A new definition for design

After Hilary Cottam’s controversial Designer of the Year win, Design Week asks her and other design figures about the changing nature of the profession

Stephen Bayley

Stephen Bayley:

The management guru Peter Drucker used to say ‘everything is marketing’. Some time ago this was replaced by ‘everything has been designed’.

That’s a nice trope to use in lectures, but suffering under such a massive load of responsibility, the meaning of ‘design’ gets spread very, very thin. So thin, it loses its structure. Yet for something so fugitive in definition, design is a maddeningly demanding subject. The only workable definition of design is that it is what designers do.

Aggressive world markets, where no business can survive without the significant competitive advantages which ‘design’ was once thought to provide, mean that Drucker’s followers are right. Everything has, indeed, been designed. Mediocrity is not an option.

Meanwhile, technological and social revolutions long since ripped the logic from the form-follows-function devotees and new materials did the same to the Ruskinian credo of ‘truth’. So we have the collapse of historic theory and practice into a rolling boil of boggling technology, consumerist lust, of – to co-opt William Boyd’s description of modern art – faddery and flim flam.

Enter the pernicious celebrity designer. Designers were at their most influential when they were most anonymous. Detroit executives and drawing office managers in Milan or Turin once shaped whole cultures and directed whole economies. That was when possession of advanced technology by certain manufacturers conferred a competitive advantage which designers interpreted for the consumer. No more. The celebrity designer combines high profile with low significance. Philippe Starck, Marc Newson and Karim Rashid will have their place in history… in footnotes set in very small type.

The design profession began by applying Darwinian principles to industrial products. Maybe it is time to apply Darwinian principles to designers.

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