marcus westbury

my life. on the internets.

marcus westbury header image 2

The changing role of design

September 7th, 2009 by marcus

egg chair

SOMETHING interesting is happening in the world of design. Many artists think of designers as marginally above advertising executives in the creative food chain. They’re the poor cousins, the guns for hire, the ethically challenged and morally questionable distant relatives of the fine arts. After all, designers are the people whose job it is to take all that beauty, wonder, talent and distil it into car ads and shopping brochures.

Yet there has been an abrupt change in the role of the designer that many have barely noticed. Increasingly, design is the point at which creativity and intellect connect.

I directed a festival with a history going back more than 20 years. The boardroom was full of posters, brochures and ephemera going back to the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, there was a transition as stark as the Norman Conquest. Everything changed. There were two entirely different eras: one pre-Photoshop and advanced printing technology, when illustrations were merely stuck on posters; and a later one where design had gradually seeped into every aspect of the festival’s identity and operations. Over 20 years, design had moved from illustrative to integral.

Design is moving from the bottom of the creative food chain to become the essential connector across a range of creative networks. We have become a more visual culture. As communication becomes digital, we become an interface culture, and graphic design – along with the programming – becomes the medium through which we see, read and access the world.

Industrial designers, like architects, are being called upon to resolve the conflict between our desire for cool new things, and our need for environmental sustainability. Good designers are problem solvers, imagineers and even, occasionally, ethicists.

It comes with a very different dynamic to those that surround the fine arts. While artists explore and engage with the larger questions of the world in abstract, for designers the questions about the impact of their work are far more real and immediate. They deal with compromises and complexities virtually every day.

As a result, many designers are constantly contesting, modelling, discussing and practising new ways of working, and new models of sustainability.

Inevitably, these changes are reflected in the critical culture of design. In many ways, it is more open, immediate and dynamic than the fragmented, tired and jargon-laden discussions that often accompany art.

Melbourne’s recent State of Design festival was full of forums, discussions and exhibitions that cast design as an intelligent, self-critical, ethically probing and crucial connection point between most other creative fields. Much of the programming and discussion looked at networks, bioethics, low-impact living and environmental sustainability.

Of course, it was all mixed in with a little rampant and unapologetic consumerism and a level of hedonism, decadence and indulgence that would make many artists blush.

As an industry rhetoric, it is at times just pure spin – transparently an effort to deflect flak from the far more profitable task of making useless crap seductive. But many designers I know are driven and at times even a little obsessed by ethical and environmental questions.

While Melbourne has recently styled itself as a design city and Victoria has increasingly integrated design into its industry development strategies, marketing and self-image, as a nation we undervalue the role of design. We’ve had design festivals, conferences and events, but as a nation we are yet to embrace design in our collective identity.

Scandinavian countries have incorporated design as part of their identity, using it to instil values around a better quality of life, a rich cultural diversity and a competitive advantage in manufacturing and services. Scandinavian design has become synonymous with quality.

Even across the Tasman, the Kiwis have started to get in on the act. As a small and relatively isolated nation, they can’t compete in quantity or cost of production, and instead put a premium on design, purity and quality as part of the national identity. They are fostering a coherent national identity that connects the small, the crafty and the bespoke right up to medium-scale manufacturing, and it seems to be working.

Is it sacrilege to suggest that it’s a lead we could follow?

Similar Posts:

Tags:   · · · · · · 3 Comments

  • Delicious
  • Facebook
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • StumbleUpon
  • Twitter

Leave A Comment

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ian Milliss Sep 9, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Well I spend my time now designing furniture from recycled materials and experimenting with ways of making materials from waste. I’m afraid I can’t help thinking that the art world has slid into complete irrelevance while design and architecture are where all the real action is. I’ve always thought that being an artist meant doing whatever you could to change your culture, to keep it constantly adapting and right now to change the culture you need to change real, practical things. The art world hardly seems able to do this, instead it has just turned into entertainment and financial speculation. Meanwhile design is grappling in a myriad of ways with how we can recreate human culture as something sustainable.

  • 2 Matt Kiem Sep 17, 2009 at 11:05 am

    I think there are some great points in this article Marcus. You’re probably right about change in the identity of design, and I definitely agree with design’s capacity to engage in producing sustain-ability. And I also think you’re spot on about design’s present and actual role in turning our lives into unliveable crap-heaps.

    Your description of State of Design sounds similar to Sydney Design 09; a lot of well intentioned talk, but always as a side show to the main event that is big ‘d’ Design. Despite the rhetoric, the ethical issues are really just speed humps in the drive to more glitzy glamour, cruzey cool and whiz bang kapow.

    There seems to be a dissonance that turns on a clash between, on the surface, a recognised moral imperative, but at heart, a cherished and harmful identity that is also maintained as a valued economic role. What it produces are practitioners who produce unnecessary designerly stuff that we’re now supposed to feel good about because it’s ‘green’. Designers are very good at greening something they’ve decided must exist, but not so good at identifying what shouldn’t exist and designing away the need and desire for things.

    Design needs a different identity that compels its practitioners to make the creative interjections required for sustain-ability. The vision has to move from a concern with individual things to a concern with a total interaction of things, images, places, behaviours, identities and power; a totality that is presently unsustainable. There is a lot of skill, creativity and potential in design, but mostly it’s in service of the “knowledge and innovation economy”, a consumption vehicle we’re yet to fully accept as problematic and begin the pragmatic task of turning around. There is a failure to see design work as political, i.e. not just the role of imaging political campaigns, but as an act of working with/against/despite the constraints of certain social/material reality in order to create a new one. Greening crap sustains the unsustainable without challenging much more than the bank balance of ‘activist consumers’.

    I think there’s definitely something in the image you paint of fostering a better culture of design. In fact, providing its aim is to increase our ability to sustain, I think it’s the only real way forward. The great thing is that this in itself is a design challenge, but it comes with the challenge of helping designers see it as an alternative project, and engaging with it as something that should undo our present expectations of design.

  • 3 Helen O’Neil Sep 17, 2009 at 4:30 pm

    A recent discussion about moving design into the innovation field (it brought together industry professional associations with univesity based researchers) showed this is one of the really exciting areas of knowledge that will be vital to coming up with creative and effective ways of dealing with sustainability, social cohesion, architecture for communications and just about every other challenge in both economic and community areas. You mentioned a national gap in this area – we could look at a national design council, or an institution like the UK’s National Endowment for Science Technology and Arts would bring designers together with the engineers, environmental scientists and business managers to tackle the challenges before us. Those involved in the discussions decided we need to look at innovation in terms of research, design and development. The old tech-oriented R & D programs are not enough for the complex problems we are dealing with.