Opinion: despite cultivating a public reputation as an industry of problem solvers, design is too focused on growth to face up to some of its biggest challenges, says Lucas Verweij.
With books and magazines on design more numerous and a general growth in interest regarding design products and services, it seems like design has become more popular than ever before. The expectations from the public about what it can accomplish have certainly never been higher. Designers are increasingly perceived as problem solvers.
From the outside the design world looks very healthy. But let's take a look under the hood: is this profession really as vital and strong as it seems? Design is growing quantitatively, but is it growing qualitatively as well? Can designers really do what the public and the commissioners think they are capable of?
The profession is changing rapidly as a result of its growth, but is struggling with some serious issues. We are under pressure, and believe that we lack the time to find fundamental answers to these uncomfortable questions. But the answers have to come from designers themselves – from researchers, practitioners, students and scientists.
These are some of the industry's biggest questions – let's see if 2015 will provide answers to them:
1. Is design becoming more superficial?
For a long time design was embedded in mechanical engineering, printing, typography and material skills like ceramics, wood- or metalworking. We were able to weave and print by hand or understand simple industrial processes, such as injection moulding or extrusion.
But the definition of design has expanded – and it has also become more conceptual. This, combined with the digitisation of our workflow and an increasing dependence on computers, means most designers have little grasp on true craftsmanship. As Jonathan Ive said in a recent interview: "So many designers don't know how to make stuff. That's tragic".
Are we really able to design quality products if we don't have a deep knowledge of the specific materials, crafts or production methods needed to create them? How can we be connected throughout the whole cycle of product development if we are only conceptually relevant?
Design is slowly transforming into an ever more mental, strategic and conceptual profession. "Design Thinkers" like Ståle Melvær even advocate this transformation saying: "Stop looking at yourself as a designer, and start thinking of yourself as a deliverer of ideas".
On top of that, because of the internet, projects are often being distributed, judged and critiqued on their screen appearance alone. People increasingly buy products based on their two-dimensional qualities. As a result design has become strongly image-oriented.
Screen and photographic representation is what ultimately counts. Long texts and literature about projects are becoming rare. Sections, plans or sketches are rarely published. Models and physical 3D-prototypes play an ever-smaller role, because you can't email or publish them.
So although it is a holistic profession that touches on all skills and senses it is being reduced to image making. The process, the meaning, the tactility, the materials, the spatial qualities and the sustainable impact, all have become less important. We satisfy an increasingly superficial demand for sexy imagery in high resolutions.
2. Has the design process become a group consensus process?
Older designers complain that they never sit with the director of a company anymore, but with people from the communications department. Our clients are no longer the CEOs but the marketing and communication managers.
Recently a designer of my acquaintance had a meeting about developing a chair with 35 people in the room. She was the only designer present. There is no way the designer can lead a discussion like that. Design is now an ongoing strategic conversation where various disciplines are involved.
In a recent interview Konstantin Grcic described the complex and very slow genesis of his All Star chair. "Four years is a long time to develop a chair," he said. The design brief nowadays is the result of many meetings and many discussions and is often subject to changes, he explained. The design process has become a group consensus process. The same is true in architecture. There is lots of talking and, although there is a broader acknowledgment of design, its position hasn't become significantly stronger. In fact, the freedom for a designer to explore, innovate and research has been reduced.
3. Does design lack maturity?
The vast majority of designers are under 40. Afterwards they tend go into education, design management, or become entrepreneurs in a related field. It is very rare that an active designer of over 50 speaks at a convention or gets major press. The very few that do must be extremely successful, because everyone else has long left the profession by that age.
The press wants young and upcoming talent – they present an easy story. The industry wants them as well, because they bring free publicity and embody the new. Consumers want designers to be optimistic, fresh and inspirational. Young people fit that image better.
Design is not an easy way to make money. If you are dependent on billed hours or royalties it will take a lot of time before you can match the average income of most professions. We all know that young creatives often live in poor circumstances. Very few designers practice this profession until they retire because it costs more energy than it reasonably returns in money.
The profession as a whole therefore lacks maturity. There is hardly any learning flow through the generations. We are continuously re-inventing design, with an enthusiastic but inexperienced group of young professionals.
4. Is design a sexist profession?
For many decades there has been gender equality in design schools. Design was one of the few professions that seemed to appeal as much to women as to men.
But today fewer than ten per cent of top designers are female. Why can't more of the women who study design reach the top? Perhaps for some of the same reasons that cause women to be underrepresented on the boards of big corporations.
Design could easily be gender neutral – enough women want to study its disciplines – but shamefully, we cannot score that point. A recent study of design publications done by Gabrielle Maher on the gender issue highlighted the role of the press. Depending on the gender they use a different jargon, show the designers in different poses and write about different qualities. To cut it short: it is a sexist profession.
Now what do we do about it?
Lucas Verweij has been teaching at schools of design and architecture around Europe for over 20 years. He was director of a master's programme in architecture and initiated a masters course in design. He is currently professor at the Kunsthochschile Weißensee and teaches master's students at Design Academy Eindhoven. He has initiated and moderated various seminars devoted to designing design education.