"Product design should do so much more
than encourage consumption"


"Product design should do so much more than encourage consumption"

Opinion: in his latest column, Kieran Long argues that product designers should learn from architects and tackle civic issues like surveillance and security rather than "hide in their studios making something lovely."

When was the last time you met a designer whose work is about justice or love, or truth? Universal values, ones that bear on the meaning of our lives, seem to be beyond the creative register of most designers of objects and things. In product design, I'm struck by how small the concerns of its practitioners tend to be.

I began thinking about this while teaching at the Royal College of Art in the Design Products department in 2011/12 with the designer Sofia Lagerkvist from Front Design. Our students were great and we loved working there, but when we set a brief that asked our students to work in north-east London libraries after the riots, there was noticeable resistance. There was a sense of some (not all) students imagining that this was not what they came to the RCA to do, and that it was not what they wanted their careers to be.

The conflict was certainly my fault. I found it difficult to have this conversation with them, because I'd never encountered this line of thinking in many years of teaching in architecture schools. It seemed self evident to me that such a brief was valuable. Architects do actually spend time thinking about a higher meaning for their work beyond the commercial and outside the simple "I like/I don't" like paradigm of individual taste.

For architects, their education (ideally) gives students a sense of certain (yet often very vague) responsibility to the city itself and therefore that the citizen is important.

Architects will almost always speak about their higher role if given the chance: about their responsibility to provide a setting for civic life, to make a place meaningful for people and so on. Our cities might not be better because of it, but the conversation is there.

I'm not saying architects are uniquely civic minded in their work, either. We can think of plenty of works of digital design (games, websites, even interfaces) that take as their themes issues of access, citizenship, or even life or death. Graphic design does, too, through political posters and publications and many practitioners’ interest in the graphic culture of the streets.

In product design, however, sometimes it feels that its most important practitioners just want to be left alone to whittle away in their studios making something lovely, periodically being wheeled out to tell the story of their whittling.

The obvious retort to this is probably that product design is indeed the field most in bed with fast-moving consumer capitalism. The Ron Arads and so on of this world give salesmen new, beautiful and desirable things to sell, and that machine is necessary. Also, the media around design - with its systems of awards and juries and the institutions (like mine) that honour the good and great - are not all that interested in the world of design beyond the decorative. Honourable exceptions include the work of people like Justin McGuirk in the Domus of recent years. In the main, the role models we promote are those engaged with consumer products.

I know many designers whose work articulates our everyday experience in ways that are meaningful, that help us to understand and enjoy our daily lives. It is enough for good design to be things we cherish because they are beautiful, well made, or a pleasure to use, but it seems to me that our daily lives are dominated by barely competent and sometimes downright sinister works of industrial design, and I do not understand why designers don’t spend more time chasing down these opportunities. I mean, I hate the yellow plastic pad that I have to slide my Oyster Card up against when I get on the tube in the morning, and the ugly yellow system of handles and railings on London buses. I hate the incompetent way that cathedrals integrate gift shops into their lobbies and the excessive bulk of the common-or-garden wheelie bin.

More important, though, is whether there are any Dezeen readers whose work involves designing bits of the Ring of Steel terrorist defences around the City of London, or truckproof bollards, crowd-management barriers, riot-police shields, the casings for CCTV cameras, or the plastic spikes that they stick on top of the CCTV cameras to stop birds shitting on them.

The whole infrastructure of security and surveillance that dominates our experience of the city today (to take just one example) has gone untouched by the field of product design in any meaningful way. These are works of design that take justice and trust as their topic, and they make it pretty clear how those in power think of us as citizens.

Architects are often thought of as terrible snobs, but loads of them spend their days thanklessly trying to redesign low-cost housing for grasping, couldn’t-care-less developers or vainly trying to improve the standard of big-shed retail. Perhaps product designers dislike getting their hands dirty.

If the best we can say of a designed object is that they people can either buy it or not buy it, then the piece is nothing. It is worse than nothing, it just exists to make the wheels of a corporation turn, to encourage consumption and so on. Let’s be honest about that. I know that we all depend on this system working, it pays most of our wages etc etc, but let’s not pretend it’s why we get out of bed in the morning. Design could be so much more important than that. I just wonder if designers have the passion and desire to go out and design the things that define our lives as citizens and human beings.

Image of security in London courtesy of Shutterstock.

Kieran Long is Senior Curator of Contemporary Architecture, Design and Digital at the Victoria & Albert Museum. He presents Restoration Home and the series The £100,000 House for the BBC, and is currently the architecture critic for the Evening Standard newspaper.

  • Dominic Wilcox?

  • PB

    It’s a very good and topical ‘opinion’ piece. However, I think the same argument can be made against many architects too. Architects for the past several decades have been key agents in producing vast objects of consumption – i.e. speculative commercial property.

  • Danny

    Then why, if I am correct, does Dezeen more often than not highlight exactly the kind of product that this writer despairs of? One look at the Dezeen Watch Store should be enough to see that they are all just fashionable variants of a device that has been around for hundreds of years, with just one function. I am in no way attempting to judge here – it just seems that design-orientated media does prefer to promote the fashion element. Unless they are called ‘Treehugger’…

  • Belen Palacios

    El ultimo grito, Auger and Loizeau, Dunne and Raby, Cohen van Balen, James Bridle, Daniel Charny, Noam Turan, Nelly Ben Hayoun, … or simply come to the Goldsmiths BA Design degree show. The world is full of designers and architects that just follow the lead but there’s also others that challenge the limits of their practice and question their social, cultural and economical implications.

  • wholly

    All due respect but you lost me with stuff like “product designers should learn from architects and tackle surveillance issues” or “product designers dislike getting their hands dirty”, these straight away cheapen the article and sound very infantile and subjective.

    Some prod designers like to work in social issues, but most are bound by industry constraints, some architects like to tackle social issues but most are bound by commercial constraints. (I would add the more unemployment rate in an industry, the more conceptual work probably). And do all product designers really dislike to get their hands dirty? I mean, really?

  • The subtlety of Ron Arad’s political message is probably lost on someone who considers buying a gun ‘controversial’.

  • 74FDC

    You make a good point, but maybe it’s nothing more than your personal experience/impression and not reflective of the design industry as a whole.

    Central London where you live and work is where all the world’s leading companies gather. It would seem natural for the RCA and it’s students to naturally gravitate towards this prestigious community instead of public libraries. Maybe if you were teaching in a smaller city things might be different, but you would nevertheless be facing different problems.

    However, you’re not the first to notice this lack of social concern, Karl Marx is probably best known for sounding the alarm bells with his theory of commodification and around the same period Oscar Wilde wrote:-

    “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

    And don’t forget the 1964 “First Things First” Design manifesto, or the “Design With The Other 90%” initiative. But in the case of your students, I think it might just be a question of design priorities and design inexperience. “The Culture Industry” as Theodor Adorno called it, is very seductive and young people are the most heavily targeted. Young designers such as your students, bursting with lively and daring creative ideas are also bound to identify more in consumer product brands founded on creativity, instead of the London Underground or a Library.

    That being said as many designers mature they become equally interested in social design projects. Myself for instance as well as being a 9-5 designer, dedicate time towards promoting and developing the Mexican craft of woven footwear known as Huaraches. It’s a fascinating type of footwear and a cultural model that is struggling in a modernising Mexico. Many designers that do great social work don’t get much exposure, because their clients don’t advertise as much. From designing new sustainable allotments for their local community, to my personal favourite; the Watercone an incredible design that creates clean drinking water and was designed by a BMW designer.

    Don’t be discouraged by your impression, on the contrary you have a great opportunity ahead. Your role as a mentor provides you with the chance to creatively develop interesting ways to encourage your students to experience new design realities. After all, you are there to help the students broaden their design perspectives and develop their abilities. Good luck!

  • RCAmedia

    At the RCA, the majority of design students and graduates aren’t afraid of ‘getting their hands dirty’. Just look at the wonderful design research happening at the RCA Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design which sees graduates going out into the real world to work with real people to develop design that has a real improvement on their lives.

  • Mario Barros

    The topic is quite interesting although it is very narrowly explored, therefore not convincing because it criticises a local experience in RCA and extrapolates for the “world of product design”.

    Product design is quite a large field with
    many different approaches as on the other referred fields (architecture and graphic design). If you take a look into a project like Hippo Water Roller (http://www.hipporoller.org/) you cannot affirm that product designers are just stylistic professionals.

    There are sub-themes such as inclusive design, design for the other 90%, design for disassemble, whose practitioners “speak about their higher role if given the chance”, as well as several concerns being tackled in everyday products that makes our lives a lot easier and pleasant. The argument could be applicable to several commercial practices in other domains. @milbarrosMB

  • Augusto Rückert

    These ideas are very good for breaking the idea that design is only these fantastic new luminous styling objects. I agree that architecture has a tradition to educate the future architects to think socially, and the great part of design schools doesn’t have the same position. I studied in an “old style” design school in Brazil, where I read Papanek, Bonsiepe, Maldonado, Munari, Bürdek, Dunne, and a bunch of other designers with a critical view and I therefore agree with the articles position. Remember though, Bauhaus brought this idea of design for a better world – design for all, but was recently propagated like a school of stylist.

  • Flavio Hilario

    Nice article. But is not so easy change the game from “consume” into “passion” so suddenly (in the eyes of the consumers). We also can’t forget the lots of architects that are simply and ‘beautifully’ spreading concrete on cities, without think too much about how it “defines our lives as citizens and human beings”.

    And I just hope the most recently graduated product designers start to change idea about getting hands dirty (that part was about them, right?) Smile -)

  • Mads

    One could argue, that a person making these statements, either A: has a narrow perspective on his surroundings, B: a lack of knowledge, connection to people or experiences in the field, or C: want’s to be heard for what ever reason might make the cut. There was nothing new, nothing old, no deeper research or insight, just words put together to something that is grammatically correct. An old woman sitting behind her curtain, carefully looking out, nagging about the state of the present. Strive to be better, please.

    Best regards
    A Danish Designer