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.

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