Todd Zerger responds

I received a very thoughtful email from Todd Zerger, in response to my BusinessWeek column, A Competitive Nation, by Design. I enjoyed reading his viewpoint and opinion and asked him for permission to blog it. I’ve edited his salutations and embarrassingly fulsome praise for readability 🙂

[…] Design has always been harder to quantify than science,
business or technology so I am not surprised the issue has not
penetrated the lovely, but thick marble walls in Washington.
 
I
appreciate your concern over the failure to develop a national design
policy in the rush to develop one for the sciences. I am not an expert
on the matter other than that I have successfully lived by my creative
wits for the last 17 years working as a designer, art director and
creative director. With that in mind, I would like to contribute my
thoughts on two points: the idea of a national policy as a strategy for
improving design and the notion of design as an international
competition.
 
The
West seems bent on perceiving developing countries as a threat to our
way of life. Laboring their way out from under the vestiges of the
imperial epoch I can imagine those countries feel a bit threatened by
the West in return. This kind of tension, it has been explained to me,
promotes healthy growth in the sciences and technology as competitive
endeavors. Submarines, the A-bomb, Agent Orange, night vision goggles
and even computers to name just a few things, were developed under this
paradigm. They are impressive achievements without a doubt, regardless
of whether they leave us better off or not. The Atom Bomb is a
particularly intriguing example of the sort of process the rush of
competition leads us through. When they detonated the first prototype
there was a slim chance in the creators’ minds that they might kick off
a chain reaction that would not stop until the Universe itself was
destroyed. That is a bug that would give even Microsoft pause. For
bicycle racing and the 100-yard dash, competition is just the thing and
I embrace it. For the improvement of the human condition I think we
would do better to embrace collaboration instead.
 
So,
the cat’s out of the bag. I believe good design can serve to improve
the human condition. The process of doing so may cause some unexpected
and unnerving consequences however.
 

One
of the unintended consequences the global economy we are talking about
may cause is increased ambivalence to the traditional allegiances. What
does made or designed in America even mean? Consumers become wary of
such claims when they learn the requirements are fuzzy. And what really
is the value of nationalism to me as a consumer? If it’s not a good
product I won’t buy it just because it was made in America. If it is a
good product I’ll buy it for its excellence not because of where it was
made. Apple’s pride at the made in America stamp is admirable and well
deserved yet it is a bit more like celebrating a victory than creating
one. The iPod is a brilliant piece of design and would probably be very
successful if it were the product of another country. We need look no
further than its venerable predecessor the Walkman to affirm that
suspicion. And yet, the interesting difference is that Sony did not
expect the Walkman would be a hit while Apple set out to create one
using deep insights into the way people interact with products and the
way music has become such an important part of our identities.
 
Therefore,
I would argue that successful design doesn’t come from places it comes
from understanding. Should I be worried that nations are competitive
whether I wish it or not? Maybe, but I am not worried about my job as a
designer being outsourced to China or India or even to Europe for that
matter and the reason is built right into the nature of successful
design’s dependence on understanding.
 
Design
is a response to a specific problem employing a solution that causes
action. This is well known of course and the countries of the world are
already collaborating and creating wondrous design by taking advantages
of our differences. Those differences; our histories, environments,
governments, customs, languages, color psychology, jokes, and on and
on, allow us to bring unique insight to design problems but they also
make the process of designing for a given culture something of an
inside job. An Indian advertising genius can’t make curry a nutritious
part of my breakfast any more than I can make steak a staple of the
Indian dinner table. In advertising we know you sell the sizzle, not
the steak, but we also know you need global offices staffed with local
talent to understand what sizzles. While I worked for one of the
largest global advertising agencies I never considered offices in other
countries competitors. When we had time to consider each other at all
we were impressed with each other’s talents and occasionally managed to
partner to win new business or solve a particularly thorny problem. We
bumped into each other at conferences and award shows. Governments
compete but the tendency of designers is to inspire and collaborate.
 
Which
brings me to my second concern. Can the United States Government; that
internally conflicted entity responsible for such paradoxes as tax
rebates concurrent to benefit cuts, be expected to improve the quality
of Design in this country? How would they do it? Everything the
government does is complicated, takes forever and finally arrives laden
with attached strings. If they give money to the great land grant
universities for instance it will be distributed according to the usual
plethora of constraints. Cut so fine it won’t make the kind of
difference we are talking about. Maybe they’ll dream up something like
design vouchers but they will doubtlessly approach the issue from a
motivational rather than inspirational angle. Do we want designers
addicted to subsidies the way agribusiness is? Paid not to design
another cool vacuum cleaner so Dyson can maintain market share? No,
government is a blunt instrument and designers favor X-acto knives.
 
Nonetheless, I would love to see a national emphasis
on good design. It would be wonderful to see Americans embrace the
insightful beauty of clever products, sustainable architecture,
immersive interactive experiences and the like. Frank Lloyd Wright
championed this cause when he established his Taliesin schools in the
great tradition of the Bauhaus in Europe. But, who can champion design
in the United States today? You need the level of personality that
Wright or Buckminster Fuller could bring to bear. Frank Gehry comes to
mind. But the trick about being behind the curve is that the field of
Design is short on household names. The institutions you mention are
already working on this problem. The AIGA has done some terrific
thinking about the value that design can bring to business through
partnership, but does not have the kind of budget that makes miracles
happen. Lots of the great design work is done at firms who rely on the
power of collaboration I mentioned above. Can we expect the giants like
Pentagram, Frog Design and IDEO to lead the charge? Has anyone asked
them too? Perhaps we can rightly expect industry to champion design.
They have a direct stake in the success of their products and as the
New York Times Magazine has pointed out; when technology is ubiquitous
design is the new differentiator. Yet the most frequent laments I hear
as a designer are that clients often don’t understand good design when
they see it and that they don’t much like to fund it.
 
So, I’ve come full circle without suggesting a solution, which is breaking the first rule of article writing I believe.
 
In
a nutshell what I believe is this. Government can and should assist but
cannot and should not drive the process. Companies that produce
wonderful works of design are already rewarded with great sales figures
but should be further rewarded for their stewardship of a national
design movement. The Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval once served a
similar purpose. On the other hand, like schools that fail to teach
kids to read we should consider consequences for companies that debase
the movement. They diminish us all and we have a responsibility to be
outraged. We should stop the ridiculous revolving lawsuit game that is
currently played in favor of a legitimate threat to something these
failing companies understand and care about, their brand. Ralph Nader
is the logical champion of this cause I suppose. He has the information
and the outrage already, he just needs a powerful logo and marketing
effort that reaches everyone. The Internet community is also moving in
this direction using rating systems and advice mechanisms. It just
lacks formal, universal stamps of approval and disapproval. Designers
have more opportunities for awards than even Hollywood could imagine,
but none of them mean anything to average citizens. If we need a few
charismatic designers to help lead a new era of design-centric values
and education in this country we’d better start minting a few of them.
That will happen by holding up great design as an important achievement
the way the Academy Awards has elevated the art of film. As first order
change agents, Individual designs need to look beyond examples of their
own craft for inspiration. We need to look up, step out, breathe in the
energy that the developing world is generating for good design and
exhale passion into each project we touch. We will all benefit by
living in a world rich with great design. We all have a little piece of
the ability and the responsibility to create that world. The issue is
too vital to leave to government and too important to leave to
competition because in competitions someone always loses. It’s time to
collaborate so we all win.
 
Again, thank you for your contribution to the movement.
All good medicine

Todd

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