Sign o’ the Times

by Gonçalo Prudêncio

2008

The (not so new) interest of galleries on the work of designers has been raising a rather vivid discussion – is it design or is it art? Adding up to this, there are the companies interested on hiring designers with the sole purpose of developing (exciting-to-the-senses-art-like) products for promoting corporate identity, being very much possible to argue about its functional dimension and social relevance as everyday objects. We see it as a Sign o’ the Times! Designers struggle to find jobs, and therefore end up researching other fields of action. The same goes for the companies.

Instead of fueling the discussion, we choose to focus on a rather interesting topic latent behind this “hot” theme – how recent economical and geopolitical events can be changing the way and why goods are conceived, produced, distributed and sold.

Rome Treaty, Schengen Agreement, the end of the Cold War, Maastricht Treaty, the World Wide Web, the €uro… all contributed to a new Europe that only now begins to have its economical and political contours generically well matured among its citizens.

All the above happened inside of a period of 50 years. Historically speaking, a rather minuscule amount of time when compared to the amount of novelty coming out of it. New technologies, new possibilities, new ways of doing, new ways of perceiving, new ways of communicating and exchanging information, new, new, new… So much new, and so little time to fully grasp it. Most of our attention is being forced towards the new, and what keeps immutable goes unnoticed, is very often forgotten, and, what is even worse, it’s mistaken as new as well… Interesting times, as the Chinese would put it. Times of (cultural and social) conflict that require a lot of energy to deal with, but that will eventually lead us towards the light. We’ve had it before.

Albeit this is clearly a transversal issue to all levels in our societies, we would like to focus on the specific case of the manufacture of goods and the role of the designer in it. In particular, on how manufacture (as in made by hand) is becoming more and more brainfacture. Meaning that, in the developed World, the only work done by humans is the one,primarily, requiring the use of the brain. As for the rest, all is done (or controlled) by a machine of sorts. But the novelty doesn’t lie in here. In fact, this has been a process started by the Industrial Revolution, that now achieved a certain paradigm. If this will be the peak of it, remains still to be seen. The real novelty is what we’ll all make of it.

The fact that (local) skilled labor is not anymore an essential requirement for any given brand manufacturing goods, in sense that it can be outsourced or replaced by machines, which themselves can also be outsourced, is something new and consequent of these past 50 years’ changes and transformations. Adding up to this, (outsourced) technology, by means of economies of scale, is getting cheaper and cheaper. Skilled labor and technology, which used to make the difference between good and bad quality products, are not a key factor anymore distinguishing brands. Any brand has potential access to skilled labor and technology by means of outsourcing, and therefore potential access to high quality goods. This sets up a new paradigm, and elevates competition between brands up to a totally new level. No one is protected by national borders anymore, nor dependent on local labor and resources. As well as the markets, brand competition has also gone global.

If not quality anymore, what is this new paradigm that will distinguish brands from each other then? We would say: what do they do; how do they do it; and why do they do it. Clearly old topics already addressed several times before! But being the present context new, the old answers won’t fit anymore. We need new ones.

In theory it seems that manufacturing companies (brands) have understood this aspect rather well. In practice though, with the exception of a very few examples, the same is far from being true. We see this as a clear sign of what was written above – things are happening much too fast, for us to fully absorb them and act accordingly. It seems that the general feeling, maybe influenced by the frantic succession of new events, is pushing us to speed up our pace. Even if, here in the office, we have by professional principle not being judgmental, this has to be hardly a non-questionable attitude.

Instinct tells us that this present situation is indeed like the Chinese would call it – an interesting time. We believe it is the foundation ground for something new to come. The debate is on, and designers, as (potential) masters of brainfacture, can be key elements to it. Less used to be more, but we see it now as imperative. For a number of reasons, it is crucial that things get thoroughly thought before getting done. These interesting times call for conceptual and strategical/contextual thinking. This justifies the interest of galleries on the work of designers, and also the interest of designers in working with galleries, but questions the choice of some companies that hire designers for developing (exciting-to-the-senses-art-like) products merely for promoting corporate identity as a means of winning from their competitors. If not for other reasons, simply because that is not sustainable. The real deal, would be the manufacturing companies (brands) getting inspired by these galleries, and adding up to their business plans for dealing with the constraints of market economy, a substantial dose of conceptual and strategical/contextual thinking. There’s clearly a risk attached to this choice. But high gains, require high risks. There’s no way around this. Besides, risks, today, can be easily calculated.

The stated above represents a rather big change in commercial and marketing planning. A change that at first sight might seem going against nature. We like to think the opposite though: indeed as a going back to the real nature of design as a professional practice aimed at improving people’s life. Form still should follow function. Although, the function of an object is, today, often more complex than merely the utilitarian action it is specifically fitted or used for. For better or for worse, there are more variables to this equation that we should be well aware of in order to avoid (repeating old) mistakes. Bottom line is: this change has privileged conditions to be happening in Europe. Europe’s cultural, economical and political background is supporting it. The World looks up at Europe. It always did. The hope is us.


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