Thursday, April 28, 2005


the trend that says that design is next big trend

I've just finished reading Daniel Pink's new book, A Whole New Mind, and find some striking similarities to other books proclaiming design is the next big thing. Pink got a bit of attention last year by proclaiming the MFA degree as the new MBA, a proclamation based on the supposedly earth shaking fact that UCLA rejects a higher percentage of MFA applicants than Harvard rejects MBA applicants. Pink has extended his MBAs are dinosaurs thesis into a book, which asserts that right-brained skills are now more valuable than left brained, analytical ones.

Pink repeats something I read from other writers, from Virginia Postrel, Bernard Schmitt, Tom Peters, and others: design is the next big thing. What amazes be his how these writers so often cite the same anecdotes. The typical one involves a running commentary how they went to the American discount chain Target, and are able to buy a brush "designed" by Michael Graves. From such an anecdotes, the conclusion is: people want style, and not boring stuff.

I am very interested in how users relate to issues such as style, and agree that design as styling is appearing in places not seen previously. But it is curious to observe that the trend watchers aren't designers themselves, and as a result, seem to miss some interesting dimensions. One thing unanswered is whether the growth in design is demand driven or supply driven. If it were demand driven, one might expect designers salaries to be rising a fast clip. But if you read the discussion lists at Core 77, it would seem that many designers don't feel they are over compensated by any means. Salaries can be low, especially when factoring in the long hours, and while many can make a decent living, only a handful are getting rich. Somehow I expect having an MBA is probably a more probable path to making a fortune.

I think the critical issue for designers is what leverage they can gain, which often is limited. Designers are a bit like athletes or actors: a few get all the recognition and money, and majority are anonymous, and can feel the constant threat of younger, cheaper competitors.

Two trends are happening. Some design is getting more democratic, especially digital design, so that the supply available always matches "demand". If you want to design a book, or make a movie, you can try to do it yourself, or ask a friend who has dabbled in it. Other design is becoming less democratic, for the simple reason that distribution channels are becoming more centralized. You may design a wonderful new toothbrush, but try to sell it. People shop at an increasingly limited range of outlets, despite the Internet. You want to change the world with your groovy toothbrush, you need to convince Target or Walmart/Asda, not a jury of the public. I find it ironic that if we live in a designer age, that even design boutiques now all seem to sell the same stuff. Go to the gift shop at MOMA or the Design Museum in London, or most any design boutique, and you will find the same stuff from Alessi and Iittala.

If design's rise were truly demand-driven, people would demand more variety, and designers could supply it. Instead, the supply side determines how much style is available. It isn't clear to me if Michael Graves brushes represent a trend, or just a fad.

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