"It's only a matter of time before
the design bubble bursts"

| 29 comments

Lucas Verweij portrait

Opinion: in this week's Opinion column, Lucas Verweij argues that as the design field expands to encompass all creative activities and designers try to solve all the world's problems, the discipline cannot possibly live up to expectations.


Design can no longer keep up with the promises it makes. Twenty-five years ago, nobody knew what design was or what purpose it served. The word was scarcely used on the European mainland, because back then we referred to the profession as vormgeving, which literally means "form-giving". The word "design" appears nowhere on the diploma I received when I graduated, but the same school I graduated from is now called the Design Academy.

The word "design" previously denoted a position on style. Alessi produced "design" coffee pots and Dieter Rams created "designed" electrical appliances for Braun. The term was reserved for intensive and often Modernist-looking products that you bought in museum shops. Back then design was still an adjective, not a verb.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, by contrast, design was a container term for all sorts of creative disciplines. That definition has since gained in popularity and all creative professions are now grouped under the umbrella of design. Everything has become design, and design is everywhere.

Apart from that semantic victory, the popularity of the profession is such that it is now absorbing and assimilating other professions. No longer is its scope confined to interior, graphic or product design. Now it also encompasses social, interaction and food design. Then we have design thinking and service design, the end products of which can be a service, a mentality or a procedure. That widens the scope of design further to include process, distribution, retail and organisation. Nothing remains untouched. Discussions within the profession suddenly emphasise similarities more than differences, but up until a short time ago we could not agree on what was and was not designed.

Once a patchwork of disciplines, the professional field has been transformed into one vast and pleasant entity. Things will remain like that as long as design is doing well, which is precisely the case now. Books and magazines on design sell well. Most design products and services also sell well, and the economic crisis hit the design sector substantially less than the architecture sector.

Design is expanding into the field of innovative techniques and methods for production, and it is exploring new ways of working and insights. Design is closely connected to the growing internet economy. The startup scene maintains close links with the design world and forms part of it through interface and interaction design. Design is closely connected to the changing world and now finds itself right at the heart of it.

In addition, the public puts a lot of faith in designers, comparable to the faith once accorded to architects. In the past, architects were seen as people who could solve problems; they were creative and progressive visionaries and set the tone in questions of taste. Architecture shaped the post-war discourse. Architects provided the forms that expressed how power was distributed, how life was lived and how society was organized.

A comparison with design obviously presents itself. Many social questions are now asked of design and many tools of individualisation and globalisation now fall within the design domain. That is why many positive connotations about architecture have now transferred to design. Designers are now the ones who can solve problems, who can be visionary and creative, who take the lead in matters of taste.

An important cornerstone of design is creativity. Never before has creativity been such a positively charged term. When I was young it was considered nice if someone was creative, but nothing more than that. Creativity was not in itself a positive quality. For what purpose could it serve in an era that placed much more emphasis on efficiency, organisation and quantity than on quality, creation and recreation?

The very opposite is now the case. We think that problems cannot be solved without creative input. Creativity and innovation are the new key concepts for growth. In Europe, innovation receives a lot of subsidy because it is thought that our creative and innovative powers are our only genuinely distinctive qualities in a global economy. China can produce more cheaply, India can engineer more cheaply, but for the time being our creativity is irreplaceable. All hope is suddenly put on a quality that was previously deemed superfluous.

I think that expectations and promises are now far too unrealistic when it comes to design. Practically all design disciplines are unprotected professions. People are free to call themselves "design thinkers" or "social designers" whenever they want. Every year there are three new educational programmes starting. Design is growing in such an unbridled manner that the quality can no longer be guaranteed.

Meanwhile the expectations and the promises keep on growing: design can solve the smog problem in Beijing, the landmine problems in Afghanistan and huge social problems in poor parts of Western cities. The ever-growing expectations of design can no longer be met. We are in a design bubble; it's a matter of time before it will burst.


Lucas Verweij is a Berlin-based writer, curator and initiator in the field of design. He is a guest professor of product design at Kunsthochschule Weißensee in Berlin and co-initiator of the Pruys-Bekaert Programme for design critical writing. He blogs under the name Lucas_Berlin.

  • Annika

    Since creativity became the device of our society, designers have to focus more on what they are good at (artefacts) than hoping to solve all sorts of political, economical problems. They are specialists, and they use their creativity in a specific way. Making artefacts is already tricky and the political, economic and ecologic implications of this activity cannot be neglected. But the focus is on the design process and the shaping of the artefact or interface.

  • ation

    Funny that this is posted on Dezeen, because it is THE blog to the design bubble.

    • Pleonasm16

      I doubt the irony will be lost on the powers that be. Clearly there is a shift in thinking which has been dormant for some time, suppressed even. It was only a matter of time before this inevitable ‘can of worms’ reared it’s ugly head. Reform has been on the cards for a long time now.

  • babydonkey

    Live in London for a while and you will understand what he is talking about. I felt that designers there are only designing to get respect from other designers at exhibitions only visited by designers. And of course to be published on blogs…

  • Jane Ruiz

    So where do we go from here?

  • deluxe

    “Design is growing in such an unbridled manner that the quality can no longer be guaranteed.”

    I think quality is never guaranteed – no matter how protected a profession is. Apart from that, I agree with the piece.

    Another point Verweij could have included is how design and the creative industries are used in marketing cities or countries. The amount of design/fashion weeks, conferences and fairs has become quite confusing. If they really help to boost local industries or tourism, it would be interesting to know.

    • Pleonasm16

      Deluxe,
      I could not agree with you more and this ‘Design fair’ culture and it’s actual merits is a topic which really needs to be discussed in depth. That being said, excuse my cynicism but when money is involved rationality somehow finds itself awry.

  • lozza

    And about time, I’d add. Hope the heavy rhetoric and not design itself will burst though.

  • DT

    Bubble or no bubble, leave designers in “unprotected professions” like it was stated in this article.

    Sick of title fighting like the one that happened to John Pawson.

  • R

    If there was a design bubble and if it would burst, it would mean that people would have to re-evaluate design after this happens. Design would then suddenly be less important, less valuable. I doubt this will happen as design has already become part of the more superficial pop-culture and therefore design mostly does not have to solve problems.

    Look at all what comes by on this site, most of it is just a new shape for what already exists, often only pretending to be more clever than before; not enough about how things are made, but more about what they look like. I think this Style-design bubble won’t burst as it feeds the masses. Real-design, where design meets engineering, there is not enough of, so that bubble won’t burst either.

    So to speak of a design bubble sounds to me like a call for attention. If you really want to be smart then come with some clever designs, before pretending to be clever talking about the design bubble bursting.

  • Florian Pfeffer

    What this article does is to first pump up design, overload it and then speculate about the burst of the bubble it created in the first place.

    The bursting bubble scenario would be true, if design(ers) were to claim that they were the only ones to “solve” the problem. But frankly, there is nobody (also not the other “non-designers” like politicians, the military, lawyers, engineers, NGOs, social workers, doctors/nurses, scientists …) who will “solve” the smog in Beijing or the the land mine problem in Afghanistan. Nobody could make such a claim without bursting – nor Greenpeace, nor the Dalai Lama nor Nelson Mandela.

    So, we should better leave things as they are and make another chair/website/book … because this is all too much and will break our beloved discipline?

    But predictions are a slippery road – especially when they deal with the future. So why not concentrate on the present? The world has moved on. Industrialisation has provided everybody with a chair, a coffee pot and plenty of electrical appliances. Mission accomplished.

    The examples mentioned by Lucas Verweij however don’t come in nice packages with a briefing and a project description attached as usual in design. They ask for different methods and a different way of thinking. Holding design against this background this whole idea of the artist/designer “solving stuff” feels very outworn… maybe we should stop solving problems but start contributing.

    Maybe we could try not to boil the ocean but look at things close to us instead; get connected, collaborate with others, exchange expertise, become dilettantes (cross boarders and contribute to other disciplines through sharp observation), stop being afraid of other people doing the same in our direction, initiate action, try things and declare ourselves responsible.

    There are plenty of people out there who try that and create prototypes on how design can contribute to “real life” problems – some are designers, others are not and some others don’t care too much about name tags.

    Should we support this or dismiss it?

  • Johan van Helden

    Design has increasingly become a goal in itself rather than a way of thinking to meet challenges.

  • Petrus Palmér

    The movement towards redefining the concept of design as process rather then product is a good thing, no? Is it not great that young and old designers get to widen their horizons and consider other problems and career paths then how to design more of the same chairs and coffee pots? Isn’t it fantastic that we’ve left the discussion of what is design and not?

    Calling this shift a bubble is denying the fact that the world is rapidly changing. This column’s writer has clearly got the topic backwards, the kind of “every man to his own trade” thinking presented here is just what needs to change (and is changing). Naturally the design profession alone won’t come up with all the solutions of tomorrow. But the inherent qualities of design practice, such as cross-disciplinary collaborations, lateral thinking and end-user perspective, is what might just. We need to go from working in closed cells protecting our trade, to open source knowledge and talent.

    And the whole title thing is just plain old.

  • 3DprintedBS

    I’m not sure if the bubble will burst, but I sure hope so, getting rid of all the fake designers. They can go back to work in the new factories as China won’t be cheap anymore and they can assemble the new phones and the electric cars. Way too much crap design these days. I’m sick of it.

  • 1234

    I hope so too. Isn’t a large part of this to do with rebranding jobs to include the fashionable term ‘designer’? Many of the stories which appear on this site which are concerned with new inventions or material advances would previously have been considered engineering advances. In the same way that you wouldn’t expect a software architect to fulfil the same role as a traditional architect, you wouldn’t expect all designers to undertake the same jobs. This is an expansion not of the function of design, but the definition.

  • Stanislaus Szczepaniak

    Absolutely spot on. We face what I would call “design imperialism”. White European/Northern American men and women claiming to be trained better than economists, social workers or irrigation engineers to “save the world”, in true Bruce Mau style.

    Meanwhile, though, the real world just continues to spin on its axis, leaving “design thinking” and other highly bogus terminology, invented by designers and agencies to poach for higher paid work in non-industrial sectors, behind.

    At the end of the day, the new gurus wish to unseat the old gurus, claiming to be in possession of “the knowledge” how to social engineer the world by way of design. This, in fact, is nothing but a religious motif: worshipping at the altar of the holy church of design.

    • Damian

      Please enlighten me what role the skin colour plays in your “design imperialism”.

      • Stanislaus Szczepaniak

        Throughout design history, even in corporate design and marketing departments, until very recently the rules for “good design” have been, by and large, made by white European males, sitting in their luxury offices or busy publishing sharing-caring papers from their ivory tower offices in academia.

        Luckily, successful businesswomen in Bangalore or Nairobi strongly disagree with such jaded notions from the high-chair of design, and get on with life on their own terms : )

  • Stanislaus Szczepaniak

    Indeed, Richard Florida’s “The rise of the creative class” still wreaks havoc in towns and cities all over the world, where unscrupulous mayors and councils squander the taxpayer’s money for the enhancement of their own short-term profile.

    • Stanislaus Szczepaniak

      I have no handy links right here; but just do an internet search with “Richard Florida critique” and you find voices from all over the English speaking world. Most of what I refer to is related to Scandinavia and Northern Europe, where town planners and the remaining educated journalists have debunked Richard Florida’s easy-go-lucky recipes for a hipster world, saving many a city from costly and counterproductive urban development.

  • Stanislaus Szczepaniak

    Hence the unwholesome trend of many design educations eagerly going to bed with fine art, in order to give birth to future chimaeras:

    http://www.stylepark.com/en/contributions/debate-design-education

  • Romain_M

    This probably has a lot to do with design education. I went to a very style-centric school and couldn’t help but feel that I had boarded a sinking ship.

    Design shouldn’t be considered as a thing “in itself”, it’s a catalyst for engineering innovation, an additive that has specific applications. I dream of a day when engineering and design students constantly exchange ideas and collaborate on real products rather than strive for star status.

    We probably shouldn’t depend as much as we do on marketers, publicists and style journalists… their skill-set is based on discourse not on innovation.

  • Rick L

    There is no need to be constructive here, no need for suggestions, solutions or answers. The goal is to self-reflect and ask the right questions.

    • Jane Ruiz

      It is a valid question. And it’s a question that would’ve been asked sooner or later.

      • julia j

        I absolutely think that is a fair question – why write an article if not to incite thought on how a particular issue can be resolved…

        Anyway, I think a large part of the answer is to further develop educational programs that aim to involve design thought into any type of industry, for example: http://www.sva.edu/graduate/mfa-design-for-social-innovation

        Design absolutely needs to become a word that politicians and business leaders think of positively and know to mean aiming for improvement, ease of use and comfortability for all. Isn’t Obama a designer at heart without the knowledge of design at its core? Take for example, the healthcare website – a website that almost anyone can agree is incredibly flawed in its design more so than it’s intent.

        That’s all I have for now but I think this conversation is an important one and one that designers are always battling against.

  • Patrick Goff

    So much emphasis on styling, so little on ergonomics or functionality. Design frequently used as a label for poor products debases design. The bubble is already bursting when aesthetics triumph over practicality. Architecture is a lesson to us all in this respect.

    • Sam

      I read this book and it shifted my view on design: Emotionally Durable Design, Objects Experiences and Empathy by Jonathan Chapman

  • Lucas Tom Verweij

    You are right: design quality can never be guaranteed. We can try to get designers have competences in their education. That’s all.

    The marketing point you make is very valid and true. I haven’t written it in this article but besides all this Design is ever more strangled in Marketing mechanisms. The “not keeping up to risen expectation”, is something we know from branding and marketing. Buy xxx, use yyy and you will be happy.

    Thanks for all the critique, I highly appreciate it.

  • Anne

    As a design critic, Verweij is absolutely right to warn us about getting a big head. And the PR machine has indeed been running smoothly this past year. But predicting a design ‘bubble’ implies that designers are completely out of their depth, that promises are hollow and that there is nothing there once a thin layer of PR rhetoric is punctuated. This, I think, is untrue. At risk of flooding the comment section with long text, I’ve posted my response here: http://www.designistan.org/?p=472