the shiny offices of Silicon Valley, Milan, and Tokyo. In his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida’s research shows that the Creative Class now makes up almost a third of the workforce and has taken “people who would once have been viewed as bizarre mavericks operating at the bohemian fringe and setting them at the very heart of the process of innovation and economic growth” (p. 6).
The shifting role of designers is the result of many social, cultural and technological changes. In the developed world, we have reached an era where our basic human needs are met by the wonders of mass production. In The Substance of Style, Virginia Postrel proposes that in such a culture, we turn to design for the next stride forward. We don’t simply want a refrigerator that works—heavens no! We want one that is stainless steel, has high gloss handles, french doors, an LED touch screen and is energy efficient. We expect every item we purchase to come with a variety of customizable options—to be super-designed. Now that “necessary” items are easy to find and affordable to purchase, there are more boutique versions of products appearing on shelves. In a recent issue of a lifestyle magazine, I came across a handmade Italian cafetera-style coffee maker featured for its craftsmanship and priced at over $5,000. Even coming from a coffee snob, there is no way a coffee maker that costs such an exorbitant amount is going to make coffee that tastes that much more superior to a cheaper option. This is a purchase made sheerly for design value, not functionality.
While artisanal is on the rise, it’s not the only factor behind this movement towards a more recognized culture of design. Many larger companies have also made good design a top priority—seating a designer across the table from the engineer, the R&D officer and the financial advisor. Target, America’s second-largest discount retailer, made design a key driver in elevating its brand. Their logo, branding, advertising, in-store way-finding and store-brand products all have a clean, sophisticated design that makes the shopping experience and brand recognition a step above its competitors’. Home store, IKEA, made modern design affordable to more people by offering modular options, therefore giving the user a large part in composition decisions. This cracked open a skilled, esoteric world of design and made aspects of it available to the population of non-designers. The DIY movement, inspired by the likes of other large brands, including Martha Stewart and HGTV, has contributed to consumers becoming more eager to understand design and intrigued with the invisible designer processes behind their products and experiences. Apple has played an enormous role in making consumers more design-aware. Its ruthless pursuit to perfect user experience has pushed the expectations of consumers time after time. The company makes few things, but makes them well. The touting of their values has instilled the language of design in consumers.
How to start chipping away at the impact of the world wide web on design? It is like showing up at Everest with a toothpick. Its entire experience and usability is based on design. It has surged the need for designers and given pedestrian users an incalculable awareness of how design affects them. It has built the platform for an entire market of websites, apps and the devices that support them. The development of internet-based technology has matured alongside the entrepreneurial and start-up-minded spirit of the young working generation. The new workforce has a firmer grasp than ever on the power of branding and excellence in design practices. With so much of our daily lives now involving some sort of a digital experience, often times the only way to make your company stand out from the others is to employ better design. Postrel observes that “in a crowded marketplace, aesthetics is often the only way to make a product stand out” (The Substance of Style, p. 2). Among the vast world of websites and apps, yours cannot simply “function” but must offer a more beautiful and intuitive experience.
Another factor worth mentioning is the impact of consumers being more aware of their ecological footprint. Even if the vast majority of consumers do not buy into “going green” alternatives, the once counter-cultural movement has procured a place in the mainstream and at times one of the main selling points of a product. Newly conscious of their consumption and discarding habits, consumers often sacrifice to pay a higher price point for goods that have more eco-friendly packaging or are of better quality, ensuring longevity and less waste.
In all of these transitions, design has migrated from being a peripheral service shop, to a partner in the whole development process of innovation, business, message-making and production. In the evolving modern workplace, collaboration is taking precedence and pulling many different “hats” to the table—to equally imagine, plan and develop our collective future. Many workplaces have adopted the brainstorming techniques long-used by designers. Employees from a vast number of non-design sectors have become more sensitive to elements of design, the process of design, and systematic thinking. The information flows both ways—designers are being served other responsibilities and processes of others at the adult table. Indeed it is the very marrying of design and technology that has brought design the largest share of its credibility, making it no longer just “art”. John Maeda made the point in a recent article on CNN.com that “the relevance of design is expanding far beyond visual aesthetics—to everything from tackling global issues such as climate change, to making sense of the overwhelming amounts of data that surrounds us.”
What do we offer to the adult conversation?
Bern’s further commentary that Alabama night etched words in my head that still linger: “Designers are market creators, global thinkers, and brokers of change.”
Among the huge technological implementations of the last decade, designers have been at the forefront of development in the hardware of these products, the aesthetic of the interface and the wireframes of the networks on which they run. Apps were never a “need” in peoples’ lives but now the majority of us probably cannot imagine living without a few staple ones on which we depend. While many of these products were not born in the mind of a designer, it took a designer to give them substance and bring them to life, helping create the new market. We cannot overlook that while we do not only make stuff pretty, it is still the designer who brings actual deliverables to the table—we have to know how to “make pretty” but also “make smart.” We intermediate between consumer voices and an actual understanding of what they want. This translation experience gives us skills as sense-makers, giving us one more asset to add to the table setting. Sense-making is our ability to interpret facts in meaningful ways. However, we must be careful to address real needs in improving the quality of life. “When real needs are neglected, and artificial ones everywhere stimulated into an avid hunger for novelty, sensation and status-appeal…It should not surprise [us] to find a thin and pretentious reality informing the design language of the world” (What is a Designer?, Norman Potter, p. 36).
In our hyper-connected world we are bombarded with information, but information must be deciphered. Designers are able take in the “big picture” while also considering local realities—to fluidly shift from talking about global movements to adjusting a vector’s slope two degrees. “Designers are the best synthesizers in the world. They make a synthesis of human needs, current conditions in an economy, in materials, in sustainability issues—and then what they do at the end, if they are good, is much more than the sum of its parts” (Paola Antonelli treats design as art, TED.com). Our cultural awareness allows us to trace trends, connect ideas, think broadly about the human experience and be more productively reflective. In the flattening world, as Thomas Friedman suggests, everything is so “integrated that there is no ‘out’ and no 'in’ anymore…every product and many services now are imagined, designed, marketed and built through global supply chains” (“Made in the World," NY Times, Jan. 29, 2012). Designers must be citizens of the world and simultaneously our local communities.
To be a broker of change is to mediate between the client and audience. We do this well because designers are empathetic and passionate about adding value to the world via our craft. We are problem solvers who can take our analytical methodologies and convert them to engaging channels of change. Rudy VanderLans goes even further to say that designers are not simply "facilitators, but…producers of messages, ideas and products. Not just hired hands, but initiators with personal stake in the projects they [create]” (Emigre 69: THE END, p. 55). Designers must realize their power as message creators to broker positive social change.
As designers find their place in the conversation at the adult table, we must make sure to listen to the others there, reflect, and then using our good manners, voice our unique perspective. Cheers to a new-found seat.