Design earns its due

It wasn’t that long ago that the word design was primarily used to describe a state of scheming, usually nefariously, for the purpose of acquiring something or someone. One might have “designs” on… It doesn’t seem to be used that way so much anymore. It now generally implies a connection with creativity.

There is an understanding that things look and function as they do because they have been designed that way, that there is a conscious, deliberate and decisive act (or many acts) behind the things that comprise our material world, and possibly even a real person or more.

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Our artefacts have always been designed. At one time, what was made was largely a matter of following precedent. Certain forms and configurations had been found to work and those were copied by productive artisans. A few of the makers were more creative than the others and, with time, new forms would be added to the prevailing lexicon.

The world that I was born into, in 1949, was already largely one of industrially produced objects. The hand-made was mostly restricted to the mittens and socks that grandmas knit for Christmas presents. Not that much earlier, during the Great Depression of the ’30s, a lot more of the accoutrements of frontier life were hand-made, but this had more to do with economic and transportation challenges than anything else.

However, my grandparents took the making of things as a natural state. In contrast, my father, and his generation, made a point of destroying the material evidence of an earlier poverty (as hand made things were perceived).

So I grew up with the fruits of industry, but the word design was never used in the way that we use it now. The existence of things was simply taken for granted.

It seems that the act of design, that deliberate and decisive act, was more anonymously integrated in the production of goods in an earlier era. It is usually hard to learn the identities of the designers who shaped the products we used before the middle of the 20th century. But they obviously existed and some were very talented.

A fact that is usually forgotten is that the art schools that were established in the late nineteenth-century, like the school now known as OCAD University, had as one of its principal aims the training of designers for industry. The stars of the Industrial Revolution were the entrepreneurs that launched new ventures, and theirs are the names that we might remember.

As an example, at one time agricultural implements were where all the smart money was and Mr. Massey and his eponymously named company, were the biggest deal in Canada.

He made good goods and prospered. His designers were just part of a large workforce that included many different types of skills and talents. It also included a large percentage of workers who were not particularly skilled or talented. They were just inexpensive and interchangeable.

That’s how industry works.

Efficiency is one of the greatest motivators for industry. With a great deal of preliminary planning, and the necessary capital, the subsequent efficiencies of repetitive specialized labour enable the production of vast amounts of goods in a very cost-effective way. One of the enablers of the efficiencies is the assurance that what is produced is pre-planned (designed) in such a way as to take full advantage of the particular industrial processes.

Raymond Loewy, in the mid-20th century, claimed to be the first industrial designer. That is horse-puckey, but what he did advance was the recognition of designers as knowable individuals and their possible value for marketing purposes. The potential for the existence of design-stars, was born. He was not alone in the transformation of the role and visibility of designers, and collectively those midcentury designers initiated a shift in perception of what design was and who did it.

It has taken a long time for this perceptual shift to become embedded in our public consciousness. Now, the word design is used comfortably by almost everyone. It has become a major and highly visible factor in marketing. It also forms a core component of corporate strategies. Designers have moved up from the factory floor to the boardroom, so to speak. About time, to my way of thinking.

Paul Epp is an adjunct professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.


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