design's evolving role

What is design?

The seeds of what has evolved into modern design practice were sown 200 years ago with the outbreak of the industrial revolution.

This is too short a time period in which to formulate the ethical canon and community cohesion required to establish elevated professional status. The establishment in the twentieth century of national designer associations, and later international associations, represented the first steps on the pathway to professionalism. Initially, these entities focused on more technical codes of practice reflecting traditional focus on the contractual relationships between designers and commercial clients, and to each other, within the confines of that traditional, consumption-based market model.

The twenty-first century has brought into high relief the limits of the traditional consumption-based market model, and especially its potential negative social, cultural and environmental consequences. Designers play a critical role in that consumption-based market model, are complicit in all the shortfalls. All the plastic micro-particles in the oceans have the fingerprints of designers on them. Designers create the cultural stereotypes that drive market trends. Designers are involved in material and production sourcing that have formidable social, economic and environmental implications.

Originally designers applied new technologies to create new products. Then they became agents of 'growth' through ever-expanding consumption by generating stereotypes of 'success' and objects of 'desire'. This market model has become stupendously successful - with sometimes destructive social, cultural and environmental implications. Designers have become arbiters of culture, lifestyle and consumption, and thereby complicit in the associated shortfalls.

All of these forces have caused designers to re-examine their roles. “Designers, too long the servants of producers, better serve humanity as the ambassadors of the end-users” (Montréal Design Declaration). In the 19th century, the designer-producer-user relationship was established, in which designers served producers - who dictated which products would be mass-produced and merchandised to an expanding consumer class. The resulting harmful ramifications make the traditional model unsustainable. The 21st century capacities of designers make them potent ambassadors of the end-users, able to develop innovative products and services that promise “economic viability, social equity, environmental sustainability and cultural diversity” (Montréal Design Declaration). Importantly, this multifaceted capacity to represent the end-users, and to serve as a gatekeeper in terms of technology and the protection of the environment, enhances the value of the designers to enlightened producers, raising their status and influence.

This fundamental change in perspective is the key to establishing true professional recognition, based on a coherent ethical canon and culture of professional practice.