Designers of what, when and why?

I’m taking part in this one day event hosted by Domus Academy and they asked me to think about these questions for a video they are filming. I thought I’d document my (longer) responses here.

1. Concerning the what of design. Sixty-five years ago, Ernesto Rogers said that the role of design extended “from the spoon to the city”. What should be the focus of tomorrow’s designer?

I think we have a consciously-constructed view of what design is and what a designer’s role is. We have built ourselves blinkers away from the new forms of human action and invention. Architecture, urban design, product design have always had a belated interest in technological progress. We like to think of ourselves as pioneers, but the pioneers are the marketers, sociologists and engineers that come before there is anything to design. They are the ones to construct the monetary framework for work to take place. Design comes after when someone else has made the capital investment, someone else has taken the risk, someone has failed. Christine Frederick, a home economist, and the wife of a business data publisher, took Frederick Taylor’s engineering work in automotive factories to propose a framework for a more effecient home design and how planned obsolescence was necessary for economic growth. Right there, you could say that all of product design’s current concerns, worries and general society’s sustainable woes were built on this woman’s work. Not a designer. An architect in Germany read her book when it was translated in German several years later and made it real. And the rest is history.

I think we have to get design out of this box of ‘response’. I think we ought to be in the ‘discovery’ and ‘testing’ phase a lot more than we are. We wait, we’re complacent in the global economic systems that destroy nature, we wait for a client, we wait for a need to be badly adressed by someone else. We wait.

We can’t wait anymore, we are needed, we need to collaborate with scientists, ecologists, economists. We need to run businesses, we need to get involved in the whole process of bringing a design to life and to sometimes be involved in the process of killing it.

We need to work with programmers, UX designers, people with skillsets we don’t undersand, because it makes us better at being what we should have been all along: the champion for better decision-making, not just a better looking decision.

2. Concerning the where of design: what should be local, and what should be global?

That’s an important political question. E.F. Shumacher, the philosopher and economist, wrote that making simple, non-violent machines was the way to local economic growth. A baker is such an example. Baking doesn’t scale well, and it provides high quality produce for a local economy.

We have to learn to scale down design, making plastics, metals, electronics components locally if we want to build in economic growth in rural areas.

Small, quiet, non-war driven industry. That’s all hard. High-end affordable, service-based contracts have made consumers expect design to be cheap. To be successful is to sell, to sell world-wide, with free shipping. It makes it impossible to make locally this way, because the pressure is on everyone to be able to afford it.

We have to respond to this and also to the appetite we create. We create appetite for things on the other side of the planet, so even if they are made locally, they are wanted somewhere else.

Last year, I went to Japan and found this really lovely tray in a small village in the Japan Alps. My friend found the same tray in Paris last week. We have accepted that this is success. We may need to change our minds about that but find ways to talk about this without sounding anti-commerce and anti-growth because this is what design drives. Growth and success.

3. Concerning the when of design: should designers focus on the creation of future utopias? Or should designers pay more attention to qualities of the past – and the present?

Designers I think could do with less future gazing and more present fixing. We still have poverty, hunger, air pollution, unemployment in the world. These are all challenges that design should accept and embrace. Designers should be working with UNESCO, Amnesty, the WTO. Design needs to be part of an economic and political conversation that is happening now.

4. Concerning the why of design: many people say that designers need to develop empathy with people in order to understand their needs. Or is empathy a brake on creativity? and what about empathy for the biosphere?

There’s been much written about when empathy means control in the design act. I like the idea of looking at compassion instead. Walking in someone’s shoes is something that should be done more often, but also shouldn’t be limited to the ‘consumer’. Designers should be interested in everyone involved in their practice, their colleagues, their suppliers, their sub-contractors. Everyone benefits or suffers from an act of design in a global economy.

5. If you were to start a Domus Academy masters today, what would be its subject?

I’d love to start a masters in Design, economics and philosophy. I don’t think these fields interact enough and I think technology is presenting us with so many problems (security of employment, social cohesion in the gig economy, UBI, etc) that a broader and more economically-engaged conversation about design is needed. There’s a reason most politicians haven’t studied design but have studied economics, law, history or philosophy. If design wants to become a real agent of change, it needs to get political in an active way and that starts with education.

Published by


Founder of designswarm & the Good Night Lamp. Ex CEO of Tinker London.