Toward a Cultural Innovation:
Why American designers need more point-of-view
By Scott Klinker
Photo courtesy of Jeremy Richardson
Red Alert: Formulaic ID skills move to lowest bidder
Recently flipping through Product Design Now, a glossy new yearbook of current trends in product design, I was floored by the mind-numbing sameness of page after page of slick new gizmos flaunting the formulaic look of iPod minimalism—a radiused box—which seems to have colonized every corner of the industrial globe. If this 'global voice' truly is product design now, then it's not surprising to hear IDEO co-founder, Bill Moggridge speculate that more of IDEO's form-giving tasks may soon be dispatched to their Shanghai office, where 10 talented designers cost the same as one in the U.S. This forecast may be the writing on the wall for American designers: not all design-thinking is created equal. Strategic creativity will grow in demand here, but formulaic ID skills are in greater supply than demand, and when quality supply is plentiful, the job goes to the lowest bidder—in China.
These brutal economics should have American industrial designers spooked. We face a Darwinian imperative: evolve or perish. And 'innovation' is not immune to these forces. In fact, historic shifts suggest that American ID will be forced to re-mix innovation, combining our rational, problem-solving backbeats with some daring new rhymes that bring a cultural point-of-view (POV) to the forefront of design strategy. But what IS point-of-view? And why is it important for industrial designers NOW?
Today's model is story-first-product-second, where the authentic values of the company are proven with great products. This historic change is a huge opportunity for industrial design, but one that requires new smarts: we're called on to strategically shape stories and ideas first, then give them physical form.
Design has two primary kinds of innovation: utility and significance. An improved product must work better and/or be more meaningful. The left-brain strategists and observational problem solvers of design seem to have the utility side of innovation down to a science...that may be why this kind of innovation becomes a commodity. But shall we go head-to-head with the armies of half-priced, left-brain, rules-based, utility thinkers of India or China? Seems like a better bet to become an expert in significance—the kind of innovation that defies rules, makes culture, and is always far ahead of the commodity market.
Let's avoid the dusty old arguments of 'design is about business and problem solving' vs. 'design is about art and culture.' In this day and age we know better. Design serves a variety of contexts, some corporate, some for the museum, and some that mix both. Fashion sets a better example here, where the experimental musings of couture and the down-to-business practicalities of prêt-à-porter are both considered equally vital to the field. The problem with American innovation is that it's all prêt-à-porter and no couture. All business and problem-solving, no culture-making. The innovators of business and problem-solving should be commended for having the maturity to articulate their worth to corporate America. But while the utility arm of innovation is mature and strong, the significance arm is in a pre-verbal, natal stage, still muttering it's first word, 'cool.' Trends would indicate that this cultural side of design is poised to become the new face of innovation. But is American design ready?
The problem with American innovation is that it's all prêt-à-porter and no couture. All business and problem-solving, no culture-making.
Way beyond 'Cool'
Real innovation creates markets and culture where they didn't before exist. Interdisciplinary problem solving plans rational products, but cultural innovation requires a proposition for new tastes and behaviors. Significance, signification, meaning, point-of-view, cultural values, attitude; this is the language of cultural innovation used to speak to a rich, nuanced array of human needs that go far beyond ID's slick 'cool.' With this vocabulary, innovation can introduce industry to a new rhetoric that paves the way for products and brands with something to say.
Some of the best examples of this approach live outside the world of radiused plastic. Consider the explosive growth of American Apparel, the LA-based 'sweatshop free' manufacturer of urban undies. In a fashion market over-crowded with Big-Box competition like The Gap and Old Navy, founder Dov Charney has managed to build an extremely inventive brand that delivers the goods at a competitive price that has hipsters begging for more. While the form of the product—the materials, the cut, the colors—are enough to please the discerning urban shopper, American Apparel flaunts its raw sexiness next to headlines declaring 'Made in Downtown LA' and 'Vertically Integrated Manufacturing.' You won't find this brand at the Mall either. Instead, their soon-to-be 200 stores nationwide are in edgy urban neighborhoods, adding to the 'anti-mall' shopping experience. Put it all together and you have the making of a sophisticated brand message that is equal parts sexy, smart, rebellious, humane and authentic in a way that the Big-Box guys could never be. Yet they manage to reach a mass audience. American Apparel has played by its own rules in business and manufacturing, shaping a unique cultural point-of-view that is winning in the market. In fashion, culture always leads the way. Innovation take note.
A bit closer to home, we can look at BuiltNY's founders Aaron Lown and John Swartz, who's BYO Wine Tote has created an entirely new market from scratch. Their neoprene bags solve subtle problems—protecting and insulating wine bottles at an affordable price—but perhaps more significantly, their product introduces a fresh attitude into the stodgy culture of wine.
And before you dismiss these examples from the cut-and-sew industries as irrelevant to the heavy-tooling decisions of mass industry, let's have a look at the new realities of 'mass.'
Interdisciplinary problem solving plans rational products, but cultural innovation requires a proposition for new tastes and behaviors.
History shifts: Bias is beautiful
If it was the role of designers to improve daily life for the vast majority, it's now their role to speak to smaller groups with specific values. As our attention shifts from mass to niche, we ask: Who are those groups? What are their values? What are their needs? And what will they pay for?
50 years ago, Charles and Ray Eames' 'Powers of 10' short film served as a metaphor for old-school, industrial design 'generalist' thinking. The master planner conceives a program in relation to the body, the city, the state, the planet, the universe and back again. Charles and Ray had 3 channels on the TV.
Today's Post-Industrial Design context is vastly expanded: we see the same micro-to-macro, but with consideration for top-down vs. bottom-up messages, cross-referenced with an infinite lateral number of information cultures. We have 500 cable channels and a vast blogoshere to contend with. Our wider context calls for a designer who is more conscious of placing or locating ideas relative to the matrix of alternatives. (We'll often see this kind of analysis literally portrayed as a matrix of competing products charted across various semantic axes, say "contemporary vs. traditional," or "highbrow vs. low.")
Our move from mass marketing and mass production to niche positioning highlights design's shift from an objective, problem-solving tool toward a subjective, rhetorical tool. This notion inspired visionary intellectual design movements like Memphis in the 1980's and Droog Design in the 1990's; their stake in fashion and concept evidenced this shift.
But Design's role as a rhetorical tool is not only expressed in avant-garde extremes. In fact, powerful expressions of cultural point-of-view have become commonplace as companies like Starbucks, Target, and Apple begin to reposition the mundane products of oversaturated markets into more specific lifestyle 'values' on a global scale. Coffee becomes 'an experience,' Discount becomes 'upscale,' computers become 'iLife.' Target's success with Michael Graves (one of those Memphis radicals), Isaac Mizrahi and Todd Oldham suggest that fashion designers may be the most relevant secret weapon for generating innovative product ideas.
What do culture-makers do? They identify and propose meaningful cultural points-of-view for the product. They do more than simply respond to user-observations or trend forecasting. They look deeper into the psychology, values, and bias of a niche audience to identify the subjects that matter.
Enter the post-industrial culture-maker
True, design must solve problems. But today it must also communicate values. And values aren't universal, one-size-fits-all ideas. They're biased. They assume specific cultural attitudes. They have an agenda. A glance at America's political landscape suggests how polarizing values can be. It's nearly the same for products. Witness the gap in values between the Hummer driver and the Prius driver.
What do culture-makers do? They identify and propose meaningful cultural points-of-view for the product. They do more than simply respond to user-observations or trend forecasting. They look deeper into the psychology, values, and bias of a niche audience to identify the subjects that matter. And because making new culture almost always requires a leap of faith, they're persuasive champions of their chosen point-of-view.
So is it really a red alert? Does American Industrial Design really face extinction? I hope so.
Meaningful brands are the end result of Design's new POV. In the days of top-down media, branding was easy to dismiss as coercive propaganda, where the product was designed first with a persuasive story attached later. But with today's more democratic forms of media—like the watchdog blogoshere—corporations know they must 'walk the talk.' Today's model is story-first-product-second, where the authentic values of the company are proven with great products. This historic change is a huge opportunity for industrial design, but one that requires new smarts: we're called on to strategically shape stories and ideas first, then give them physical form. Sure, these stories can be used to sell more stuff, but they can also change public opinion and inform consumers about the real origin of products. As global industrial truths become more transparent—like fair labor practices or global warming—key new layers of meaning are embodied in the product...another reason point-of-view is being forced to the forefront of design.
Examples of this approach include designers like Bill McDonough's extensive consulting with Ford and Wal-mart to build their Green point-of-view, or Bruce Mau's efforts to re-brand entire countries through building new social programs.
So is it really a red alert? Does American Industrial Design really face extinction? I hope so. And in its place, we should see the evolution of a much more advanced discipline: one that has absorbed the skills and spirit of ID, but climbs the food chain to tackle problems of greater complexity and significance. One with x-ray vision to see through objects for their emerging patterns of culture, business and technology, and with a keen intuition—willing to go beyond rational techniques in order to propose new culture. It should have an enormous vocabulary to shape rhetoric, a big heart to elevate daily experience into something more like art, and above all, a brilliant point of view.
Scott Klinker is Principal of Scott Klinker Product Design and 3-D Designer-in-Residence at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. His furniture designs are available through Design Within Reach and Unica Home. He is an alumnus of Cranbrook and IDEO.