What’s a Designer?…Who Wants to Know

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I often muse about what it would be like for someone from another time to materialize in  the present moment.  Say a person from 7th century Britain suddenly materializes in the center of modern day London.  What would they see, how would they comprehend the wonders in front of them?  Would they understand the language they hear?  Armed with the sure and certain knowledge of their own time and place, what would prepare them for the transformation?  In truth, nothing could.

We all know the story of the frog and the boiling water….if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will not jump out until the heat becomes unbearable or worse, it’s too late and it does not jump out at all.  It’s about acclimatization  and adaptation to change.  And as we all know, adaptation is not mandatory and survival not guaranteed.  The past 150 years is a prime example of the leaps humanity has taken.  And yet there are still signs that the adaptation process is furtive at best, and often flawed and incomplete.

In the late ’70’s primary manufacturing (steel, automobiles, manufactured products, etc.) all but disappeared, giving way to cheaper foreign labor and materials, making immediately redundant millions who had been productive and useful to that point.  That generation is just dying out now, some never having been able to adapt and regain either usefulness or productivity.  In the 80’s and 90’s it was the advent of computers wherein virtually every office function (as well as people) could be replaced by one or two computers that could get it all done.  Generations of secretaries, clerks, book keepers….gone in 20 years…

In design, the advent of electronic drawing and 3D programs changed our work fundamentally.  On the one hand, especially with 3D imaging and 3D engineering software, it became exponentially more viable to create design variation with modest input.  Quicker to test ideas and create customized design iterations for particular situations.  The ability to create virtual 3D products expanded the range of product possibilities and with it came the advanced engineering and manufacturing to give these new ideas life beyond the screen.   Where we once did a couple of sketches, made a color board, drew a verbal picture and then developed the product, now we do multiple visual iterations of all possible design variations and permutations and “pre-sell” the concept before the sample maker ever sees it.  These changes have helped me be more productive, creative, and inventive.  They have greatly aided my success.

However, if the current socio/economic/cultural environments have not made it evident yet, if what’s happening all around us has not yet started to niggle at the psyche, just remember our friend the frog.  Aside from the explosion for information, and the availability of almost any kind of information, the myriad opportunities for real and fake information that trumps logical analysis, we are coming to a time, and very quickly, where whatever we do professionally can be replaced by an algorithm.  Think cryptocurrencies, think “a.i.” for almost any task, from self-driving cars, boats, aircraft, to 3D manufacturing….it’s here, now.

The pace and nature of the changes now upon us hit me with a punch of unwelcome reality recently, when as an aside in an “off the cuff” conversation about new product, I was told “we don’t really need a “designer”….we’ll just do some imaging and play around with a design…on “sketchup” until we like it….that’s all you guys do!”

That’s when I noticed the water was a bit warmer!

I thought…. “so, that’s it?”  Done in a sentence

Understanding the nature of design or conceptual development is no longer important?  Interpretation is algorithmic….just fiddle with the software, maybe write a “creativity” code and jump to the end?  Maybe new technology has made the creative process amorphous?  Maybe we just have to think it?  Imagine what “just thinking about it” could do for world hunger…which, given the comment and its implications might be helpful because there are going to be a lot of underemployed (and hungry) people on this planet who are going to need to eat when their livelihoods have been electronically replaced.

With the vast oversupply of product in our industry and the ability to create, duplicate, replicate, emulate anything being made or sold anywhere in the world, design has  shifted from primary creation to object curation.  Respect for the singular design(er) seems more limited unless there is a license attached for a “memed name” and a benefit can be derived by piggybacking on that opportunity.

The product glut has relegated once iconic products and design themes to ubiquitous and completely accessible in the market and available online…and this means designers will need to transform into object curators if they are to be recognized for any form of creative ability or understanding.  It’s not what may have been designed or created…but more like how things were put together to create a certain ambiance or environment.  And the actual design?  Well, it may end up being done by computers with finely tuned software and minimal human guidance.

So, what’s a designer?….these days it seems anyone who can appropriate, curate, and package the visual memes of the day and sell it as viable concept (unique not a necessity).

Who wants to know?…maybe some?  Perhaps less than  one might hope.

I am a great believer in “what was…..was”.  I don’t believe just because something has been done one way that it shouldn’t change.   I have previously written that if “design” is to survive as a viable profession, contemporary designers need to become merchants and merchandisers, using their design talent and sharp eyes to mine for and augment (as required) the vast array of objects now available.  It may be the most practical way to adapt and survive.  And if that’s it, if that’s the evolution, well, I’m good with that.

Failing that progression however, I fear that the water, having been fine until now, may be getting too warm, and this might be an appropriate moment to get out of the pot.

Remember the frog!