Designing the World

Designing the World

On May 27, Sarah Lawrence gathered three design educators to discuss some of the big issues facing designers—and consumers—today. The discussion was held at Parsons New School for Design in Manhattan.

The color of your KitchenAid mixer

MODERATOR: I’m curious about the explosion of design awareness that seems to have happened in the last 10 years or so. You have these big-name designers doing lines for Target and IKEA, there are a ton of shelter magazines, and it seems like people are just a lot more conscious about the way objects look and feel. Where did that come from?

JOE FORTE: I think it’s a natural outgrowth of three processes. The first was the end—or the technical end—of sexual repression in the 1960s. A kind of license to appreciate sensuality came out of the 1960s.

Secondly, in the 1930s, Americans realized that certain kinds of surface effects in products just had an absolutely amazing effect on sales. That took a hiatus during World War II. Because of the nature of the war—in particular, the early cold war—there was the idea that design had to take second place to war industries and the re-housing of veterans in the 1950s.

I think the last thing was … you know, the kitchen debate between Krushchev and Nixon1 was the best example. That became the paradigm for American identity. The idea of the object as one of the definitive elements in American identity, the idea of a certain kind of progressive object, came to be identified very clearly with the American vision. For better or worse, the American world, the capitalist world, has succeeded, and I think that was one of the consequences of it.

So, from a historical point of view, it was a weird confluence, I think, of these different circumstances that pushed design forward.

Maybe, one should also comment a little bit on the art world and how the art world, through mixed media and things like that, began to extend its reach. And, as it extended its reach, it began to engage itself with projects that traditionally were not in the fine arts, which allowed us to look at and appreciate objects that were produced mechanically.

CAROLINE PAYSON: Good design has always been aspirational for a very narrow group of people. But think of the economic boom of the ’90s, when people across cultures had more disposable income. Then you’ve got places like Target, which democratized taste. Their slogan is “Design for All.” The vast majority of what you find in that store, you’ll find in any other store like it. But that small percentage that’s designed by Michael Graves2 or Isaac Mizrahi3 is the first time anyone shopping at that kind of store could actually have something that was designed.

Design discussion

TONY WHITFIELD: Also, the rampant consumerism of the ’80s fed into this, and the fact that it coincided with enormous numbers of women moving into the work force. And also a population of aging but still viable people, in terms of health standards ... The range of aspirations take on new dimensions when you extend that point of vitality. One of the signs of aging is diminished consumption. This generation has actually extended its viability as consumers.

I think part of it is gender-based. When you move consumption beyond the traditional realm of the housekeeper, the homemaker, and you change that gendered role, then you open up a whole range of other possibilities in terms of consumption.

JOE FORTE: That’s really in conformity with a process that happened in the United States in the 1800s. The growth of the department store was correlated with women coming into the workforce as service workers and things of this sort. That was largely responsible for the change of dry goods stores into department stores. Dry goods stores were heavily gendered. Women could go if they were married to men who had charge accounts. Department stores, anyone could walk in.

There was no one at the door to stop you. If a secretary wanted to spend an hour at Marshall Field’s, hey, she could. It was a completely different kind of environment when women came into the market, and they started to change how people view products and how products were presented.

CAROLINE PAYSON: But, I also think the democratization of design has made more people feel confident in making judgments about design and how it affects them, and I think that’s another important turning point. It’s not only about what they can have and what they want, but it’s the ability to feel like they can bring their own voice to the table and make a judgment about what may or may not be good for them.

TONY WHITFIELD: You can’t really participate in certain kinds of technologies without having to make those design decisions. For example, cell phones.

CAROLINE PAYSON: Or computers. Or KitchenAid mixers. Our Education Department motto is, “We are all designers every day.”

If you want to see how design is going to be more pervasive in a normal person’s life, just follow what’s happening in New Orleans for the next 20 years—it’s ground zero of personal design decisions. Not only in where they live, but the things that they’ll be voting on in terms of reconstruction and environmental activism. Every part of anyone’s life there is going to be all about design.

I wear Diesel, therefore I am

JOE FORTE: I do wonder about the problematic of branding when it comes to that, the way that branding works against critical evaluation. Branding is a tendency that’s as old as commerce itself, but I think that branding tends to confuse design appreciation and design critique. I wouldn’t say necessarily that everyone’s a designer, but I do think that everyone is a design critic. They know what it is that they have and whether or not it’s useful.

CAROLINE PAYSON: Right, and I think that the functionality of design allows them to be a more comfortable and natural critic than they might be for art. It’s accessible.

JOE FORTE: I agree with that.

CAROLINE PAYSON: What do you mean by branding?

JOE FORTE: Well, the idea that there are certain brands that, regardless of their functionality as practical objects, have an absolutely definitive centrality for our identities. Brands make you. There is no critical discourse about thinking about the brand or critiquing the brand or looking to the labor that produced the brand. Looking to labor was traditionally, in the Arts and Crafts movement, a movement against branding.4 People would fake these rococo objects and they’d be reproduced by very reputable large scale manufacturers and they would be junk. Looking at labor, on the other hand, made you think about the individual who made the object, and also yourself as an individual, and perhaps how you would use the object—as opposed to a more generalized notion of your identity.

So, that’s my only equivocation. I do believe that it is a good thing that we have become a more democratic consumer society. I don’t know what else would take the place of that. But I do worry about this idea of the brand that defines you.

CAROLINE PAYSON: I see your point, but I also think that a design education helps you develop an ability to understand what that is and what it means. If you’re a kid in the New York City public schools, there are all sorts of things about the design world that you don’t know. You tend to think that design people are architects—and you’ll never be able to do that if you’re not into math—or they’re fashion designers or comic book illustrators, for the most part.

TONY WHITFIELD: Nobody ever asked them, What you think design is? What do you live with that’s designed? But I even have to do it with, like, sophomores here. It’s like, okay, take me through your day. What is it that you’re dealing with that’s designed, who designed that?

MODERATOR: Is the answer “everything”?


CAROLINE PAYSON: Virtually. For me, it’s all about, every person makes a wealth of decisions in relationship to design, whether it’s how they purchase something or how they use it. For some people, that knowledge and a desire to effect change on that level is what leads people to be designers, and that’s great. And, then the other case, if it just makes you be a more thoughtful person, that’s good too.

TONY WHITFIELD: I think one of the things that governs design knowledge is the fact that there are recognizable prices that are associated with certain kinds of things. Like, if you go to a store, you can understand what a stack of Diesel jeans costs. If each pair is between $150 and $200 and if you look at 50 of them, that you get a sense of the fact that there is money being made off of these things. Products turn over all the time, but there’s always a need for more.

JOE FORTE: I think there’s something interesting in your point about the essential role of novelty in this. One of the things that design does, is because it turns over, it’s a very coherent way for students to understand how capital is produced. They can really look at this as an illustration of what they imagine economic exchange to be outside of their lives. Inside their lives, they may be struggling. Outside their lives, they see this novelty, and they think, Ah, this is the engine of change.

TONY WHITFIELD: But, there’s also a connection with identity, and so many, I think, so many young people at this point have a very hard time understanding or visualizing a life beyond a very short term. You’re told also over and over again that your life may not be as good as your parents’ life. Or, if you go to New York City and you came from the very large house in the suburbs, you may end up living in, like, one room. It’s like your own growth, your own sexuality, your own social relations, all of that stuff, much more easily becomes attached to a set of purchasing decisions you make on a daily basis that is responsive to your understanding of who you are at that moment.

The stuff of our lives

MODERATOR: I’d like to talk a little bit about sustainability and consumerism. Designers are really at the heart of the process of creating stuff, and stuff is at the root of a lot of our problems today, environmentally and otherwise. What do you think about that?

TONY WHITFIELD: As this economy tanks—or becomes more and more problematic—and energy is at the top of it, sustainability is really going to continue to be an issue. But, a lot of the issues that I think we’re going to have to deal with, they’re thornier, because they have to do with developing cultures that say, “You’re the problem, not us—however, we have many, many more people who we want to raise to the level of where you are.”5 That’s where issues around consumerism become particularly problematic, particularly for designers, who have their own ambitions.

JOE FORTE: Globalized culture has a problematic relationship to design. But, I do think that people who are coming out of design schools now are aware that sustainability is a component of the design process. I think this will start to argue against disposability of products, or disposability will become about recycling rather than rejection.

I mean, whether or not the American political system is a triumph, the American capitalist system is a triumph. The question is how does one modulate it, control it, focus it, drive it—and indeed, over time, whether or not that can be changed.

Globalized culture also means a loss of a certain kind of locale, a certain sense of indigenous culture. There have been some interesting studies of material culture of the United States, specifically in reference to what they call the first economic revolution.

The first economic revolution in the United States was not the Industrial Revolution. It was the importation of European goods to the Native American peoples, and it changed their way of life radically. And, in a weird way, it created the Plains people. The idea that if you have a gun and can shoot from a horse and kill X number of buffalo and become mobile in a way you never could before—it created, for woodlands peoples, this vast thing called “the Plains,” which they now could conquer. And, it was really kind of a rapid shift.6

So, the importation of goods has always changed cultures, and the identification with identity around those goods always happened. The question is, what’s the level of awareness and responsibility that the producers take in that, or the designers.

TONY WHITFIELD: I think for designers though, it’s not simply the goods. One of the things that has been really important for me in terms of my students is to also understand the human resources, and to understand exactly what the impact of certain practices would be on human beings, on labor.

For many years, there was a discussion of the paperless studio, of the completely digital environment in which production happens. One of the things that I think we’ve come to realize is that there is a problem when you separate that production from an understanding of labor and of what is actually involved in the physical making of a thing. This realization has kept us involved in a kind of constant dialogue among the forces of mass production and the resurgence of a kind of crafts sensibility and respect for craft, respect for cottage industry, and respect for human labor.

JOE FORTE: It’s interesting, too, because respect for labor was the argument of the Arts and Crafts movement. A lot of its socially progressive agenda was based on respect for labor, and how respect for labor could translate into design.

Optimism at the proper scale

TONY WHITFIELD: I’m curious about what the possibility of cataclysm will have on this generation. I remember when I was 6 or 7, it was around the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was terrifying, because I remember being told by my stepfather what would happen if there were a nuclear war. That created an entire context for understanding what the world was. This generation didn’t really have a visualization of cataclysm until 2001. But now, catastrophes around the world get delivered to you in such detail so quickly. Cataclysm feels like a weekly possibility.

JOE FORTE: I think that’s a very good point. The idea of angry nature is more and more a reality. In a strange way, we look at nature as threatening and therefore, young people want to ... “placate” is the wrong term—it’s not like throwing someone into the volcano—but I think they do understand that somehow, we have to work with nature. There’s got to be a way that we can fix it.

MODERATOR: What does this cataclysmic future mean for the design world? Is there a way for us to address these issues?

JOE FORTE: Meaning, are we optimistic?

CAROLINE PAYSON: I don’t know. When you’re looking at students in design schools, or students anywhere, I see that although they might have this recognition of the possibility of cataclysm, I would be unwilling to say that they weren’t optimistic that things might get better by people working together.

TONY WHITFIELD: I was talking to the parent of one of the students in the senior class about the work that her son was doing. She said, “You know, the one thing that really makes me happy is that this work is hopeful.”

CAROLINE PAYSON: Absolutely, I mean, two weeks ago, I was in New Orleans, and we had these kids from St. Bernard’s Parish redesigning their school’s courtyard, because they got 17 feet of water and were using the carport roof as a dock; and 300 people were living in the school for two weeks because it was a refuge of last resort. And so now, they were working on redesigning their courtyard. Whether or not any of those things get built, it was allowing those kids to see a future. I mean, I’m crazy optimistic that design is a real key to seeing the future, often for people who wouldn’t see it in any other way.

JOE FORTE: I think it’s hard to imagine today large-scale optimism, but I think that design is optimism at the proper scale. I mean, what it allows for is the engagement of a series of individuals of like minds in some vision of future use. And they might not even be thinking about the future as such—just that there’s a time after this time, in which what they make will be used. That’s one of the definitions of what makes humans, the ability to think about a tool over time, and the tool in your hand. It’s this very scale of design in this moment, which is, in its way, both compact and global, that makes me optimistic. What you do not get is a grand narrative, and I think that’s probably to the better in the long run.

Although, Tony’s involved in a grand narrative, of an integrated world, and Caroline is involved in a grand narrative, which is education as a transformative tool—those are grand narratives, but each one of the objects that it plays out around are local and particular.

We talk about how the hedge funds and financial markets took off. They took off because there were a lot of foot soldiers. And even foot soldiers who were working at low-level jobs at investment banks played a part. In a strange way, I think what Tony and Caroline and I are doing is training the foot soldiers of a different kind of transformation. People who are going to be able to understand certain details of design as indicators of a larger collective enterprise, which is ... sustainable, with a capital “S,” for the state of the world, the humane world.