Winter 1993

Putting design’s house in order

Design Renaissance

International Design Congress, Glasgow, 5-9 September 1993

Once every six years, the three international federations of industrial, graphic and interior designers stage an international congress that covers all forms of design except architecture. The congress provides designers with an excellent opportunity to discuss crossovers between disciplines, countries and cultures and to draw up an agenda of problems and possibilities in the worldwide sphere of design.

To judge by its programme, the Glasgow congress had every intention of fulfilling this potential, with plenary sessions on “Local and global dilemmas,” “Visions of the future” and “Creating solutions for the future.” Erskine Childers of the United Nations, Stefano Marzano of Philips and Jack Lang, former French Minister of Culture, were invited to speak at the opening session, chaired by Michael Wolff, though Lang did not appear and was replaced by Victor Papanek, veteran propagandist for ecological design.

The list of speakers and topics to be addressed was dominated by commercial and industrial design. Industrial designers tend to see the world as one big shopping mall and their work as providing technologically for the wants of the visiting public – whatever these may be. It is graphic design, with its emphasis on communication, content and ideas, that can analyse these wants and help people express them in a world overwhelmed by printed, interactive, multi- or other media.

Instead of tackling these issues, however, the contribution of graphic designers was limited to a few sessions, childishly called “Fantastic graphics,” and some reproductions at a disappointing exhibition of highlights of British design. The general undervaluing of graphics was also expressed in the poor quality of the design of the congress’ communications, from the tartan promotional flyers to the daily update bulletins, produced on a prehistoric DTP system, to the non-existent press facilities. The overall impression was that the organisers were perhaps overstretched.

Erskine Childers’ opening address assured the gathered delegates that what designers commonly take to be “the world” is in fact only a small part of it. Using a convincing array of statistical material, Childers painted a portrait of gross inequality and criticised the perceptions of global reality that predominate among the “non-coloured minority.”

At the beginning of the 1990s, the 20 per cent Northern minority had more than 80 per cent of the world’s gross national product, trade, and domestic savings and more than 90 per cent of all commercial lending and of all research and development. “The 80 per cent majority of humanity in the South,” stated Childers, “gets the 20 per cent or less scraps from the tables of the affluent. Morality apart, this is not good business for the North, which will soon need new markets, but may find the majority of humankind not a market with purchasing power, but prostrate.”

But it was not so much Childers’ words as those of Stefano Marzano that set the overall trend. Marzano revealed an embarrassing lack of understanding of the complex realities of a world in which giant corporations have the power to make tens of thousands of people redundant while continuing to pour out products that will never reach four-fifths of the world’s population.

Marzano reminded us that the “masses outside begin, with increasing insistence, to knock on the door, demanding their fair share of the goodies we have been so privileged to enjoy for so long.” He went on to plead the case for “restoring the balance, both in our natural environment and in our social and cultural environment.” It is hard to imagine that he was voicing Philips corporate policy. Rather, he appears to be part of a trend in contemporary enterprise whereby critical and philosophical voices are allowed to be heard within companies in much the same way as irrational phenomena such as fuzzy logic are allowed a place in science. They have a refreshing effect on ossified modes of thinking and working, while at the same time lending the company social prestige.

According to Marzano, “design is a political act” and “every time we design a product we are making a statement about the direction the world will move in.” Marzano’s good intentions deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, but the value of his statements is questionable. Design, at its most concrete, is the creation of products which will exist in reality, and will change reality. Design is not merely a statement about the direction in which the world will move; it is itself a force which determines the direction in which the world changes.

Graphic and furniture designer Janice Kirkpatrick provided an inspiring example of a different approach to design. Kirkpatrick, who is actively involved in the cultural regeneration of Glasgow, demonstrated how designers can make a real contribution to the development of their environment provided they are sensitive to the signals coming from society and conscious of their own capacities.

In the final summing-up session, Kirkpatrick criticised the abstract and patronising overtones in discussions of the role of design. “We need to put our house in order. We must learn to communicate with one another before we can communicate with and positively influence the world, which does right to distrust us as we often wield our power in a clumsy and insensitive fashion with little regard for individuality and the cultural diversity which gives us each a personality and specialness.”

The pretentious overtones at “Design Renaissance” spoke of the profession’s deeply felt desire to be taken seriously by a world which still sees design as an expendable luxury. However, the congress did not succeed in treating the serious questions at hand in such a way that they became relevant to each of the professional fields represented rather than to none in particular. Nor did it manage to formulate an alternative agenda which might convince the world not only of designers’ good intentions but of the practicability of the proposals they contribute. Homework for the next six years at least.

First published in Eye no. 11 vol. 3, 1993

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