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Success and the Design of Morality
by Cordy Swope

As designers we like to think that we know what is good for everyone else, but would a more design-centric world really be a better one?

Many designers dream of becoming famous. Perhaps you have harbored such dreams already. What does this have to do with design? A lot. On a practical level, becoming a famous designer brings with it an instant credibility with clients, most of whom do not really know anything about design except perhaps the famous names in the field.

At the same time, the artistic residue around the design profession also helps explain many a designer's desire for fame. Artists engage in a kind of egoistic self-delusion in order to create their art. Many designers-particularly ones who are hell-bent on becoming famous-have the same egocentric tendencies as artists. Since designers must forever explain the difference between art and design (you may have heard things like, "design uses the resources of art to solve the problems of business" etc.), it would stand to reason that there really are more similarities between art and design than just skill sets. These similarities are not only technical ones, but cultural as well.

Like the aspiring artist, the ambitious designer often attempts to become famous first in order to enjoy creative freedom later. This is a particularly recognizable gambit in Hollywood, and what one could call the "fame method." The fame method relies on getting attention and recognition from others-particularly the press-then parlaying it into attracting more work. Some believe that it is a relative long shot to succeed in design by using this method, but evidence of the fame method can be seen in the ever-increasing numbers of people who pose in foppish clothing at design events worldwide.

But life can become difficult for a designer who actually becomes famous. For instance, just looking at the amount of vitriol over the years that has been directed at Karim Rashid (much of it on the forums of this very website) leads to the conclusion that choosing to become a personal brand risks the trade-off of becoming more of an effigy than an actual person. It seems sadly ironic that designers-object makers-can sometimes turn into objects themselves. (We'll see how things turn out for Martha Stewart.) But to paraphrase Plutarch, it is perhaps not necessarily so sad for Karim, but more so for those who attack him. Such are the perils of fame.

The more traditional M.O. for designers is what one could call the "corporate method." This method recognizes that designers must start somewhere, usually biding their time in order to gain skills and contacts while working their way up a corporate or consulting hierarchy. People who work under the corporate method are either too busy or too tired from actually designing things to attend design events. If they ever do attend them, they are easily recognized as the pasty-faced, less glamorous ones who keep to themselves in the corner.

But after biding time and paying dues, many of these corporate method designers eventually work their way up to become responsible for a lot of what actually finds its way into the public sphere. While they might toil in relative anonymity, their designs often fly off the shelves at Wal-Mart and become fixtures in the cultural and physical landscape. It is also sadly ironic that these designers—of what is so widely consumed by so many people—remain so unknown.

It might not be enough to be famous, however, or to experience the elation of walking down the aisles of Home Depot and seeing your work offered to millions of people. When you reach either of these points, you will be faced with some of the larger struggles of the field itself.

One such struggle is the place of design in the public consciousness. This website recently placed a group of design thinkers into a sort of semi-public fishbowl, to discuss the question of why design isn't featured more in mainstream American media. Their conversation, in many parts eloquent and illuminating, left me feeling somewhat ambivalent about design assuming a more prominent role in the public consciousness. I let myself imagine for a moment what might happen if design would become as culturally important in the media as politics or sports. But this soon became too unpleasant to contemplate:

Like armchair quarterbacks or armchair politicians, in a design-important world, many people would likely become armchair designers. I imagined inflammatory radio-call-in shows attacking the poor usability of "pretty" objects. I imagined raging debates on CNN that featured functionalists and formalists scornfully shouting each other down. I imagined the sex lives and drug debauchery of famous furniture designers as tabloid fodder. And in a vision a little too close to reality television-not to mention reality itself-I imagined young, aspiring designers hanging their sketches up on national television each week and then voted out of the studio until one winner remained.

And yet, if design really did play a more prominent role in public consciousness, would our public discourse still be defined by tabloids or the musical-chair-morality of reality television? Would design really define world problems differently than they are now? Would designers find better ways of educating children, or more useful ways of exercising political or military power? Would design introduce more cogent ways of structuring the voices of dissent? If design were more influential in society, would there even be homelessness? (And at the very least, would design find better ways of fixing flawed voting systems?)

In short, would a greater public emphasis on design introduce a different-assumingly better-system of moral values? Given both the fame and corporate methods that designers commonly use in order to become "successful" in the first place, I doubt it. This is because the fame and corporate methods operate out of the same value system as do Hollywood or Wall Street. They are inescapable because they are cultural.

Every year design students worldwide tackle "socially responsible" issues such as homelessness in concept projects. A common question in many a student mind is "how will a socially responsible project help me get a job?" But an even more challenging, socially responsible design project might be the following:

Beyond other designers, how would you get your socially responsible concept project across to a wider audience? How would you actually get it implemented so that it would affect real life? Would you use the fame method or the corporate method? Or would you design a new method? If you can do this successfully, you might even get a job you really want.

Cordy Swope is a design strategist and co-founder of normal life, a research and product development consulting firm.

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