Being kept in the shades

According to David Bernstein, overpriced designer brands are more concerned about creating a good impression than they are with best performance.

Design has taken another bashing. Or, strictly speaking, the word “designer”. Designer equals rip-off. A study reveals that £99 designer sunglasses are no more protective than a pair costing 99p. A spokesperson on TV defending branded goods explained that “consumers look for other values over and above protection”. OK – but are those added values worth the disproportionate mark up?

It made me wonder what part the designer plays in the making of sunglasses and when he/ she comes in. Not too early I would guess. Now I would be delighted to be proved wrong by Calvin Klein, Armani or Versace, but I would bet good money that the designer isn’t involved in optimal optical performance, but rather in creating an impression. Ideally, the designer’s job should embrace both, what you might call the looking and the looks. But I expect the practical decisions have been made prior to the designer’s involvement. And in this sunglasses aren’t unique.

Here’s a simple question to any designers who have read thus far and are about to put their shades back on. In your current project are you apart, a part or at the heart?

Apart – if yours is a discrete role, separate from the serious business of making the product or creating the service.

A part – if you are reasonably close to the decision process, a specialist contributor and called in sooner rather than later.

At the heart – if you’re central to the decision process, a key member of the team from the inception, even the creator.

Of course, the term designer covers all. The purist might restrict it to the third, calling the first a “stylist” and the second, maybe, a “design engineer”. Not that any terms are precise.

Designers move around from company to company, from project to project and change roles, pivotal one day, peripheral the next. For example, working for Philips, according to a recent issue of the US Design Management Institute News, means being part of a multidisciplinary team involving experts in sociology, anthropology, psychology, marketing and engineering. Stefano Marzano, managing director of Philips Design in Eindhoven, has “instilled a philosophy he refers to as high design… what [he] seeks to create are industrial products that inspire the human spirit – in their function, in their form, in their materiality [sic] and in how they are presented – objects that are cherished rather than used and abandoned”.

This may sound worthy, but being labelled pious is a small price to pay for job satisfaction. The Philips designer is in on the ground floor and in early. Moreover, those initial discussions are “guided by a focus on the ethical and human dimension of the challenge”. A far cry from the end-of-the-line stylist of overpriced sun specs.

The Design Management Institute (in common with our Design Council) is keen to promote recognition of design in the corporate world. Accordingly, it welcomes management guru Tom Peters’ so-called design epistle: “Design, currently the preoccupation of the few, will increasingly be seen by the many as a matchless opportunity for differentiation… to achieve design’s magisterial potential it must be deeply embedded in the essential structures and processes of the organisation.”

At the heart. In how many UK companies is that the case? Two dozen? What are the chances of quadrupling that total in five years? Hyping the importance of design won’t necessarily help.

The Thatcherite endorsement probably did as much harm as good. But, overclaim is still around. A participant at a DMI conference was so inspired by what she heard that she claimed “design is now, more than ever, managing the culmination of the many effects of many disciplines(= brand)”. I’m not sure what that means. What I do know is that design can’t manage anything. Design itself can be managed. Design can be a tool of management and, as Peters insists, design must be a hub activity. But, to make specious claims does design’s cause as much harm as decorating specious products.

Maybe design is an impossible cause since the words design and designer carry so much baggage that they become virtually meaningless.

Victor Papanek, in the classic Design for the Real World said, “Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.” If only we could impose meaningful order on the word itself.

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