Take it to another level

Clive Grinyer acknowledges the great design patrons and identifies a rift between designer and client that can stifle truly ground-breaking work.

Clive Grinyer acknowledges the great design patrons and identifies a rift between designer and client that can stifle truly ground-breaking work

Steve Job’s jeans have two types of pocket. Half way through Apple Computer’s global press conference, Jobs pointed to the pocket where he keeps his iPod and then asked what the other, thin slither of a pocket, was for. He pulled from it the Nano, the latest and slimmest evolution of the iPod. It was a great piece of showmanship and reminded us that the drivers of innovation are maverick leaders with vision and empathy for humankind.

Jobs is clearly the greatest patron of design. Where there are great patrons, you will find great design, but the opposite is unfortunately true. Great design depends on clients who want to exceed expectation, surpass their competition and have the balls to do it.

I recently saw a presentation from Alessi, where the Italian company described its role as connecting the designer to its ‘audience’. While it’s a theory that has worked magnificently in the world of tea trays, kettles and trinkets, it’s rarely seen out of Italy in the design of everyday stuff. No, the reality of everyday design commissioning is one of direct problem-solving, a marketing brief or urgent response to disruptive competition. It’s therefore not that surprising to see design commoditised, disconnected from the big picture – a lowering of the aspiration of design solution and the loss of ability to differentiate between the satisfactory and the great.

In most situations the client is not a visionary; they are more likely to be a mid-level marketing manager burdened by senior management aspirations. These people know that design exists, they need designers to turn their business requirements document into something tangible. But despite the shining examples of design success all around us, design greatness is becoming a rarity.

The commoditisation of design is not helped by the behaviour of designers. Pomposity and condescension are not unknown in senior designers; the provision of unrealistic and unwanted strategy is not unusual.

Companies often seem surprised to be told that the quality of their design has as much to do with them as their designers. For many it’s a supplier relationship, and if the designers cock up, then they fire them and hire another one.

It is difficult for clients to understand that designers work differently to accountants. The ability to think of the customer more than the business, and look over the horizon, does mean they behave differently. Great patrons value that above project management vagueness.

But the professionalisation of design has created over-responsive designers who have lost the ability to challenge. There will always be design consultancies whose quality of work and financial success are opposed to each other – but there will always be clients who just want the job done, too.

When Jobs proudly shows off the success of his design patronage, it reminds us how design depends on permission and inspiration from clients. With no client, design has no connection to people. But if we complain that design is commoditised, perhaps designers should do something about it. Move out of the haven of the self-reverential design studio. Make the move into reality and become the next generation of patrons, clients and influencers – before they all disappear.

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