Past, present, future in design

Design as we currently understand and practise it is being radically changed on several levels, writes Prof John Heskett.

First Published in

DesignIssues, Winter 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1
DesignIssues, Winter 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1

How can we prepare to cope with what is not wholly apparent? Two immediate responses can be: an endless curiosity and openness to change, with the ability to retain as much flexibility as possible in thought and practice – in other words, a rapid response capability to new challenges; secondly, we can constantly seek to understand what is happening by tracing patterns from the past. The implications of these two responses are different. In any design organisation, the first is a practical objective that has managerial and organisational implications. The second is more philosophical in nature, although it also has practical implications.

If it is a truism that the past never completely repeats itself, history nevertheless retains several virtues. It is the essential tool in explaining our present situation; it contains a fund of generic ideas about practice that illustrate some possibilities for emerging technologies; and it is also a valuable guide in understanding the nature and consequences of change and how to cope with it.

If we examine the major stages through which design has evolved in the past, and particularly in the twentieth century, what signposts (and I stress the choice of term) are discernible about how it is likely to develop in the future. Predictions are inherently unreliable since the future has an awkward tendency to be different in fundamental respects from what we can today imagine. Hence the stress on signposts, a more indicative projection forward, together with the need for flexible adaptation to meet the unexpected.

There is an innate paradox in basing concepts of the future on a study of the past. History is concerned with what is knowable and has the inestimable benefit of 20/20 hindsight, while prophecy expresses hopes and expectations about what is presently unknowable. Prediction easily become a projection of hopes and ideals, of what one wants to see happen. Despite such cautions, however, the effort is vitally necessary. An inherent characteristic of design is its innate concern with the future. Any designer, working in any situation on any kind of project, is projecting concepts that become the tangible reality of future daily life. Design without a sense of the future is therefore a contradiction in terms.

Yet design as we presently understand it is also a relatively recent concept. We need therefore to understand its origins and influences.

One of the confusions for any designer trying to explain their contemporary and potential future role is the great diversity of how people generally understand the term "design". The roots of this confusion go deep into history and the pattern of evolution in the role of designers. Not only have there been multiple changes through history in response to new situations but the changes have not been sequential and end-on. In other words, a new development does not entirely supplant the old, but becomes layered upon it. The functions of the old may be diminished or marginalised, but do not become entirely supplanted. Neither do the ideas associated with them, which accounts in considerable measure for the confusion. For example, there are still pockets of people living a hunting/gathering existence and making objects from what is at hand in order to survive; rural, agricultural communities based on craft traditions still exist; as do small manufacturing workshops using hand work in serial production; in large industries stylists are still common, while many consultant designers' work has become global. Although I have never been to South Africa before I would be most surprised if it is not possible to find multiple examples of this kind of layering still in existence. Study of this diversity can yield some important lessons in terms of generic patterns that still have often surprising validity. For example, in rural craft practice it is typical that the objects used, of all kinds, are traditional in nature, the expression of a community's experience. Both makers and users understand this, and the emphasis is therefore upon how objects can be adapted to the specific and particular needs of users. In an age when we are again talking in design about customisation, is there nothing we can learn from those generations of practice?

In another example, in the eighteenth century, the government of King Louis XIV set out to make the French economy superior to all its competitors by attracting the best craft talent in Europe and training the most promising young people in their own country in design. The legacy today is that France still has over 40% of the world's annual trade in luxury goods. Is there no lesson here for modern governments in design policy?

There are, of course, also cautionary tales that can be drawn from the past. The belief in the power of imagery that led to products in America developing to a point where they lost contact with reality is one such - think of the 1950s automobiles with their fins and jet outlets that were unsafe and uneconomic. The method used to design them, evolved by Harley Earl, who became Vice-President for Styling for General Motors, remain for many people the definitive forms of design practice: renderings rapidly provided and defined the overall visual appearance of a proposed automobile, which, once approved, would then be translated into full-sized clay models to work out the final details before manufacturing specifications were drawn up. The interiors were an afterthought.

In contrast, many independent consultant designers began to sound a warning about such procedures, most notably Donald Deskey, who in 1960 sounded a warning that overseas companies were taking a much more wide-ranging and long-range view of design and could deeply penetrate the American market. Large segments of American industry were subsequently decimated by imported products from countries such as Japan and Germany that paid greater attention to production quality with a more holistic approach to design.

Some young contemporaries, however, did take up the ideas advocated by Deskey and Loewy with great intelligence. Richard Latham demonstrated the effectiveness of the concept of strategic design planning in consultant work over many years for several corporations, even to becoming a board member, including Rosenthal, Bang & Olufsen and Land's End. Jay Doblin, who began his career in Loewy's New York office, also developed methods to implement the concept in the practice he established in Chicago and in his teaching at the Institute of Design at Illinois Institute of Technology, that has the first post-graduate design course dedicated to design strategy and planning.

The twentieth century therefore witnessed several important major changes in design and how it is practised and regarded in. To what extent will these processes continue in the future?

On one level, it may be that change will not be radical or substantial.

For example, the design and production of an increasing number of consumer products is already diffused across much of the globe on the basis of standardised concepts of form and technology. As countries increasingly attempt to develop and modernise their economies, there will probably be a continued expansion of mass-production in China and its spread into new geographical regions, such as Eastern Europe and South America, together with efforts to use styling as a means of adding value to products.

This will be particularly true of product sectors in which the concept of what a product is, and how it is made, remain relatively stable. For example, the concept of a vacuum cleaner or an electric iron has undergone little change since the introduction of electrical technology. Most electrical consumer products have in essence similarly changed little – basically they have become commodities. Where the production of such products is dependent primarily on cost and style factors there will probably be few changes in how design is used and an emphasis on adaptation to different geographical and cultural conditions.

In the last two decades, however, it has also become increasingly clear that significant radical changes are taking place on many other levels: in technology, particular flexible manufacturing and information technology; in types of products; in markets; in the structure of business organisations. These are not incremental shifts, but powerful and often discontinuous changes of a fundamental and structural nature.

Given such patterns, there is clearly a need for new concepts and methods in design. The signs of change are too widespread. Sometimes they are manifest in a disjunction, as when old products begin to creak under the burden of new technology. Intractable problems are caused when extra functions are loaded on to existing products, without the consequences of the extension being fully understood. Telephones, for example, were originally a simple, monofunctional instrument, for the purposes of speaking and listening to another person at a distance. Today, in the revised form of cellphones they are becoming loaded with multiple functions – memories, message functions, answering facilities, redialing, and now cameras. Many of these functions are obscure and difficult to operate, requiring pages of explanations in booklets that purport to be instructional but are simply just confusing. Yet many manufacturers and designers still persist in treating telephones as a styling problem, ignoring the desperate need to reconsider and redesign them and how they are used as a complex interface problem, and as an element of a system.

The role of designers similarly shifts: from visual form-giver seeking individual expression and differentiation, to designer as enabler – designing flexible systems on the basis of complex technologies that can be controlled by and adapted to user needs.

Mass production and styling generated product concepts intended to be the final form in which they were used. A toaster, a radio, or an automobile were designed as a complete entity, to be used as defined and designed by the producer. In contrast, the products of modern digital technologies, for example, the laptops in widespread use today, are flexibly adaptable to users. This signals a changing emphasis: from visibility – differentiation through visual appearance – to usability, in terms defined by users.

The key to this argument is the fact of complexity in many modern technologies and products. When a situation becomes complex, a single solution is unlikely to be relevant to more than a tiny proportion of potential users. The reverse side of complexity must therefore be flexibility in response: allowing users to adapt designs to their own purposes.

Many products using new technology have never made this conceptual leap to "user-centeredness" – a classic example being video tape recorder. The innate problems in operating them in terms appropriate to the flexible potential of the technology have still not been adequately addressed by designers and manufacturers.

Another identifiable shift is towards the "dematerialisation of products," as they merge into other structures, such as Automated Teller Machines (ATMs). These are generally integrated into buildings to provide a constant service in providing cash dispensing and other banking functions. The key to such products is the way they give access to a wider system. Again, they have an enabling function, but it is not the physical configuration of these machines that is decisive, rather the user interface – how information and services contained in the system are made comprehensible, accessible, relevant and pleasing to users – qualities they seriously lack.

A common thread in all this is the emergence of systems in various forms as one of the critical dimensions in which designers and, in particular, design planners, must think. Examples are the concepts of "platforms" as the basis for global product lines in automobiles or washing machines, or the need to coordinate information systems in banking and financial services. Whether conceived as a product or service system, the trend is in considerable measure away from a single product as the primary source of value, to defining systems as coherent wholes with individual items positioned as adaptable elements of them. This does not mean supplanting design skills in visual terms – they still remain vitally important in detailed execution, but they also have to be understood in a wider context.

The greatest current challenge of new technology, however, is in the possibilities of innovation, through design, to bring out entirely new products that have the capacity to create markets – in combining, for example, computers, cable television and telecommunications, which also presents incredibly complex problems of interface design. Computers, whether used at work or home, have already evolved into a personal, interactive technology of often considerable complexity. What are the additional problems of adding to such a combined device the present capabilities of telephone, fax, answering machine, and a whole spectrum of audio, video, printing and photographic functions? Unless such problems are addressed, and these devices are thought of systemically, the burdens of operating VCRs will seem minute.

Remarkable developments are also possible in the applications of computer chips to products that will push the concept of flexible adaptation into new dimensions. What will the consequences be, for example, of putting a computer chip and fuzzy logic programming into a chair, so that it can automatically adapt to the size, weight and posture of any person sitting in it without prior programming? Or of putting a similar chip into sports shoes so they immediately reconfigure to whether their user is running, jumping, or standing still on a variety of surfaces – sand, stones, or tarmac? Success in these and in many other respects will hinge on designing applications being understandable and immediately usable for a wide range of purposes.

Such changes are also affecting designers' tools and working procedures. Just as the delicate calligraphic skills of medieval manuscript scribes were made obsolete when embodied in slugs of lead type, leading to the new design skill of typography, so more recent design skills are rapidly being embodied into computer software that makes them cheaper and more widely accessible. New skills and methods of organisation are emerging to replace the old.

Yet concepts of designing are not always compatible with these new developments – the habits of old procedures do not easily or gracefully adapt to new demands. Theories of the role and purpose of design are in fact being radically redefined, most notably through what is called "human-centered design." This applies concepts of flexible manufacturing and information technology across a broad spectrum of industrial and commercial activity to focus more specifically on, and rapidly adapt to, the needs of users.

The most fundamental need, and the greatest problem, in this process of adaptation to change, however, is at the level of corporate design policy, which generally needs to be radically reshaped to meet new conditions. Three levels of change can be identified: strategic design, design management, and design practice.

If used as an integral element of future strategic planning, design can potentially contribute to every aspect of corporate activity, improving both internal organisation and market effectiveness. A total, integrated approach to design can create concepts and prototypes that combine products, communications, environments and systems in new and powerful combinations, capable of reshaping what a company, or major program, can be. The implementation of such ideas, however, requires the coordination at the highest level of how design functions in every aspect of a manufacturer's business.

If designers are to be equipped to operate in these new and highly demanding ways, design education will need to be radically changed.

Teaching design as a form of art, with an emphasis on visual skills in executing other people's idea, and approach that is already widely obsolete, can hardly be considered appropriate as a means of educating a new type of designer.

We live in an age in which change is widespread and fundamental, and design, being innately concerned with the future, cannot be exempt from its consequences. Practitioners who fail to comprehend that they cannot claim to be agents of change in a complex future, without design itself being significantly changed, will rapidly be marginalised. The designers that survive will do so by rapidly and creatively exploiting new techniques and methods appropriate to new situations and challenges.

The consequences are likely to be profound. To break out of this pattern, it will be necessary to support design practice with a defined body of theory and methodology. This is often anathema to designers educated to what can be called the romantic "cowboy" concept of their practice: designers as the embodiment of true individualism, close to the essence of things, and ever riding off into creative wide, open spaces to perform deeds of heroic originality. In such a schema, systematic thinking and creativity are seen as irreconcilable opposites.

There is an alternative view, however, which is sustained by the fact that many disciplines capable of routinely encouraging highly creativity require exactly such a structure of knowledge and methodology – mathematics and music, to give two widely divergent examples. Such a concept would enable the best of current ideas and practice in design to be codified, effectively communicated and constantly improved. Research is at the heart of such a development. It needs to function both in terms of extending the field, probing the boundaries of future possibilities for design and its connections to other disciplines, and of being constantly tested and refined to provide a core of methodologies – as a platform to sustain high-level creativity. That is the heart of the argument here. If design follows this path, there is hope we can begin to grapple with the size and complexity of the problems facing us that desperately need humane solutions. The alternative is to defiantly cling to the dwindling consolations of the role described by George Nelson, with caustic wit, of designers as "exotic menials."

One final lesson from history:

If designers don't adapt to the challenge of the new, other emerging disciplines will.

Previously published by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in DesignIssues, Winter 2001, Vol. 17, No. 1, Pages 18-26.