Design promotion, both planned and accidental, is creating an excess supply of participants in the industry with inadequate training, employment opportunities, post-tertiary mentoring, status and earning potential.
A recent survey conducted by the Design Institute of Australia, designers’ professional body, recorded competition as the major concern of the design sector closely followed by concerns about inadequate standards in the industry, poor standard of education, deteriorating working conditions, lack of recognition of design skills and poor awareness of the role and benefits of designers.
Designers called for more promotion of design as the solution to this problem. This defies all logic.
The broad promotion of design is directly responsible for the problems we now see in the industry and the problems professional designers face in their efforts to negotiate a reasonable outcome for their investment in their chosen career.
Having made these provocative statements, I hope you’ll stick with me while I explore the issue in less black and white assertions and propose some solutions.
The relative value that the community places on a designer is historically well entrenched and is made up of a variety of factors.
The first of these is the community’s learnt experience observing the skills and academic competence of future designers as they pass through primary and secondary school.
The second is observations made by that portion of the community, both family and industry, that watches them progress through a relatively undemanding vocational tertiary education.
Thirdly, as they enter industry, employers are confronted with the realisation that they have, in general, none of the vocational skills of a trained draftsperson or the scientific and analytical skills of an engineer and that a great deal of post-tertiary training will be required to generate manufacturable output from them.
Fourthly, add to this the economic issues of supply and demand, an oversupply of applicants and a limited supply and need of industrial design positions.
Finally add the constant media reinforcement of the superficial, fashionable and impractical aspects of design and the celebration of the designer as artist, eccentric and prima-donna. Is it any wonder designers struggle for recognition, status and remuneration.
How did it come to this? The short answer is fifty years of promotion of design coupled with major societal and technological changes.
Since WWII there has been a progressive push to establish industrial design as an essential component of industry in Australia. The founding of the professional body in 1947 and the formation of the Design Council of Australia in 1958 cemented the arrival of industrial design in Australia.
The role of education
The progressive formation of tertiary design courses in Australia through the technical institutes, art schools and tertiary colleges produced a growing population of industrial designers selling the benefits of design to industry as an alternative approach to product development.
Teacher trainees began taking design subjects to enable the introduction of design to primary and secondary students. Curriculum change in primary and secondary schools introduced design as a contemporary alternative to technical drawing and art classes.
In the workplace increasing mechanisation of our society has progressively removed manual labour jobs. Advancing technology and automation has successively altered, then made redundant many technical trade areas.
Tertiary education, presented as a way out of menial and low skilled employment and then as an essential education stage to beat the unemployment queue, inexorably expanded to accommodate the social and economic demand.
Increasing funding pressures on tertiary education bodies meant higher student to staff ratios, reduced contact hours and a resulting lowering of course content.
Design aware secondary students approaching tertiary education created a great demand for design courses further boosting the supply of design education in the community.
So the mass of design courses and the flood of design graduates and the unchecked competition in the industry is a direct consequence of the process of promoting design as an important component of our society and a viable career option.
What can be done? Firstly we must understand the path that has brought us here; the societal, technological and economic forces that have formed the current design industry.
Secondly we must be clear about our desired aims. If community awareness of design is our aim then no action needs to be taken and we must accept the personal downside that this brings to our working lives including high levels of competition and low pay levels.
If better outcomes for practising designers is our aim, then we need to have a clear focus on actions that will not simply drive an increased supply of participants in the industry.
What actions will improve outcomes for designers and where can they come from? Actions exist at two levels; those that improve outcomes for a portion of the design community and those that affect the whole.
The DIA is an example of a mechanism that produces direct benefits for a portion of the design community. As an Australia wide network of professional designers it channels information, builds relationships and provides services that can directly enhance the outcomes for designers who participate in it.
It develops and provides targeted mechanisms such as client referrals, business information, industry data, CPD programs and status differentiators such as post nominals and the term ‘Accredited Designer’. The DIA is an example of the design industry taking responsibility for its own improvement.
Making positive changes
To concentrate only on enhanced outcomes for a small portion of existing practitioners would be selling design short. In practice the professional body has always had a broader responsibility than just its members.
Actions that can produce a positive outcome for the whole design community all centre around education. Not the education of the public but the education of designers themselves at both tertiary and post-tertiary levels.
Many of the concerns that designers have about their industry are a direct consequence of inadequate education in the nature of business, competition and the commercial environment and a flawed understanding of the role of a professional.
There are high levels of concern in the design sector about the effectiveness of design education and the level of knowledge it transmits. At tertiary level, changes to the relative rigor and structure of the educational process bring about changes both to the preparation level of graduates and the profile of entrants to the course.
Post-tertiary changes are also required of designers themselves. There must be a willingness from designers to adopt a higher standard of professional practice driven by an understanding of post tertiary educational needs if we are to achieve the industry aims of greater status and reward.
It’s important not to forget or underestimate the opportunities for industry improvement represented by the individual designer.
Encouraging skill improvement amongst designers by identifying common industry deficiencies and directing information via industry reports, practice notes, seminars, information networks and conferences can all enable designers to both achieve better personal outcomes and improve the reputation of the industry.
If designers are serious about wanting change in the design industry or better recognition and reward for themselves, the immediate way to achieve it is by personal education and change.
By making a conscious effort to expand our knowledge of the business and professional environment we operate in and by taking personal responsibility for the health of industry development mechanisms, like the professional body, we can ensure positive change within our own professional careers.
Promotion is not the way to a healthy design profession. Information, education and personal development are. Don’t sell design short.