Thanks to a convergence of creativity, technology and big money, the heyday of the field may finally be upon us.
The golden age of design has been heralded many times over the past couple of decades — four, by my count. Now, this previous momentum paired with technology, community and big business has fueled something new: an unprecedented belief in the power of design to not only elevate an idea, but be the idea.
First, at the turn of the 21st century, it became a democratic affair. Everyday objects were made more beautiful and more readily accessible, and suddenly it was no longer acceptable for things to be unnecessarily unattractive. Moment two arrived soon after, by way of products such as the iPod, which exemplified the possibility of form as actual function. “Design,” Steve Jobs told me in 2003, is “not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” And the business world took note of what design could do for profits.
As the aughts advanced, it occurred to people that if design could make products work better, it might also be able to make the world work better. Design was heralded as a creator of social change: Magazines like Good spread the word about its impact on humanity and politics; the Cooper Hewitt museum staged a show in 2007 called “Design for the Other 90%,” and a popular T-shirt from the period read: “Design Will Save the World.” Finally, a fourth moment: The advent of social media made clear that the masses not only responded to design; they cared about it enough to speak up. A new Gap logo was attacked by online mobs, and Tropicana scrapped a redesign of its orange-juice packaging after a public rebuke.
These days, engineering-centric Silicon Valley sees design as something that no longer just adds value, but actually creates it. Last year, Nest Labs, maker of the sleekly styled smart thermostat, was purchased by Google for $3.2 billion. This was not just a staggering amount of money for a company that specializes in household objects; it was Google’s second most expensive acquisition ever. The industrial designer Yves Béhar, who is behind the elegant Jawbone Up fitness tracker, sometimes takes equity stakes in start-ups he works with rather than payment. Instead of thinking of himself as an outside consultant, Béhar invests in companies that invest in design, banking on their future growth.
The idea that design can generate profit is now being embraced by venture capitalists, too — that rarefied class known for its relentless focus on the marketplace as the ultimate arbiter of value. The well-regarded Silicon Valley venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers raised eyebrows last year by bringing in John Maeda, the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, as a partner. The firm has noticed more designers starting companies with the help of engineers, rather than the other way around.
Kleiner’s Mike Abbott points to the Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who moved from software to hardware when he founded Square, the seamlessly designed product that lets anyone take credit-card payments through a smartphone. Similarly, the home-sharing firm Airbnb’s systematic thinking and simple user interface have made it immensely popular — and earned it a $10 billion valuation. (Two of its founders are RISD graduates.) Smart design is intrinsic to its success.
“People who make things generally have not been in the seat of power,” Maeda argues, “because they’re busy making things.” But he believes that’s starting to change, and that eventually people like Airbnb’s co-founders will bring design-based thinking to mainstream business practices.
This design moment is also about a different marketplace — that of ideas.
The influential MoMA senior architecture and design curator Paola Antonelli believes that one of design’s most important functions is “to help people deal with change.” Her exhibitions have featured projects such as the EyeWriter, a pair of glasses outfitted with eye-tracking technology that lets a user “draw” with his eyes. Created for a paralyzed artist, the product is a collaboration between technologists and designers, and relies on open-source software. It has no commercial ambitions. It’s simply a sharp example of an expressive designed object.
We’re living in a time of “acknowledged urgency,” Antonelli says, and pragmatic fields from science to politics to business are looking to design for “inspiration, alternative processes, metaphor and a bit of uplift.” (“Delight” has become a buzzword in Silicon Valley.) As a result, design has become incredibly multifaceted in recent years, encompassing subfields such as interaction design, critical design, environmental design, social design, biodesign and service design, to name just a few. It’s become a medium for expressing ideas, raising provocative questions and addressing social and individual anxieties.
So is design a business builder or idea spreader? Both, often at the same time.
In earlier moments, the democratization of design was about what we could buy. Now it’s about what we can make and how we can sell. The online marketplace Etsy has redefined how small-scale makers can earn a living, or at least subsidize a creative hobby. Last year, the site hosted more than a million active shops. According to a 2012 survey, nearly a fifth of Etsy sellers considered running their creative businesses their full-time job. Crowdfunding services like Kickstarter also enable aspiring design entrepreneurs to find support for their projects. One breakaway success was an early-stage “smart watch” called Pebble, which could connect to smartphones, display emails and text messages and even run apps. Two years ago, without the backing of an established company — let alone venture capitalists — its founders raised more than half a million dollars in a matter of hours, eventually bringing in $10 million to develop the watch. As Maeda observed, today’s design student may be less interested in building a portfolio than in simply crowdfunding an idea.
Allan Chochinov, head of the Products of Design graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, talks about how design has moved “from the aesthetic, to the strategic, to the participatory.” In his thinking, the “open source” ideology we normally associate with certain corners of tech culture has made its way into design. Engineering and design are melding; code-y enterprises are making objects; and object makers are hardwiring all kinds of things with code. Young designers need to be conversant in tools like the Arduino platform (inexpensive hardware for programming interactive objects) and customizable Raspberry Pi computers (credit card-sized circuit boards that can plug into monitors and keyboards). Style, functionality and engineering are now one and the same, and even mundane objects are virtuously designed.
What is certain is that all these combined elements — style, function, social impact, creativity and profit motive — have yielded an original vision of what design is and why it matters. Design has fundamentally changed the way we experience the world, from the way we interact with objects to our expectations about how organizations are structured. It’s a new and exciting moment for design — that is, until the next one comes along.