Designing design – a caveat

Sometimes my enthusiasm for the idea of design gets the better of me. Browsing through Stanley Abercrombie’s book on George Nelson. – something I seem to be doing a lot recently – I stumbled across this quote from Nelson and thought that it might be salutary to read it in conjunction with my entry for June 11, “Designing design”.

“There is a good deal of soul searching going on among members of the various design professions, but what I encounter is not so much a desire to improve personal capabilities, but worries about the status of the designer, or whether his work has suitable “impact” on the world of his clients. It is a waste of time, all of it. It is merchandising concern, not a desire to develop human potential. (If you are designing a point-of sale display for sugar free gum at the supermarket, a concern for impact is perfectly proper: it sells more gum if handled properly.) Genuine professional concerns lie elsewhere.”
Now I am not suggesting Clement Mok is simply indulging in a merchandising concern – though I do (is this a contradiction?) think that designers need to sell themselves better. Part of that better is that I believe that professional designers should be professionals, which means more than simply being mercenaries for hire. An important part of what designers could offer is a professional (in the full sense of the word) perspective as well as set of craft skills.
In another article quoted in the book, Nelson argued:
“It has been the glib assumption of most manufacturers and designers that the prime function of industrial design is the creation of added sales appeal. Actually, this is temporary and superficial aspect of the designer’s activity, far less important in a long-term sense than his part in the job of reintegrating a society shattered by the explosive pressure of a new technology or institutions unable to cope with it.”
If designers could make and support such a claim, concerns about professional status wouldn’t be an issue.
(A note for readers who find Nelson’s use of the words “his” and “he” grates – remember at the time he was writing that was the convention – even though it was a convention that masked a reality. Anyway the simple solution is to substitute “hers” and “her” in the appropriate places.)