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Are Designers The Enemy of Design--Comment No.2.

A Manifesto On Sustainability In Design. |


| Are Designers Focussing On Simplicity--Or Do They Love Lots Of Features?

April 07, 2007

Are Designers The Enemy of Design--Comment No.2.

Bruce Nussbaum

We're running through all 50 comments to my Parsons speech--Are Designers The Enemy of Design.

Here is No. 2 by Tony Fry, Design Consultant Founder, EcoDesign Foundation Director, Team D/E/S Australia

A Talking Bum

Nussbaum reminds me of one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings — ‘empty vessels make the most noise.’ The guy sure is a dry pea in a tin can. It’s tempting to throw him back the kind of language he throws around, because he trades more in irritation than provocation. But let’s start on a point of agreement. He says designers are ignorant. They are. Mind you, sticking with my grandmother’s clichéd wisdom, this is a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black.’ He says they know nothing about sustainability, and then demonstrates what he knows would get lost in a matchbox

— back to this in a moment. First the accusation of ignorance begs comment.

What designs designers’ ignorance? Well in large part, design education and the design press. The former is dominated by instrumental instruction (‘how to’) and by aesthetic seduction (style); the latter by hype and pretty pictures. The market also plays its part — clients mostly want compliant service, be it creative and innovatory, rather than critical insight and rigorous analysis of what needs to be designed and why. Effectively, the most important design decisions are made even before the designer comes on the scene. Ignorance then is not simply a shortcoming of individuals or the profession, but is structural to what and how designers learn and the work they do. Yes there are exceptions, but ignorance rules.

Now to spend a little time on Brucy’s ignorance. Mate, ‘Design Democracy’ is not the wave of the future — it’s not even a ripple on the pond. The rhetoric actually has the ring of the 1939 New York World’s Fair about it. Here are four points to chew on.

Point one, ‘star designers’ will never rule, and they never have. Most of what was designed in the past was anonymous — Siegfried Giedion made this clear nearly sixty years ago in his Mechanisation Takes Command — as will be most of what will be designed in the future. Designers conceal the omnipresence of designing.

Point two, we are not ‘designing more of our lives.’ The reverse, our lives are becoming more designed — children’s fashion, processed and packaged foods, smart cars, oodles of software, electronic gizmos in profusion — come on Brucy, get real! What is not being grasped is that it is things that design. ‘We’ are designed by the designed world, including our designing with design tools. Designers then ‘design things that go on designing.’

Point three, sustainability demands that design follows a specific performative and developmental direction. This is at odds with letting millions of blossoms bloom in the silly land of hyper-pluralism.

Point four, what’s needed are well educated designers able to redirect design practice, its products and economies towards sustainment. This means designing away the unsustainable, designing against conflict and for global equity, retrofitting cities rather than creating more ‘green buildings’ or sustaining unsustainable organisations.

A last word to the folks at Parsons — don’t bother to ask Brucy back, he’s a bum."

My comment: language is super-powerful. I said "Designers Suck" in my speech to Parsons students partly to provoke and partly to converse in their culture in their school. Taken out of context, the insult to the category of designers angered many of the 50 to the point where they insulted me back personally. So you see "Brucy" written by Tony Fry, whom I've never met. Fascinating.

Even stranger is that I find myself agreeing with most of what Tony has to say. His "critique" of my statement that designers are ignorant is actually a critique of the field of design--how designers are poorly educated, the awful design press and the employers of designers who care only for the bottom line. Tony lays blame on all of them--except the designers themselves.

Fact is, design education is stuggling mightily to catch up with the fast changing realities of the design world. There is a huge churning in design education, with some schools shooting only for design thinking, others for traditional art-school type design education, most others somewhere in between.

The design press, such as Wallpaper, still focuses mostly on form and beauty but ID Magazine is doing a great job again and Metropolis is always good.

The real issue is the business press and the overall press, such as the NYT and WSJ and LA Times. None of them get Design with a capital D. They still cover design as drapes, not as methodology, as aesthetics, not as problem-solving. Fortune had a great online site but shut it down. Fortune and Forbes are clueless on design.

Only Business Week and Fast Company get design, with Wired just beginning to understand.

We'll soon see if Portfolio gets design--the Conde Naste way or Inside Innovation way.

As for business, it went green in the US in 2006 and in Europe a decade ago. Designers, like everyone, have to work within constraints, but there are growing opportunities to suggest and provide "green" solutions to problems. When even WalMart goes green, there can be few excuses to design for sustainability.

08:47 PM


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Hey Bruce, Great stuff. I feel that I'm perhaps too young and naive to really comment on 'designers against designers' But I like that you are really trying to push design to business and not just preaching to the ‘design choir’. So Bruce?? Why don't you create your own 'Magazine', book, or guide line about Designs greater role in business, empowering designers in business.

Posted by: Ben Arent at April 8, 2007 01:25 AM


We're trying to do just that in print with Inside Innovation and online with the Innovation & Design site.


Posted by: bruce nussbaum at April 8, 2007 05:14 PM

Interesting response Bruce, I must admit I am in the camp of the anti-bruce, but I can see that your heart is in the right place.

Personally I see your problem is the lack of creditability. You need some designers in your staff of full time or free lance writers. Not the fresh out of school but decided to give up on design type, but designers successful in their own careers, and are so passionate that they write about it.

There are tons of them out there; you just need to look for them. Hint: all of them have blogs.

Posted by: DT at April 13, 2007 06:53 AM

By vocation a designer is automatically in trouble. The field requires that the "designer" create a new and innovative solution to a given problem. If the design idea is not new and/or innovative one runs the risk of being accused of plagarism, copyright infringement, being obsolete, or lacking in talent.

In fact, the process of design from an engineering perspective would be one of repeated experiment and adjustment working towards an ideal process, machine, or structure. The process of designing from a logical, scientific, mechanical approach has been replaced by a process driven by the "art" of the end result followed by the reverse engineering from the aesthetic finished product back to something that can be built or processed.

Think about every new school building built in the world last year. Wouldn't logic say that over the years, by now at least, we would have hired enough architects, tracked the construction of enough contractors, remediated enough toxic carpet and interior finishes and modified enough HVAC systems in schools to know with absolute certainty how to build a school? Why then does every authority entrusted with our tax dollars and the health and welfare of our children start the process of building a new school by going out and paying for design proposals from architects? Why are we not just opening a reference guide to building "another" perfect building with a healthy environment for humans of all ages with known costs and timelines. Do we always have to reinvent the wheel in the interest of "design"?

Posted by: Steve at April 13, 2007 04:20 PM

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