At a time when ideas are being rapidly introduced, assimilated, commercialized, rendered passé, and then remixed, the design industry is becoming increasingly disconnected from its own history and, accordingly, is lacking a clear sense of where it’s going. As designers, our values have become diffuse and mutable, codified by the conflicted interests of society, popular culture, and business, and reinforced by the fragmented, myopic character of the Internet. From Apple to artisanal axes, design has never meant so much—or so little—to so many people.
Meanwhile, professional practice has evolved radically. New disciplines have emerged, erasing conventional boundaries and generating possibilities, while traditional modes of production have declined and disappeared. Business leaders have finally realized that design drives innovation, creates meaning, and generates more than just aesthetic value. The orthodoxy of consulting has been fully institutionalized, as evidenced by its mature rhetoric, processes, and methodologies. The rational has overtaken the intuitive, and our lexicon now owes more to strategy than to art. Design thinking has momentarily replaced design doing. The multi disciplinary team has supplanted the lone creative genius. The professional has overtaken the personal. In short, we have become our own worst enemy.
So where do we go from here?
For better or worse, we organize and understand history through narrative and myth-making: a sequential and seemingly orderly progression of designers, artifacts, ideas, and events that, in part, mirror the evolution of culture. In broad strokes, the Arts and Crafts movement begat Modernism, which begat Post-Modernism, and so on. Or Charles Morris begat Charles and Ray Eames, which begat Steve Jobs (this is admittedly over-simplified, but bear with me). The myth of the creative genius and his artifacts—with all its politics, inaccuracies, and limitations—remains powerful because it provides a handle for understanding ideas and context over time, which in turn allows us to frame our work as a larger conversation that transcends both the audiences and the immediate functions it serves. We designers produce cultural meaning through our output. In so doing, we engage the past and present in a dialogue about what we want the future to be—and we become active participants in shaping the narrative.
In After the End of Art, philosopher Arthur Danto argues that art history effectively ended with Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes, because the master narrative of stylistic and conceptual progress in art had come to a philosophical dead end. Warhol demonstrated that any object could function as a work of art, effectively eliminating the possibility of further evolution or challenge. Consequently, everything that has followed can be thought of as a philosophical remix. In other words, there’s no narrative and no history; the story is over. This doesn’t mean that people don’t continue to produce art or that there is nothing left to talk about. But it does describe how the context of making art, and its discourse, have shifted. It also explains how there are still abstract expressionists putting paint on canvas (a remarkable thing). Indeed, the new hasn’t been so new in a long time.
And so it is with design. We have reached our own “ahistorical moment”—a post-postmodern free-for-all in which almost anything goes. History has become disassociated from content and context, and has been rendered a vast library of potential memes available for appropriation and reuse without prejudice. As designers, we have lost our sense of the larger story and our passion to engage with it through our work.
What we need is a Venn diagram.
In the 1960s, Charles and Ray Eames described a model for practice that considered the unique and overlapping interests of the three groups: the design studio, the client’s business, and society at large. The essence of their model is that the most relevant, impactful work occurs at the intersection of these interests. Remove or suppress any one of them, and the outcome gets compromised. Although it’s no surprise that the interests of business and society feature prominently, it’s revealing that the interests of the studio figure equally—an assertion that would be radical in today’s culture of consulting, where partnership really means service, and a truly original point of view is rare.
Counter to the prevailing archetype of designers as objective problem-solvers (an idea that originated in Modernism and has been amplified in contemporary practice as a means of driving legitimacy), the Eames model asserts that the studio has a valid interest in the work apart from providing a service to the client or delivering a product to society. Whether manifest in ideas, aesthetics, materials, etc., their work was informed by an ethos of intellectual inquiry and exploration. It’s their work. Looking at their substantial and diverse output, one can’t help but notice the ebb and flow of idiosyncratic, personal, and often imperfect ideas. The Eameses had an obvious agenda, which they rigorously pursued, whether working independently or on behalf of clients.
As the design industry has grown increasingly professional, it has become less personal, less creative, and more risk averse. The idea of a design firm—let alone an individual designer—having an ideological stake in the work seems rather nostalgic, if not self-serving or even dangerous. Today we partner. We research. We collaborate. We align. And somewhere along the way, we design. Within this elaborate process, which is designed to provide the illusion of structure and to mitigate risk, it is difficult, if not impossible, to practice the sort of self-motivated inquiry and exploration inherent to the Eames model. When we suppress our own views in favor of overly inclusive posture, we miss an important opportunity to define and execute against a progressive design agenda for our own time and place. We lose a sense of ourselves in the work.
Agenda is a provocative concept, nonetheless. It sounds Machiavellian—as if we’re trying to achieve our own selfish ends regardless of the means or to mislead our clients into funding our theoretical and artistic dalliances at the expense of their goals. That’s not what we’re after. What we’re advocating is a deeper, fundamentally personal connection to our work that goes beyond projects, requirements, and relationships. This connection requires a distinct point of view and a willingness to accept risk. We must be ambitious about the future, yet mindful of history, drawing upon coherent values and ethics, and actively engaging the broader narrative of culture. Ultimately, we must bring the politics of design back into balance and allow our passions to shape our practice for the better.