the morphing of the design industry


When most people say “design,” they probably think of the way something looks. There is an object that has a purpose—a table, a refrigerator, a computer—and during its manufacture, it gets painted red or lined with wood veneer or decorated with, say, a silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it. A designer’s job is to attend to these aesthetic decisions, exhibiting a feel for color, balance, texture, and shape.

In this sense, design has always been with us. Throughout history, artisans—furniture makers, tailors and seamstresses, cobblers, metalworkers—were de facto designers. But it was only at the turn of the twentieth century, as machines were taking over the production of everyday objects, that design became a profession, and the designer a self-conscious actor in the marketplace. The artists of the famous Bauhaus school were the first to see a way to marry art and industry. The clocks, chairs, cameras, and teapots that they created launched the field of industrial—sometimes called product—design. Machines seemed to rob objects of their souls; the designer would bring the soul back.

At around the same time, industrialization gave birth to a related discipline: graphic design. For centuries, printers had depended on laborious typesetting techniques. Only in the late nineteenth century, with the invention of color lithography, did it become possible to mass-produce color text and drawings. Some businesses immediately grasped the marketing potential. One, the French cabaret Moulin Rouge, gave a historic launch to the new technology when it hired a young scribbler by the name of Toulouse-Lautrec to create posters.

But despite the august names associated with its origins, the design profession never got much respect from no-nonsense Americans. Designers got their hands dirty, like plumbers or auto mechanics, but their work seemed effete and beside the point. In the social pecking order, they fell into an ill-defined purgatory between blue and white collar. “If you worked in a design studio in 1980, you were surrounded by colored paper, rubber cement, X-Acto knives and cans of aerosol spray glue,” Michael Beirut, a partner at the international design firm Pentagram, recently observed. “It was messy.” According to George Lois, famous for his striking Esquirecovers in the 1960s, designers working for magazines were lowly technicians. Editorial committees decided by fiat what belonged on an issue’s cover, and the art department shut up and took direction. In ad agencies, copywriters sometimes referred to art directors as “wrists.” The key to product success was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” not banal reproductions of a cigarette box.

Not any more. If industrialization turned design into a modest profession, technology and globalization have expanded and glamorized it into its own economic sector. Call it Big Design.

Computers are the heart of Big Design. They propelled designers from the ranks of ink-stained wretches to those of postindustrial knowledge workers, in part by making it possible for them to work faster and more innovatively. “In the era before computers, when you had to order typeset, you couldn’t experiment,” says Eric Baker of Eric Baker Associates. “It was much too expensive. And it took overnight.” Then Computer Aided Design (CAD) software—Photoshop being the best-known of many products—came to the market. In the past, “if you needed a picture of coffee and a doughnut, you had to hire a photographer,” Baker continues. “Now I shoot it myself. Photoshop changed everything.” Three-dimensional Computer Aided Design—3D CAD—enables industrial designers to create prototypes of simple products like sunglasses and send them directly to the manufacturer. CAD also makes it easier to customize products, as designers using Solidworks software did when they recently created a swing set for Malia and Sasha Obama for the White House lawn.

The digital revolution has expanded the universe of design and the very meaning of the word. Consider Web design. Ten years ago, a company might hire a graphic designer—or maybe just a skilled relative—to create a brochure and business cards. Nowadays, people want fancy websites with animation, audio and video insets, clever drawings and photos, and user-friendly navigation tools that only professionals can create. “The Internet entailed not only the explosion of information but also the aestheticization of information,” writes Vanderbilt sociologist Richard Lloyd in Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City.

The boundary between technology and design has increasingly blurred. For the post-digital design generation, more efficient computer chips and improvements in circuitry and plastics often are more essential to an object’s aesthetics than are color and decorative detail. Design, in Apple founder Jobs’s well-known formulation, is “how it works.” Apple’s MP3 player—the sleek iPod, designed by a team headed by the Briton Jonathan Ive—embodies the contemporary marriage of design and technology. Like the artists of the Bauhaus school, Jobs wanted his company to “stand at the intersection between technology and the arts”—and so it did. Every appliance maker is now racing to do for the toaster or radio what Apple did for the computer and MP3 player.

While technology added to Big Design’s prestige, globalization spread its message. With Photoshop’s arrival, graphic artists in particular worried that the technological revolution energizing their business would also be its undoing. After all, desktop publishing had democratized design, making it possible for any 12-year-old to distinguish Times New Roman from Garamond. Yet as Virginia Postrel notes in her 2003 book The Substance of Style, the opposite happened. Cheap labor markets in China, Thailand, and India enabled firms to inundate the world with inexpensive designed objects, which educated the public eye, which in turn raised the bar for more attractive shoes, children’s clothes, handbags, and furniture. People have learned to discriminate colors, styles, and fonts the way their ancestors could differentiate the genera of prairie grass. Before, Postrel observes, “aesthetics . . . was a specialized good available mostly in a few large urban markets.” By the last decade of the twentieth century, a mass “age of aesthetics” had dawned.


Some visionaries see “design thinking” as the management theory for the twenty-first century, just as Total Quality Management was for the late twentieth. “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers better—they need to become designers,” argues Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. Businesses have always relied on top-down management based on the “quantifiable, measurable, and probable,” Martin says. What they need is the design studio’s more “temporary and project based” approach, which embraces “the unpredictable, the visual, the experimental.”

Like any large, complex industry, Big Design has proliferated into a mass of hybrid subspecialties. Let’s say you own a business selling widgets and want to expand your market. Well, you might consider hiring a “design anthropologist,” a scholar who studies how people use products in their native habitats—home or office, say—to figure out how to improve their experience; Microsoft has sent anthropologists to developing countries to explore how different cultures use technology. Or you might look into employing a design psychologist to advise you about how the brain reacts to the color and shape of your widgets. If you’re so inclined, you can pay a “strategic designer” to help with long-range planning. And don’t forget the “experiential designer,” who can advise you on the emotions and sensory engagement of potential customers. ESI, a New York–based experiential-design firm, revamped some of Best Buy’s warehouse-style megastores into interactive, village-like spaces with six “experience-based zones,” where buyers can try games or watch plasma TVs in comfy chairs.


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