In his book, Gordon Andrews: a Designer’s Life, the Australian designer reflected on his father’s experience of designing for industry in the 1920s, and his own industrial design work undertaken in the 1940s-1960s: “ the days when my father was carefully and efficiently designing his products, the discipline had no name.”

Several factors were to help ‘give a name to’ and establish the profession of industrial design in this country. Specific tertiary training for designers was one, while the willingness of Australian manufacturing companies to use local designers was another.

Not least, the formation of professional design associations helped professionalise the role of the industrial designer. As well as ensuring their members’ interests were being looked after, these professional associations had three major goals.

They imposed standards to which all designer members had to conform. They attempted to direct the taste of the public by making educational films and arranging public lectures. They also participated on government and industry advisory groups to guide Australia’s manufacturing future.

Ulf Hard Segerstad claims in his book, Design in Scandinavia, Scandinavia’s industrial design professional associations are the world’s oldest.

The Swedish Society for Industrial Design was established in 1845, the Finnish Society of Crafts and Design in 1875, the Danish Society of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design in 1907 and the Norwegian Society of Arts and Crafts and Industrial Design in 1918.

According to Michael Bogle’s text, Design in Australia, two Australian associations pre-date these but were crafts-based only.

It was not until after 1935 that professional associations for Australian designers emerged and, despite these early Scandinavian and Finnish models, the Australian bodies chose to follow a British model.

British influences

British professional design associations influenced Australian industrial design practice in several ways. They provided a model on which the design community in the ‘provincial’ country could form its version.

In addition to this, senior members of the Australian industrial design establishment (and indeed in all countries who looked to Britain for leadership) could keep in touch with the design culture ‘at the centre’ by becoming members of the Council of Industrial Design and The Society of Industrial Artists in Britain and other British associations.

There were other British influences. Senior figures from British professional design associations often visited Australia and it typified Britain’s assumed role as design ‘centre’ culture that visiting designer Milner Gray’s visit was sponsored by the British Council.

At a lecture given at Melbourne University, Gray shared with his Australian audience definitions of industrial design terms and practices as defined by the various British professional associations.

His words were quoted in The Australian Artist (Winter 1949): “In its relations with industry the Council offers manufacturers, designers and interested bodies a general advisory service for the promotion of good design and valuable information on technical matters, new materials, new processes and so forth.

A list is maintained and continually enlarged of designers available for work in industry. Manufacturers and other employers seeking designers are invited to send their exact requirements...”

In turn, many of these functions were performed by the Australian body, the Society for Designers for Industry.  There had been two earlier professional design associations in Australia before it but the Society, which was formed in 1948 in Victoria, is generally cited as being the first major Australian body, and the beginnings of today’s Design Institute of Australia.

This Australian body echoed the words of Milner Gray in offering the following definition of the industrial designer: “one who gives professional service in determining the form and outward character of manufactured products.

His work involves consideration of the methods of manufacture and the function of design. His legitimate fields of work further include package design, advertising design and design of interiors, exhibitions and displays.”

Recent post-colonial theory has suggested that the ‘centre’ culture assumes the responsibility for originality and for language. It would appear the Australian industrial design culture was at this stage indeed following the British lead – even down to emulating the specific use of words.

The history of Australian associations

Australian industrial design practice was professionalised by the formation of an increasing number of design associations to represent the industry. One of the earliest professional groups in Australia was the Women’s Industrial Art Society in 1935. This was followed in 1939 by the Design and Industries Association.

At this time founding member R. Haughton James, in his article entitled “The Designer in Industry”, argued that it was up to professional associations to lead the way in public education of industrial design issues, as art galleries had in his view failed in their task - “Fine art galleries savour too much of that bogus figure, the bearded artist. Everything must be done to demonstrate that good design is for ordinary people in the ordinary things in their own homes.”

In 1940 the Australian Commercial and Industrial Artists’ Association was founded. Eight years later The Society for Designers for Industry emerged as yet another professional body.

While this body was primarily concerned with raising professional standards, art educator Joseph Burke claimed it was also interested in public education through educational projects, exhibitions and publications.

Historian Judith O’Callaghan claims The Society of Interior Designers was established in 1951 and the Industrial Design Institute of Australia in 1958. The relationships between the various bodies are a web of alliances and breakaway groups.

By 1958 a promotional body (one stage on from these professional associations) emerged – the Industrial Design Council (the word ‘Australia’ was later added to the title and the acronym IDCA formed).

The IDCA was directly modelled on the British Council of Industrial Design. The IDCA had a showroom at 21 Degraves Street, Melbourne, where the public could

view the ‘Design Index’ to seek advice about consumer purchases that the IDCA approved. Later, this public resource moved to the Gas and Fuel Building in Flinders Street, and then to Victoria Parade in the Department of Commerce building, Melbourne, before relocating to Sydney.

As well as “the purpose of encouraging better design in Australian-made goods and fostering an appreciation of good design in the community”, the Council organised promotional and educational activities.

The IDCA also had an interest in furthering industrial design education in Australia and, for example, in 1968, conspicuously supported the University of New South Wales’ proposals for the country’s first post-graduate course in industrial design.

Growing maturity – the 1963 Design Congress

The IDCA organised Australia’s first Design Congress held in Melbourne in 1963, at which a wide range of industrial design and manufacturing themes were discussed. The desire to create an Australian industrial design sensibility was a common theme at the event.

Australian industrial design culture’s ‘provincial’ relationship with Britain was stressed often in the language used by the participants in the Congress discussions. Echoing the title of “Britain Can Make It”, many at the Congress urged that “Australia can make it”, or that “Australian can design it”.

That this British phrase should be reworked nearly twenty years later attests to the strong British industrial design lead Australia continued to follow.

The rising power of Japan was acknowledged at the 1963 Congress. This parallels the greater presence of Japanese goods at various Australian trade shows, the participation of Japanese car companies in Australian motor sport, and the general inroads of Japanese industrial design products into Australian consumer markets at this time.

Prominent local designer Colin Barrie claimed: “Japan... was considered the grand copyist. But in recent years, you have seen remarkable designs coming from that source. Remarkable in the appearance, the factors of aesthetics, and of course invention which is the basis of industry.”

Another important theme explored at the 1963 Design Congress was based on the need to “Buy Australian”. According to Walter Scott the message was clear: “We have some very strong retail groups, who, to a large degree, can dictate the policy of our design.

"They also prefer to sell merchandise which has on it ‘made under licence’ from somewhere else. So therefore... if we are to encourage our own design, the Council (Industrial Design Council of Australia) has got to give consideration to encouraging people in Australia to not only buy ‘Made in Australia’ but buy ‘designed in Australia’...”.

Most of these discussions were inspired by the British film Profit by Design and it is significant that a British film was shown in preference to the many Australian films about industrial design issues that had been made by that time. These included Geoffery Collings’ 1950 film By Design and Robin Boyd’s Design in Australia of 1961.


The Design Institute of Australia (DIA) is the current professional design body in this country representing industrial designers, interior designers and graphic designers and was formed in 1983 from the amalgamation of earlier, smaller groups (notably The Design and Industries Association and The Society for Designers for Industry).

The Institute has an office of design education and initiated the journals Design in Australia and Designer Dialect. The DIA was largely modelled on the British SIAD. Some Australian designers and educators also had membership of this British body.

From the end of WWII to the mid-1960s, thanks in part to the various activities of professional design associations, design activity in Australia was at last transformed into a distinct profession – known to us as industrial design.  

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