Out of touch, out of sync: The future of American Design

By | May 1, 2012

Since I’m still in the mood to look back at the progress of the design industry in this past decade, let me bring up another article I’d spotted in FastCo as well. This one is from September 2011, titled “American Firms Now Embrace Design, But They’re Aging Fast. What’s Next?” written by FrogDesign’s Robert Fabricant. Going by titles alone, I hope this isn’t the renaissance of the design industry’s intense navel gazing of the 2005-2007 era, although, I’ve heard it said that design writing tends to consist of little else. Lets look at what he has to say:

This wave of “agile innovation” poses a new set of challenges for designers, as many of the tools of design are already in the hands of entrepreneurs and engineers. Designers can’t wait to be “hired” to enhance or improve these offerings. We must be active participants at their inception. If designers are truly skilled at identifying unmet human needs and creating the breakthrough products to address those needs, then, increasingly we will need to prove our value as entrepreneurs. American designers can and should lead the way in showing how you adapt the design process to rapid, real-time product development. And lead the way in demonstrating what can be achieved by designers as entrepreneurs in our own right. Ten years from now I hope to see designers able to attract VC capital at the same rate as MBAs and software engineers. That is the next big mission for American Design.

Amazingly, just a few months later, we have this Reuter’s piece In Silicon Valley, designers emerge as rock stars (though its publish date is Friday the 13th of April, not the 1st).

Five years ago, Justin Edmund arrived at Carnegie Mellon University, a floppy-haired freshman, with artistic talent and dreams of joining a venerable design firm like IDEO or Frog. But during his sophomore year, a recruiting pitch from a Facebook employee turned his head, and prompted a detour of his ambitions.

“It didn’t even occur to me that working at a tech company was something I could do,” Edmund said. “I switched my trajectory completely.”
Edmund isn’t alone. Inspired by the legacy of Steve Jobs and lured by the promise of the current tech boom, young designers are flocking to Silicon Valley, where they’re shaking up a scene long dominated by engineers and programmers.
Last year, McClure put down money to create the Designer Fund, a program that identifies entrepreneurs with strong design backgrounds and offers seed money and mentoring from experienced founders like Putorti and Chad Hurley, of Youtube. The fund, headed by Enrique Allen, a 25-year old graduate of Stanford’s design school, has partnered with more established venture investment firms like Khosla Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins.

“We’re reshaping a lot of how you build a company,” McClure said. But, he added, “there’s still a resource and talent shortage” for interaction designers.

Young American designers seem to be already leading the way, as the rest of the article clearly demonstrates, attracting VC interest and a fund developed specifically for them. Can this shift have suddenly happened in the 6 short months since that article was published at Fastco?  Apparently not. Dave McClure writes in BusinessWeek back in February 2010 on “The Value of Design to Startups” where he says:

It certainly doesn’t hurt to have code jedis at the helm of your starship, but engineering for consumer Internet startups need only be competent. The real challenge is finding designers and product managers who can build an awesome product experience, and marketers who can figure out effective, scalable, integrated distribution strategies (whether organic or paid, whether technical or creative).

So are these two clusters of highly intelligent people simply talking past each other, or has the design industry indeed aged and faded to the extent that they’re unaware of what’s happening in the cloud around them?

From the perspective of someone who was once actively thinking and writing about design, from a desk on a hill in San Francisco, just five years ago (when Justin Edmond arrived at CMU in fact) it seems that American design has a bigger problem they face today – that of still living in an echo chamber whilst gazing at their navels.  Man, even I’ve archived those posts on a dusty WordPressed shelf and moved on to the next frontier. Once upon a time, Fast Company was as edgy as Wired in the heydays of “make it look like Wired” but today, it seems to have become the “business strategy” thinking designer’s bulletin board. 

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