Like Tom Wolfe before him in the early 1980s, Bruce Nussba is correct in claiming that some designers are both arrogant and ignorant. Tom Wolfe’s target was similar: the group of émigré architects from the Bauhaus that came to the USA in the 1930s and created the International Style in architecture. Nussbaum is far less acerbic than Wolfe in his attack, and his target is much less specific. So let’s be specific.
There is a tradition of design education, largely in graphic design and architecture, that traces its thinking back to the Bauhaus, a school of design which flourished briefly in Germany between 1919 and 1933. Its founders had big and sometimes worthy ambitions, but they were predominantly arrogant, ignorant and in some cases wacky. The tradition they established produced generations of arrogant and ignorant designers from design schools throughout the world.
But it is a tradition on the wane. We are seeing some design schools taking a much broader range of ideas and thinking to guide their teaching. The designers emerging from these schools are neither arrogant nor ignorant. Indeed they are highly-skilled, innovative, well-informed, and thoughtful people who work in teams and punch way above their weight when it comes to business ROI. I know these people exist because I work with them and employ some of them. They are responsible for highly successful design projects, and they lead the way in advanced research into design that an Institute like ours undertakes. They are usually trained as information designers but not necessarily called that.
Sadly, there are still many designers locked in the Bauhaus tradition of designers as heroes: individuals endowed with unique aesthetic sensibility that transcends mere mortal sensibility and creates objects of lasting value, beyond criticism. Graphis Press has been celebrating these ‘heroes’ for decades. Not surprisingly, to the rest of us, they seem arrogant. And the relatively hermetic way in which they are trained—with a predominant emphasis on studio work—leaves them ignorant of the wider world in which they look for work.
All this backward-looking commentary and criticism in the press and blogosphere misses what designers at the leading edge of the profession are achieving, what the research on design methods and practices has achieved, and what it may lead to in the future. For example, at the Vision+ conference in July 2007 business, government, and designers will see what is happening at the leading edge: designers not only make measurable improvements in an organisation’s performance and ROI, but are now at the point where they can specify and achieve measurable minimum performance standards for new designs. This will have a significant effect on professional design practice and on the expectations of business practice regulators, who will start to require these high standards from business.
If I were in business or the business press I would stop whinging about the inadequacy of the previous generation and look at what is happening now.