8/9/13 - the democratization of design

In today's selection -- contemporary manufacturers have largely mastered production and costs, so how do they distinguish themselves to consumers? Daniel Pink argues that it is with design. The evidence of this change is in the collaboration between design powerhouses and mass market store brands such as Macy's, JCPenney, and Target.

"For businesses, it's no longer enough to create a product that's reasonably priced and adequately functional. It must also be beautiful, unique, and meaningful, abiding what author Virginia Postrel calls 'the aesthetic imperative.' Perhaps the most telling example of this change ... [w]orld-famous designers ... now design all manner of goods for [a] quintessentially middle-class, middle-brow, middle-American store [Target]. Target and other retailers have sold nearly three million units of Rashid's Garbo molded polypropylene wastebasket. A designer wastebasket! ...

"Or how about this item ... a toilet brush designed by Michael Graves, a Princeton University architecture professor and one of the most renowned architects and product designers in the world. The cost: $5.99. Only against a backdrop of abundance could so many people seek beautiful trash cans and toilet brushes -- converting mundane, utilitarian products into objects of desire.

"In an age of abundance, appealing only to rational, logical, and functional needs is woefully insufficient. Engineers must figure out how to get things to work. But if those things are not also pleasing to the eye or compelling to the soul, few will buy them. There are too many other options. Mastery of design, empathy, play, and other seemingly 'soft' aptitudes is now the main way for individuals and firms to stand out in a crowded marketplace. ...

"From the moment some guy in a loincloth scraped a rock against a piece of flint to create an arrowhead, human beings have been designers. Even when our ancestors were roaming the savannah, our species has always harbored an innate desire for novelty and beauty. Yet for much of history, design (and especially its more intimidating cousin, Design) was often reserved for the elite, who had the money to afford such frivolity and the time to enjoy it. The rest of us might occasionally dip our toes into significance, but mostly we stayed at the utility end of the pool.

"In the last few decades, however, that has begun to change. Design has become democratized. If you don't believe me, take this test. Below are three type fonts. Match the font on the left with the correct font name on the right.

1. A Whole New Mind

a. Times New Roman

2. A Whole New Mind

b. Arial

3. A Whole New Mind

c. Courier New

The correct answers are: 1-b, 2-c, 3-a

"My guess, having conducted this experiment many times in the course of researching this book, is that most of you completed the task quickly and correctly. But had I posed this challenge, say, twenty-five years ago, you probably wouldn't have had a clue. Back then, fonts were the specialized domain of typesetters and graphic designers, something that regular folks like you and me scarcely recognized and barely understood. Today we live and work in a new habitat. ...

"Fonts, of course, are just one aspect of the democratization of design. ... Target ... has gone even further in democratizing design, often obliterating the distinction between high fashion and mass merchandise, as it has with its Isaac Mizrahi clothing line. In the pages of The New York Times, Target advertises its $3.49 Philippe Starck spill-proof baby cup alongside ads for $5,000 Concord LaScala watches and $30,000 Harry Winston diamond rings. ...

"The mainstreaming of design has infiltrated beyond the commercial realm. It's no surprise that Sony has four hundred in-house designers. But how about this? There are sixty designers on the staff of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And while God is bringing artists into the room, Uncle Sam is redoing the room itself. The General Services Administration, which oversees the construction of U.S. government buildings, has a 'Design Excellence' program that aims to turn drab federal facilities into places more pleasant to work in and more beautiful to view. Even U.S. diplomats have responded to the age's new imperatives. In 2004, the U.S. State Department declared that it was abandoning the font it had used for years -- Courier New 12 -- and replacing it with a new standard font that would henceforth be required in all documents: Times New Roman 14. The internal memorandum announcing the change explained that the Times New Roman font 'takes up almost exactly the same area on the page as Courier New 12, while offering a crisper, cleaner, more modern look.' What was more remarkable than the change itself -- and what would have been unthinkable had the change occurred a generation ago -- was that everybody in the State Department understood what the memo was talking about.


Daniel H. Pink


A Whole New Mind


Riverhead Books a division of Penguin Group


Copyright 2005, 2006 by Daniel H. Pink


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