A world of red tape

Paul Epp

Paul Epp

From good intentions to filling out forms

The premise of industrial design is, generally speaking, that of providing a benefit to somebody. Somebodies, actually. The more the better. That’s why industry is involved. A need is met and money changes hands, from the consumer to the producer and from the producer to the designer, or something like that.

To aid us in the pursuit of solutions to problems, we usually generate something we call a design brief. This is a definition of the target that we are aiming at. The benefit to the eventual consumer is carefully considered, because if this doesn’t occur, the money won’t flow in a way that supports the project and the whole enterprise collapses.

The process

The capabilities and constraints of the producer must also be considered and even the preferences and proclivities of the designer. In this scenario, there is the consumer, the producer (with all manner of marketing and other support) and the designer. And there is, with increasing prevalence and impact, another factor that contributes an additional set of “other considerations” that need to appear in the design brief.

There are two kinds of these external considerations: the prescribed and the proscriptive. Some are mandated like those relating to the AODA (Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act). This is the law, and failure to comply is penalized. If you are not aware of this yet, you ought to become so. There are the consumer packaging and labeling regulations. And many other rules that vary with from industry to industry.

If you are involved with research, then you will likely have become familiar with the REBs (Research Ethics Boards), sometimes also described as the KGB. These bodies, at arm’s length from universities, hospitals and other funded institutions, ensure that no vulnerable populations are harmed in any way when research is pursued. Their efforts can be extreme and consequential, so they are worth paying attention to.

Some of the considerations are optional, but only barely so. At this time, considerations of sustainability are increasingly conspicuous, as they should be. Within the wood and wood-related industries, FSC endorsement is often sought. There are also an increasing number of other ways in which to become a conspicuously conscientious consumer or producer or designer and there are advantages to doing so.

Although not yet necessarily mandated, there are increasing calls for our material world to be inclusive and universal, in terms of access, use and benefit. It should be smoke free and scent free. No animals should be used for testing or exposed to risks in our entertainments. Our commentary should be gender neutral. No ethnic or regional groups should be made conspicuous in any way that could be found to be derogatory, or possibly even humorous. The aged cannot be described as old, or allowed to look or feel that way.

More and more rules

There is much more, and it is the cultural and legal framework within which we operate. To describe this as a loss of autonomy is an understatement. It feels like both a restriction and a constriction. Of course, most of these considerations have as their goal the betterment of the human condition. And this goal is shared by designers. We don’t want to cause harm — our basic premise is to do good. We have, by design, an opportunity to have a significant impact. And with this authority comes a large responsibility, which we acknowledge and respect.

One of the great things about design is the prospect and opportunity to dream large dreams; to imagine alternate ways of being and doing. If we are bound too closely by the list of things we can’t or ought not to do, how can we do our job?

I’m not really much of a designer anymore. As an academic, I spend a lot of my time filling out forms and seeking approval. As onerous as that is, I accept it as part of being in a bureaucracy and I accept that a bureaucratic structure is necessary to achieve certain valuable things. But I feel as if this circumscribed public-sector world of rules is encroaching more and more on the private world as well. And that has me concerned.

Paul Epp is a professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

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