Callum Lumsden: A master of all trades

Designers are often pigeonholed into their own specialisms, but in order to spread their wings they should follow the architects’ lead, says Callum Lumsden

Here’s a conundrum. When is an interior designer a lighting designer? Answer: When he’s an architect.

Designers have always believed that a good creative thinker can turn their hand to any design problem. We do not want to be pigeonholed into one specialism, but want the freedom to express ourselves in any media. However, as budgets become evermore fragmented, convincing clients of the value of the wider design point of view and exploring it with one company to see how far a partnership can stretch and develop a brand continues to be the dilemma.

For example, who is best qualified to guide the creative thinking of a company’s brand development among the many specialised sectors of the design industry? Is it the corporate identity consultancy which communicates what the brand is about? Is it the packaging design company, the product design consultancy, the Web-heads or the interior design company?

Where does that leave the client, with so many players in the brand development market shouting “me, me, me”? Advertising agencies, marketing companies and management consultancies all want to take the lead in guiding companies to the holy grail of brand domination. And many design companies have dropped any reference to design from their name and replaced it with some reference to branding in an attempt to grab some market share in that field – and who can blame them.

The design world is in danger of doing itself a terrible injustice, as it seems too scared to grab the bull by the horns and educate clients about what they can do and what they could offer. You can just hear the conversation.

Client: “Are you a brand consultancy?”

Design company: “Yes if you want us to be.”

Client: “Can you recommend us a design company?”

Design company: ” Well, we are a design consultancy as well, actually”

Client: “Well how can you do both?”, and so on.

Is the result that design is no longer going to be a core activity in its own right? I hope not. What I think is that if designers gain the ear of the client right from the start of a project, the chances are that a better solution will emerge – the idea of forming a dialogue with your client is so radical. Now if the debate is “I am creative, therefore I can design anything which needs to be designed”, how come designers continue to be pigeonholed into their own specific disciplines?

One sector seems to be chameleon-like in its ability to traverse disciplines and the design industry could learn valuable lessons from it. Architecture.

How come this highly respected group of professionals seems to cross over without effort the invisible, but certain barriers that exist within design sectors? Architects are perceived to be professionals. Architects have a proven track record in the design of chairs, lights, shops, bars and hotels, as well as buildings. Architects do seem to have the capacity to be inventive about tackling many of the areas of design which are set up as specialisms. Michael Graves’ trumpeting kettle (which burns your hand, but looks pretty), Marcel Breuer’s chair and Future Systems’ Comme des Garçons store in New York are all examples of architects who have employed their skills creatively in a discipline contrary to their own.

Nothing wrong with that, you say. Actually, there is. The fact is, I’m jealous. You see I want to be Renaissance man, too. How come if I want to design a chair I have to convince a manufacturer I’m capable of doing a great creative job? I’m a designer who knows a comfortable seat when I feel one. How do architects convince clients they are able to do creative things other than design buildings?

Architects describe their companies as “practices”. How come they get away with practising when everyone else has to do it properly? Architects have passion. They get emotional about eyelines and symmetry. And what’s more, their clients lap up the histrionics. Interior designers and architects are constantly at loggerheads with each other, with architects frustrated by the designer who wants to impose a different vision to their building than the one which they have worked so hard to evolve. Just talk to some of the players in last year’s Millennium Projects and you will see that it is architects that get to dictate the pace that the rest of us have to follow or fit in with.

If the design industry is to retain its credibility and move forward, we need to take a leaf out of the architect’s sketch pad and educate clients as to what we’ re capable of. Say it loud, say it proud

– we’re designers.

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