October 18, 2010

Design Is Dead! Long Live Design?

(This Thursday, October 21st, at 7 p.m., I will be hosting an Open Space Thursday event — “Design Is Dead! Long Live Design?” — in the Koret Visitor Education Center at SFMOMA. More details are here.)

This past spring I was part of a search committee charged with finding the next chair of Graphic Design at the California College of the Arts (CCA). In response to a question about the future direction of the curriculum, one of the candidates made the remark that “in 20 years there may not be ‘graphic design’ as we know it.” The comment stuck with me, mostly because I had been harboring similar thoughts about the viability of my own design practice.

One could argue that this perfect storm of unparalleled technological progress, economic uncertainty, and new focus on environmental issues has the potential to bring about a golden age of creativity, where design is a leading force in social, political, cultural, and economic progress. The words “design thinking” are being spoken regularly in non-design circles. The mainstream media has all but embraced the creative class, at times calling the MFA degree “the new MBA.” (There are already existing graduate programs fusing business and design at CCA and Stanford, to name just two). There is heady talk of designers making “useful tools” and “meaningful experiences,” all executed with a new sensitivity to the natural environment. The web has fostered an unprecedented explosion of creativity and social action across age groups and subcultures. Corporate transparency is now the de facto business stance, empowering individual citizens to demand more of those who provide goods, services, and culture, even allowing for participation in their creation. What’s not to love here?

Design’s entire existence is predicated on this idealistic tenor. We’ve always been our clients’ pied pipers, unearthing that meaningful, mesmerizing tune that will make our target audience fall in line behind us as we flute and dance away. Sometimes it’s for cultural or social aims, sometimes it’s to get people to buy stuff, sometimes it’s both at the same time. (No judgment there, by the way. Really.) And it’s those designers who maintain this rosy-colored outlook of their work who usually succeed. No president of a local AIGA chapter is bringing Stefan Sagmeister in to lecture on truisms with a cynical message. Imagine if Barack Obama has lost the 2008 presidential election. That “Hope” poster would be nothing more than an interesting footnote to add to the 2004 John Kerry campaign material trash heap. (Oops — recycling heap.) So maybe it’s not design as a whole that’s really changing, but simply the context and forms of expression. The basics are still the same. Just stay positive and work hard! Let’s move on.

Well, not quite yet. I have a few concerns:

Can the design profession sustain 40,000 design school graduates nationwide per year? What exactly should I be teaching my students these days? What the heck is the difference between user experience, user interface, and interactive design anyway? Is the physical book really going to die off? With all this “design research” and “design thinking” and “design strategy” and “service design,” why isn’t there more good design? Whatever happened to “design authorship”? With every image ever created now archived on the internet, will we eventually just be creating anemic copies of original works? What about the ethics of this referential image-making? Is anything and everything fair game for ripping off? Now that design is “good business” will business just co-opt design completely? Where is the subversive design work? Didn’t Tibor Kalman say, “We’re here to be bad?” Are we all eventually just going to be creating games for mobile devices during the day and knitting iPad cozies for sale on Etsy.com by night? When did “good enough” become the high bar for so much design work? Is this “design for social good” really doing any good in the first place? Do sustainable practices matter if the project is not meaningful or necessary in the first place? Should I be worried about crowdsourcing and those cheap logo design sites? Speaking of logos, how about that new Gap logo PR disaster? Should I even care about logos anymore? And what about those of us who still just want to make cool posters with groovy type that might hang in a museum like SFMOMA someday?

I’m hoping some of these concerns come up in the discussion on Thursday night, and I’d like more than just my voice and those of the featured guests driving this conversation. If you have any thoughts of your own — especially if you can’t make it to the event — please post them here and I will try to fold them into the discourse. Stay tuned for a post-event online discussion, as well.

Comments (2)

  • Without good design life as we know it would cease to function. Design (Industrial, Natural, Commercial) is all around you, all you have to do is look.

  • I stumbled upon the SFMoMA’s blog while searching for a better way to get involved with the museum and will definitely be attending this. I want to type out this question in case I forget by tomorrow!

    How do we find permanence in our current design world (especially in San Francisco, with companies like Adobe employing many designers) in which so much importance is stressed on designing the digital user experience? Every day it seems like there is a new device rendering countless applications unusable or undesirable (and thus the design just kind of…disappears). Is permanence even a way to weigh the value of design?

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