The designer as collaborator (Jeremy Myerson)
Jane Pavitt: So without further ado I would like to introduce my first provocateur - lovely term, isn’t it - Jeremy Myerson. Jeremy, as I’m sure you all know, is director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre and Professor of Design Studies here at the college. He’s been a writer, broadcaster, curator, an educator in design for, for many years, and his chosen topic tonight is going to be The Designer’s Collaborator in a Co-Design Process.
Jeremy Myerson: Thank you. Well, good evening, everybody. I have been thinking about the subject of design authorship for quite a long time, and I’m... I think you’ve picked up my notes. [Laughter].
And even though I’ve been thinking of it for a long time, I can’t keep it in my head [laughter] for two minutes. But when I first started talking to the contemporary team of the V& A, they were kind of thinking, where do designers fit in? Is there still a role for designers as tastemakers, as the sole artistic author? And this whole issue around design authorship in an increasingly kind of complex world. Can designers still look out and, and be the masters of their own kind of creative destiny? And this is a very, very interesting subject, and I’ve been thinking about it for quite a long while.
A number of years ago I did a series of books which sold very well at the V& A, incidentally, Conran Octopus, called The Conran Design Guides to the Twentieth Century; I wrote them with a writer called Sylvia Katz.
And what we did, with Terence Conan’s very close involvement, personal involvement, was sit down and try and do a chronological, art-historical survey of various artefacts through the 20th century and pick the key designers and the key objects. And we did it in lighting; we did it in tableware; we did it in kitchenware, and one or two other categories.
And, and of course if you take something like lighting, you know, at the beginning of the century all goes swimmingly, this, this approach: you know, Lalique, Tiffany, Wachenfeld and the Bauhaus, who’s on the cover, and so on and so forth. Where it all began to fall apart was in the late 1980s when lighting becomes so complex: such an engineering problem, so much new science, so many different inputs, that it becomes very, very difficult to pick the sole artistic…; to find out the kind of key breakthroughs. And luckily the books ended in 1990 when they were published; otherwise I think we would have been in big trouble. Because the story of the last 15-odd years has been one of the architect before, no longer the master-builder, the designer - and here I become provocative - getting lost in a kind of new creative space, which is becoming very crowded.
Now, of course we still have design heroes. Here is one, Peter Schreier, who gained an honorary doctorate as a graduate of the college, an automotive designer, for his work on the Audi TT. When you study the design of the Audi TT, and how it was developed, and what went actually on inside the company, there are photographs of 40, 50 people who claim design authorship of this car. Which bit did Peter Schreier really do? You know he did some of the early drawings, and he talked about the influence of the Bauhaus on the shape of the car, and so on and so forth. But, you know, a modern industrial artefact like the car has a - success has many fathers and failure is an orphan, and this was a humungous success and - which bit can he claim sole authorship? Well, perhaps yes; perhaps not, but those of us who, who are involved in the automotive industry and modern cars know that from any product launch or from any presentation, the teams are huge.
And on the left you’ve got the Ford Verve and the team around that. And on the top right, you’ve got your McCallum and the team from Jaguar: just one of a small number of people. And of course the team members in producing this are not necessarily designers; the creative auteurs in the traditional sense: all kinds of different inputs are in there, and so design is becoming a multi-disciplinary team-base event, lasting, in which different teams of people come in over different periods of time, and it’ s extremely complex. And so the idea… if you go back to the museum setting of saying, well this person was responsible for this artefact, it becomes a very, very fraught enterprise.
And if that wasn’t complicated enough, then you get the phenomenon of the user, the customer, the consumer, playing a role in the development, and even the design process. There’s a very good book by Eric von Hippel called Democratizing Innovation, in which he says that the user is now the most powerful agent in the creative process. If you take something in an industry like kite surfing, extreme sports - it’s not something I do myself, but those who do kite surfing say it’s amazing - manufacturers nowadays are little more than receivers from very powerful user-groups who talk to each other through social networks on the web and what they do is they e-mail in their specification: make it like this, and if you don’ t make it like this, there is no market for this product.
And the guy on the, the guy on the right is Lego Mindstorms. Now, if you were to put Lego Mindstorms into the V& A Contemporary Design exhibition and label it from the Lego Company, it wouldn’t be the whole story. Because Lego thought they were designing a construction toy for 12-year-olds. What happened was that adult hackers hacked into the software, completely rewrote the software and turned these toys into savage killing machines. And all over the world now, there are Lego Mindstorm meets where people are actually coming together and having these battles, and it’s become an international craze, led by consumers in a way that was unintended by the company and the company’s designers. And in the end, Lego invited representatives from the user groups to go to Finland and Denmark and sit down and write the next specification of software and hardware, so the customers designed the next product.
And this is not an isolated outbreak. All over the world I know there will be the counter-arguments about designers’ art and the signature designers and all of that; I’d argue that’s a very small niche part of the market. The big part of the market now is increasingly sophisticated, quantitative techniques: not just to ask customers what they want, but to engage customers in the creative process, and this happening all over the world, in lots of different contexts, in lots of different product sectors.
So not only have you got a world of co-design; of user-led creation. And I know John Thackara is not here tonight, but if he were, he’d talk about the work of Dott 07 festival in Gateshead where they designed with the local community, projects, design projects through the Design Council, to do with urban farming, mental health, alternative energy, and so on.
So we’re in a very interesting stage in the development of the designer, and it’s really not what one would have perceived when I was elegantly lining up all those Tiffany and Lalique lamps several years ago. We had a conference at the RCA last year, called Include, and the speaker on the left is Jane Fulton-Suri, the head of Human Factors and I know that she’s British, but she’s based in San Francisco, and she gave a very provocative paper. And she said we’ve gone from designing for people to designing with, and by, people. And she said there’s now a conversation taking place between the makers of product services and systems and the people who use them, that has been unheard of since the craft era: we are entering a kind of new craft era.
The person on the right is Paula Dib, a Brazilian designer, who works an incredible company called trans.forma design, works in Brazil, and she goes to impoverished, southern, rural communities, and works with the local community. She finds that she uses their waste; she uses local pigments and dyes, whatever plants are available, and they create craft objects. They design them; they make them as a community, and then they take them on buses up to the large northern Brazilian cities, where they sell them in galleries. It’s absolutely fascinating what is going on in this process.
So, I think that what I would throw into the mix this evening is that there is a big question mark over where the designer is running. In an age of multi-disciplinarity, of co-design, designers are now sharing the creative space with scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs within the company, and with customers outside it. And the lines are blurred, and authorship is contested. And that asks a lot of very serious and searching questions on how museums collect for display contemporary designing. So I’ll stop there.