Kevin Henry, Associate Professor, Director of Product Design
Columbia College Chicago
The process behind design has become the focus of much attention over the past decade or so. There seems to be genuine interest beyond the presence of the artifact to the process that created it. Shelter magazines carry more information now than ever on process while the books by Mel Byars (50 Chairs, 50 Beds, etc.) which were some of the first such publications outside of hands-on model making or technical rendering books to focus on process have been joined now by numerous others including the IDSA’s own Design Secrets: Products 50 Real-life Projects Uncovered. There have been a significant number of design shows in major museums this past year alone ranging from Mood River at the Wexner in Columbus Ohio, to the Vital Forms show at The Walker Art Center and the Design and Industry show in Toledo. Two years ago the Smithsonian through their branch at the Cooper Hewitt museum launched Design Culture Now and is currently running the Skin exhibit. The Mint Museum dedicated a show to design and process in 2001 which garnered praise for its exposure of the fullness of design. There is no doubt that the public is interested in the process that brings so many of the products we love (and hate) to light and that many other shows, articles and exhibitions have come and gone and will continue to do so oblivious to pop culture’s radar. Process is such a critical part of the education of a designer and as such reveals to the public much of the hidden treasures of design; namely the multi-disciplinary nature of teams grappling with deadlines, technology and the ever elusive consumer.
I for one have been a strong advocate of process as a teaching tool but had been frustrated over the past decade with the lack of good books and exhibits focusing on that aspect of design and instead emphasizing the visual commodity as a trophy of consumer culture and technology which makes the developments in the past couple of years all the more refreshing. As designers, methodology is what drives our profession allowing us to tackle so many types of consumer products with the same assurance that a successful solution may be found for each individual case through research, ideation, prototyping and the knowledge that design experience brings. Trying to bring that dynamic into the classroom with little of no visuals has made it a tough sell. Design continues to be celebrated in the public through its association with celebrity and the need to identify the product with a creative individual when in fact it is usually a diverse team effort that has brought a product to market. This long process does not fit into bite size portions for media consumption very easily but instead requires the public to look hard at all the steps and phases if they are to understand product development and the industrial designers’ profession. I am certain that most design faculty have copies of the IDEO Nightline segment that focused heavily on the process of design and use it as proof of the process. But for every such instance of a complex and democratic design practice we are confronted with ten examples of the personality cult of design- be it Phillipe Starck and his work for Target or some relative unknown at the ICFF or Milan Furniture Fair. The press thrives on personality and design suffers. If designers are to be taken seriously for designing thoughtful and well designed/manufactured products than that process must be better understood and documented for all of its richness and complexity.