“I’m A Product Designer, Get Me Out Of Here!”

As tends to be the case, the subject matter for my blog posts emerges from unexpected social media banter and ‘discourse’. This is no exception, although it’s taken me a while to get around to writing anything down.

Late last year, there was a flurry – albeit rather short lived – about the need for more ‘celebrity’ role models within the product design and engineering fraternity (here is one such article), in an attempt to cajole and pressgang…sorry…inspire fresh young things into the profession that is apparently failing in this regard. In reading this ‘call to arms’ I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt. In agreeing with it, was I effectively opening my industry up to opportunistic, shallow, media loving types masquerading as product designers, or by disagreeing, was I selfishly wanting this discipline I hold dear to remain relatively unknown to the masses?

Having notionally considered this over the indulgent Christmas break, I’m fairly sure that whilst many designers are inherently self-confident and mildly arrogant about ‘their way being the best way’ (a trait not uncommon in the ‘best’ of celebrities), the broad culture of celebrity just doesn’t sit well with the core values we tend to hold true.

I will generalise horribly now, but from what I can see, our culture of celebrity tends to favour the immediate. Whether it is because ‘we’ (and by ‘we’ I mean the mass populous) can instantly understand what it is they do i.e. actor, singer, swimmer, model, comedian or whether we can immediately understand the by-product of their skills – for instance – wealth in the case of Sir Richard Branson or power in the case of a politician, it nonetheless offers an immediacy of understanding. I have no doubt that in making such a broad statement, I have laid myself bare to examples that fit neither of these, but bear with me.

I struggle to think of either A or B list celebrities that fundamentally do something that we need a little more time to fathom or that require more than a press soundbite to explain.

Our own, inward facing trade press is often filled with discussions about how exactly we should all describe ourselves and there are countless, petty arguments about the so-called wider reach of ‘industrial’ design over the seemingly lesser ‘product’ design (to be fair, I have my own opinion on this, but I still recognise that it is essentially, infighting). If I ever get asked at a dinner party or other such social gathering about “What I do…” I find myself having to use examples and a flip chart to even get across the simplest elements of the job. I tend to defer to using better understood professions to help in my explanation… “I sit halfway between an engineer and an artist” is a phrase I can often hear myself uttering. I will now apologise to both ‘engineers’ and ‘artists’ for my generalisation of their skills in helping to define my own!

To be honest, even the word ‘design’ has become a bit of a slag. It’s happy to attach itself to anyone or anything that has even the slimmest shaving of creativity. To be honest, if it wasn’t so integral a word, I’m sure most of the true design profession would cast it off into the wilderness. It sits in the same trashy cupboard as the words ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘innovative’. We are presented with so many, so-called ‘innovative designs’ that the terms themselves have become as utterly worthless as the empty, vacuous products they tend to describe.

Many proud and influencial people within our industry have gone to great lengths to attempt to explain the depth and breadth of design scope, but this in itself has made it ever harder to define it in a single, palatable phrase. Steve Jobs had a go. Dieter Rams did it in a series of 10 rules, and I have no doubt that he probably struggled to whittle it down to just 10! If you do a simple Google of what “Design is…” you are struck by quite how many definitions there are…and all can be argued as valid to a greater or lesser degree (and that’s simply within my own discipline, which is a subset of the wider design industry). It also doesn’t help very much, that in an industry where you are expected to be different and to stand out creatively, each and every design business has its own definition of the process and of ‘an’ approach. It’s a Catch-22. If we all agree to a singular definition that the mass populous will understand and unite behind a digestible manifesto, we may effectively admit that we are all offering the same thing.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I was inspired to design because it seemed to offer me an opportunity to satisfy the multi-faceted interests and skills I inherently had (or wanted to have!). I liked art but I didn’t want to be an artist. I liked the sciences but didn’t want to be a scientist. I liked mathematics, but didn’t want to be an accountant. I liked taking things apart and then building them again. I liked drawing, but not necessarily what was in front of me. I liked people and what made them tick. I liked finding things out by asking people – having conversations. In truth, as I have aged, I have found my interest in different subjects has shifted markedly, and yet the job I do has allowed me – in some way – to satisfy all of these cravings. It’s more than being a ‘Jack of all trades’ as I’ve often thought of it, as this infers that you have a poor knowledge of everything. And yet, I can’t claim to be a true master of anything either. Go figure.

I’m not entirely sure that anything about celebrity and what it currently stands for, could ever satiate our industry or represent it with the backing of those within it. I know that many product designers welcomed the Philippe Starck ‘X-factor-esque’ TV programme before it aired, but immediately slated and mocked it the minute it did. Not because Starck is any less bonkers than we expected him to be, or that his design work is less worthy than it was (that itself is open to debate), but the format of celebrity – namely the TV – did not lend itself to the depth and multi-faceted nature of the subject matter. We were more interested in the in-fighting, back stabbing and ridiculousness of the presentations and justifications than we were in learning about the wonderful influence of the design profession on our everyday world (incidentally, I have had the pleasure of meeting a few of the candidates from the show since it aired and it didn’t do them any justice). It fuelled the argument that design is flounce and fluff with no apparent depth. We shot ourselves in the foot.

We can’t be as unique and individual as the true artist, because we are tasked with working within pre-determined constraints, cost targets and to appeal to as many people within a target market as possible. Those designers who attempt to forge a celebrity status struggle with one-off commissions, badged associations and form led statement pieces and as a result tend to become more artists than designers, as they ultimately design to their own brand DNA rather than those of the client. They become their own brands. They cease to be true product designers – as I understand my discipline to be. The likes of Marc Newson, Ross Lovegrove, Karim Rashid and Philippe Starck. There’s nothing wrong with that (in truth I am jealous of their abilities to do this), and it may well be the only true route to what we might call ‘celebrity status’, but it is one step removed from the act of answering a brief set by someone else and truly designed for others. As I understand it.

Whilst we are opinionated sods (I’ll speak freely on behalf of all product designers), we also understand patience and the time it takes to gradually crawl under the skin of a problem and eat away at it, until it is solved. That takes tenacity and is definitely NOT instant. That shiny, perfectly formed object that sits in front of you has been through numerous iterations, cost reductions, assembly conundrums, ergonomic and usability tweaks, client tantrums and supplier roadblocks. The end result may seem simple and straightforward, but the road that took it there was bumpy, forked and riddled with diversions and dead-ends. This is not a road easily travelled by someone seeking celebrity status. The more I think about it, the more these two worlds seem to occupy completely different solar systems.

It is testament to how complex our discipline is to fathom, that the chap responsible for designing pretty much the most influential and iconic range of products of the last 20 years – Sir Jonny Ive – is someone who, outside of the world of geek fanboys, the tech litterati and designer-land, could probably walk through most cities with only the occasional glance of ‘double take’ recognition from passers by. This is a guy who has probably affected most of the first world population, and will no doubt continue to spread his influence wider, but who plays a serious second fiddle in the celebrity stakes to Paris Hilton or Justin Bieber, both of whom have given us nothing more than annoyance and faux-pas.

If I’m honest, I quite like the difficulties associated with pinning us down. It’s a bit like trying to decipher a magician’s routine. You know it’s possible and must adhere to the laws of physics but your mind can’t quite piece it together. Personally speaking, I get a kick out of taking a problem that a client is looking to solve, and resolving it in a way they couldn’t possibly have achieved themselves. Much of it can be explained and logically deduced, but it still takes a few magic beans to make it happen.

My wife was once asked what I did as a job. Once she had put away the aforementioned flipchart, she was met with incredulity and a response along the lines of “I never even realised people like that ACTUALLY existed.” The concept that someone was responsible for defining each and every aspect of a product, ensuring that it worked, could be assembled, manufactured, appealed to the right people and was the right price (amongst many other things), completely and utterly floored this particular person. I can’t work out if that’s an insult or a compliment, but it made me realise that what I do might be something that only a small percentage of the population CAN do. I quite like that realisation.

If I had a choice, I think I would prefer to influence and inspire a handful of passionate and eager young things into product design, knowing that they will be pursuing it for its own merit and the silent impact it may have on the wider world, than promote an industry in a more sensationalistic way in an attempt to get greater visibility across the board. You might call it protectionist, but I quite like the fact that this industry and discipline requires commitment, tenacity and passion to get along. If they are not the ingredients for celebrity status then so be it.

I’ll stick to my magic beans and a future of blissful anonymity.

One thought on ““I’m A Product Designer, Get Me Out Of Here!”

  1. Hi Russell,

    Having a bit of firsthand experience on the above subject matter by way of the Starck show I’ll stick my head over the parapet and chip in with my own two cents.

    I think you’re spot on in regard to the problem of presenting the design process and designers on the small screen. TV is a fickle beast, in this age of channel hopping, multiple second screens and TV on demand the viewer needs to be able to understand exactly what’s going on in seconds. If you can’t clearly explain the concept for a show in a snappy one liner you are dead in the water. This explains why programming without instant payoffs or manufactured jeopardy need household names to draw people in and hold their attention.

    The design process isn’t particularly well suited to a 30 minute (or 27 minutes plus adverts) segment. So much of what we do is about depth, understanding the problem and asking the right questions followed by refining and iterating. I would hazard a guess that it would be a particularly frosty morning in hell when the British public chooses to watch a well conducted user insight session followed by an all out assault with post it notes over a dancing dog.

    I imagine these were exactly the same issues that the producers of Design for Life had identified before we started shooting. This would explain why there was plenty of theatre and jeopardy injected into the show to liven the process up for the viewer. We were often asked if there was any drama amongst the contestants and when it became apparent that everyone was getting along fine we were met with concerned faces from the directors. Later in the series strange tasks were set by the production team with no input from Starck, he looked genuinely bemused when he found out we’d performed in an afternoon matinee at a children’s circus even though it was made to look as if it was his idea.

    Personally I took away some important lessons from the series, first of which was to read the brief very carefully and ask lots of questions. A better interrogation of the researchers during the prep stage of the show would have set alarm bells ringing. Also, when presenting to excitable French designers keep your pitch short, to the point and if you really want to ensure that he doesn’t wander off, bring food. Regardless of the shows shortcomings I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Starck, he was a very engaging speaker who spoke with great passion about his work. His design philosophy may not be the same as mine but I can appreciate his achievements and the influence he has had on the world around us.

    Design for Life wasn’t the exposure that many designers were hoping for; it didn’t do anything to explain the process, the hard work or the value of good design. If we’re going to do our industry justice a show would need to follow the entire process from start to finish, the footage would be a mix of embedded diary cam style thoughts from the designers alongside the usual cinematography. Something along the lines of an amalgam of Grand Designs, SeymourPowell’s youtube videos, How it’s made and Bang goes the theory.

    Whether or not a show like that would ever get off the ground is another matter, it would be a serious undertaking in terms of time and money and you’d also need to find a set of designers that are happy to open their doors and share their secrets with potentially millions of viewers.

    The question is does the design industry need exposure in the media? As someone that came late to design I would argue that mainstream access to a bit more information about what an industrial/product designer does would be very welcome. When choosing my future career path at 16 I had no idea that there was life beyond DT, if I had I’m sure I’d have given studying some form of design serious thought. So as long as the next design show on TV is less ‘Drafting on Ice’ and more ‘Objectified’ I’m all for it.

    Trevor

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