I was recently reading the beginning of the amazing Gillo Dorfles‘ book “Introduction to Industrial Design” discovering that Design, as we intended it 50 years ago, is definitely dead, the profession itself is dead.
You probably remember ancient and forgotten jobs like the graphic designer, the journalist, the photographer. All deceased by the market of software and internet 2.0 or 3.0, or whatever number, that has made us all fantastic content writers and professional editors of graphic templates which the web is plenty of. The amount of smartphones (and correspondently video cameras) on the planet is so big that the best pictures are taken by a great number of people that are for sure more on the right spot at the right moment rather than professional photographers or reporters; the best video footage comes from private citizens. Also, the number of tools that can transform a bad picture into a stunning retouched piece of art is amazing and that gives everybody the chance to have their 15 minutes of fame.
We gave already away the profession of architect when we decided to leave Europe in the hands of surveyors who have ruined our cities with technicality but lack of culture. And we are giving away today the profession of product designer due to a globalized market, due to our disinterest in professional rights, and many other reasons that I list below.
When building design schools, we missed the chance to give exclusivity to that job, which is one of the only characteristics of a profession, but apparently, nobody wants it. Remember that there is no profession with no exclusivity, only a surgeon can open your belly, only a vet can prescribe medicines to your dog, only a lawyer can go to court… even analysts got their own space, but not designers. (Profession = ‘vows taken upon entering an order requiring special training in the liberal arts or sciences). What we are left within the field of design are associations that base their survival on annual fees from fearful professionals scared of their job’s death. On the other side, private schools are advertising a fictional brand value pretending to be the only ones to form professionals, teaching students how to use some 3D modelling software. Universities, too old to even have the right to speak in the competition, are telling the biggest lie: that their students were professionals.
In a few words design schools and associations have mistaken ‘how to represent an idea’ with ‘how to have an idea’. They told these poor students that making a good rendering was enough to be a designer and that it was a profession. What a childish and unforgivable mistake.
So the result is that everybody can design a chair, a bottle opener or, if you want to make it scarier, your family car or the next plane you are going to take to go on holiday.
Is it because in a market made of software and not hardware we started to call everything “Design”? From fashion to food, from the web to graphics, or, worse, we overused the word Architect. Why if I profess myself a doctor I’m a scammer while if I write ‘Web Architect’ on my business card I’m considered fancy? And by the way who the hell is a Web or Solution Architect? Maybe somebody who has an architectural degree via the web?
This is probably why I collected during the years some of the best comments from clients that you would never expect if you are a notary or a lawyer:
“Make me just a sketch, my wife is going to decide everything, she has good taste”
“Just take care of the permits, I have a cousin who has always wanted to be a designer but he cannot sign”
“You are too expensive, I asked for a drawing, not for an idea”
“I’m just buying a plan, not the entire house”
“It’s just a small product, it cannot cost me so much”
Ideas are worth money and sacrifice, and service is not free just because everybody thinks is capable to deliver it. In fact, the “do it by yourself ” logic is not always the best solution: if you think a professional is expensive see how much it will cost you to hire a non-professional.
It never happened to me to hear:
“Don’t go for surgery in a hospital, I have a friend who is good with knives” or “Don’t go the gynecologist, I have a friend who had many girlfriends”
…and if you think it’s because we are talking about health remember that I can put my stamp on skyscrapers, bridges or toys ending in the cradle of your kids, so be scared.
Also arguing that every idea is at everyone’s disposal (read: everything can be copied) or considering fancy the motto “sharing is caring” when applied to patents and rights doesn’t help a system which is already terminally ill.
Let me jump to what I think is the reason why this has happened:
The globalized market we live in imposes similar products with different distribution channels. Landing in airports I’m always amazed by the number of advertisements for smartphones that are copycats of the same old iPhone: ZTE, Oppo, Huawei, Samsung, Oneplus, Xiaomi, Gionee, LG, Lenovo, Sony; even Apple is copying itself. There’s no design in those products, they are the same exact PCB and software with the same tech specs and the same visual identity: just a different woman in the advertisement.
In several cases designing a product today is not design anymore, it’s just telling a story. A good copywriter is able to write a good fairytale (probably cheaper than developing a new tool). If you have a bad fairytale you just sell it at a cheaper price, it doesn’t affect the design.
This also happens despite the fact that there are niches of the market asking for other products (elders, kids), but nobody is crying about that because the design process is not central to production anymore. Again if everybody can design, if everybody can use Rhinoceros or Keyshot, let’s use them and build another product similar to everyone else.
We can easily see the death of Design in the effort of companies to get rid of fixed costs of royalties and design fees because nowadays products are made more by the distribution channels and the chain management rather than by a good idea. Good ideas are considered oddities, the market doesn’t want them. Users are not comfortable with the new and they still want a mechanical keyboard on a laptop instead of a screen that can change the behaviour according to what you are doing. By the way, Steve Jobs wouldn’t have allowed a laptop with a small touch bar on top of a keyboard, he would have killed the keyboard itself.
Ideas don’t sell, just a few survivors on Kickstarter or Indiegogo among a mass of failures: it’s called “crowd failing” and it’s a process of copying and copying which nothing has to do with the craftsmanship of taking inspiration from and responding to the world to make something better.
The paradox is that a small number of people can take advantage of this situation. If ‘Design is dead’, on the other hand very, very, I mean very ‘Good Design is still alive’. If normal ideas don’t sell, then “Fucking-good-ideas” can sell a lot!
The Global and unreachable success of Tesla is proof that if you call a good team (and yes, designers are needed as well) you can really change the world. And you change it so much that you are always riding a wave that your next competitor doesn’t even saw it was coming.
In a world of cars with huge vehicle lights made useless by LEDs, they revolutionised their design in favor of small ones; also in a market of cars with fancy useless frontal cooling grids they simply designed a plain nose which is going to settle a new design trend in the cars’ faces. Bravery and ‘Good Design’ taken to the best expression, Tesla is probably today one of the most game changer on the market, the idea of a fully electrical transportation with zero emissions that never crossed the mind of automotive corporations.
It’s true, nowadays ‘Good Design’ is a team work, and designers are not so central, but Design can still change the world if they let us do the job. ‘Good Design’ will be alive from the ashes of the bad one that surrounds us!