创造力 | innovation | 독창성 思想 | ideas | 생각 艺术与设计 | design | 예술과 디자인

The end of design? | 设计结束?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Kurt Anderson wrote an essay in Vanity Fair where he argued that product design in everything from fashion to homewares has stood still over the past two decades. It was an interesting that got me thinking about hypothetical reasons why his theory maybe true.
Why hasn't design changed
There were a number of possible factors that I came up with:

Design – design education has gone global – design professionals now know more about design than they ever have done before. You now have designers who can access the same influences from all over the world from the same place. The design computerised tools haven’t changed radically from the early 1990s but they have become more pervasive. Design and culture are inextricably linked and culture as we previously knew it has been disrupted.

Culture – The structure of culture has changed. Where the mass-media, publishers like Taschen and (often hard-to-get) style magazines or fanzines were the arbitors of the latest tribe, high and low culture trends, now Google is likely to turn up images and blogs about what whatever you want. This has meant that fashion is no longer linear in its timeline, but massively parallel: from cosplay and rockabilly  to ‘rugged’ style – fashion sensibilities resonates around the world in a self-sustaining loop with more power than previously.

The pressures on culture have also changed; in the west there is no longer a sense that progress is inevitable. Even up to the 1990s with the Hubble space telescope and the Channel tunnel; big exciting things were being done and aspects of technology were interesting or exciting. You still have this; only its in China, Brazil and India. Environmental concerns and a wider anti-science movement that has gained momentum have squeezed the joy out of progress.

Societal change – seems on some levels to be going at an ever faster pace, which means that culture values things like authenticity, by looking to simpler times in the near past. Authenticity comes from:

  • Simplicity
  • Heritage
  • Esoterism
  • Quality

Globalisation – Autenticity can also be seen to be a backlash against the tyranny of choice that globalsiation has provided. Retailers in the west have created giant sheds to handle their massively expanded but similar product lines. This has promoted a homogeneity in many product lines. It has also promoted a throwaway culture: H&M clothing for instance – which is at odds with environmental concerns, particularly when you think about what goes into growing cotton. On the plus side it has also created opportunities for mass bespoke manufacture – supporting various subcultures through ecommerce and better logistics.

Marketing – finally marketing has changed from being intuitative and demand-driven to being much more data and insights driven in nature and this has affected the product development process with every aspect of it undergoing scrutiny. The key challenge is that often people don’t really know that they want, but the space for vision is now lacking.


One reply on “The end of design? | 设计结束?”

It is an interesting point made and very true. In world today our species face some of the most difficult has faced challenges it has ever faced. Our social and physical “niches” within the biosphere, are not so much damaged as totally bent and we are in danger of taking a good proportion of the planet down with us
The tool that evolution has given us, i.e. our power to conceptualizing, innovating and making as a part of our problem solving, is today impotent. Why should this be after what has been out most prolific 300 years of innovative activity which has seen us lift our self from a toil ridden agricultural life style to a urbane, leisured information workers.
Ubiquity and simplicity of tools: It is a simple fact that all of the tools used by the creative industries are largely the same, they lead everyone to similar conclusions whilst our omnipresent media massage everyone’s stylistic tastes to a similar pattern. A few years back I heard Karsten Schmidt, a great champion of open source code, doing and thinking told a gathering of the great and good of London’s “New Media” developers at the ICA that “Why do you Limit yourselves? You are only able to do what Adobe and Apple allow you to do with your work”. 3D design is very similar two or three platforms rule the roost and there are accepted ways of doing stuff that plug into a whole framework of analytic and manufacturing software. I would argue that we fool too many people into thinking they are designers because they can use these tools, and our design profession is often about the use or capability to use these tools rather than a capability to think autonomously.
Design as a fashionable/marketing activity is ethically barren. Tom Peter’s was a great proponent of fashionising design, and spoke at length about innovation. The innovation he cited as great was differentiation that provides novelty to stimulate markets. Look to our world again to see the impact of this. Every chair manufacturer on the earth herald’s the launch of another new office chair with the phrase “instant classic” which is only an instant oxymoron. Similarly there is no such thing as “classic design” only “iconic” items that are representative of a particular approach to set of issues in time and space.
It’s a strong accusation but we have become a world of fetish-ised, hedonistic lightweights who love coffee table books. We want the thrill of the new and can’t be bothered to wait for something that is genuinely better because those objects don’t come along very often. Our modern western idea of self is based on associations with objects rather than value systems we believe in. Our consumption is a selective form of self affirmation telling us who we are by the objects we consume. In this world it is more important what the object says to us rather than what it does. It’s an easy shot to take but can we truly say that an object is well designed if the manufacturer needs to remove finger prints during packing with a solvent that causes respiratory inflammation and kills a number of workers (Google n Hexane and Foxcon). Where are the products that change the way we think and live and add to our world and not something that forces through another technology churn of laptops and mobile phones?
It is too easy for designers to do stuff and this leads to a lack of diligence in our collective thought. The price of a nice family car can buy you a small tool suite in Asia to make some piece of junk that is a “design”. We create because we can: because we know someone will buy it: because it defines us by allowing us to label ourselves as designers and because it allows another two flea like companies with similar products to continue to fight it out over the same anemic dog-not because it is the right thing to do. Prof Michal Braungart in a lecture in London in 2008 at the RSA said he “..felt sorry for designers because we have a lack of imagination, we don’t take on the big stuff and that was pretty insulting as he is chemical engineer!”
I will leave the final word on thought and deed to Mrs Albert Einstein who on a tour around Fermi Labs with her husband asked the question “Why do you need all this stuff?”. An erudite scientist explained it was about investigating the cosmos about the planets, stars and the interconnectedness of it all; we are scientists and these are the tools of our trade. “Albert does that in his study with a black board and his pipe” she politely replied.

Comments are closed.