DESIGN - A CULTURAL CARRIER

17 April 2007
Professor Dr. Jordi Montana
Professor Dr. Jordi Montana

 

Everything in human society that does not come directly from nature is designed by man. Even natural products are normally presented in packaging and display specially designed brand names and logos. It is inevitable that both the designer and the person who commissions the design (the latter, be it a company or other kind of public or private organisation, also taking charge of production and the other creation and communication of images) will put across their own culture and the culture of their organisation. In this case culture can be defined as the set of values, beliefs and attitudes shared by the members of the organisation. Moreover, there is feedback creating another culture, an object and image culture, derived from the products, services and brands themselves.

A product can be seen as a set of functions. It also has particular aesthetic qualities and a symbolic representation. These three elements function, aesthetics and symbol are deeply cultural. One can see how aesthetics and symbols can be deeply cultural, but the set of functions offered are too, although this is not clear. A product's functional elements are intimately related to its aesthetic and symbolic elements. Thus, even the aesthetics of a product are often determined by its shape, which derives from the object's function, along the lines of the three 'Fs' principle: form follows function.

Differentiation
'At a time when the technological gap is rapidly closing, the differentiation of products, services and brands in general through innovation and an improvement in their functions has become practically non-existent. Any technological innovation can become outdated within a few months. The differentiation has to come from the brand's cultural value, represented by its aesthetics, its significance and, to a lesser degree, its functions. It is these cultural values that arouse emotions, help the user relate to the product and form emotional links between the consumer and the brand. Moreover, cultural values are hard to imitate.

In a globalised world in which there is an abundance of objects that are simply indistinguishable black boxes, the opportunity now exists to incorporate design into the creation of European signs of identity. Succeeding in making people identify products and brands with European culture through design may be a sustainable competitive advantage, and could be a real strategy for success.

European cultural identity
Is it possible to create a single European cultural identity from the individual cultural identities of the peoples and nations that make up Europe? One might speak of a single European design to the extent that there are many designs that transmit the cultural values, which characterise the diversity of Europe. This is of particular importance at a time when the single way of thinking appears to predominate. Europe, because of its signs of identity, is proof that ways of thinking are and can be varied. Each region's cultural identity is perfectly compatible with its desire for integration into a larger community. The political principles of subsidiarity can be applied as cultural principles. Today, it is possible to maintain local, regional and supranational cultural identities.

Even better, new cultural identities are being created from interconnection, from people communicating with each other. Student exchanges, tourism within Europe, commercial relations, finance mobility and the mobility of markets and people, are all creating new shared signs of identity, without detriment to people's own, original signs of identity. The disappearance of 'bloc' politics and the hegemony of a single large power provide old Europe with a new role of cultural prominence. The integration of former Eastern bloc countries is a new cultural contribution that can be defined as a culture of diversity, an eclectic culture, a culture of a thousand movements anything but a single culture. Competitiveness based on differentiation is possible. Global competition based on local values is possible. Globalisation does not exclude the development of products and brands with strong emotional and symbolic associations, based on strong cultural bases. Indeed, this development is very desirable.

Post-modern Europe
From the cultural point of view, there are different parameters for understanding the changes that are taking European society from modernity to post-modernity. If we can confine ourselves to production, modernity is represented by the industrial revolution. Mass production, large factories, centralised production and scale economics were the modern reaction to a situation that had lasted for thousands of years since the Neolithic revolution, in which agriculture and cattle farming had predominated.

Design as cultural dialectic
The impossibility of finding explanations that encompass the complex, changing and at times erratic reality of society means that people live in the present, they tend to enjoy life, appreciate games and leisure activities, look for the things that will bring out extreme emotions and enjoy aesthetics. People try to fulfil their needs with everyday objects and brands and want companies to awaken positive feelings in them. In this analysis, design moves from being a dialectical process with manufactured nature to being a dialectical process between people and cultures and in permanent contact and relation with nature, manufactured or otherwise. Design has to take cultural roots into account and transmit them, as that is what consumers want. Users and consumers demand something more that just functions, they ask for values.

This is already obvious in certain product categories, such as food, drinks, cosmetics, clothing, shoes, real estate and lighting, where the original cultural base is very important. It is also being demanded in other products that were previously less cultural, such as airlines, banking and financial services, electronic goods and complex machinery. Most products have to transmit elements of cultural identity in order to obtain a competitive advantage. European culture, the culture of the nations that make up Europe, is known and valued throughout the world. In a global environment, transmitting European values through products and brands is a challenge for companies and designers. As design has always been a competitive tool for companies and for nations, it will also be a competitive tool for the European Union as a whole.

Internationalising design professionalism
In order to achieve this, designers' training and qualifications have to be contemplated from a European point of view, giving greater importance to the cultural aspects of all the regions, increasing the level of interaction between the different peoples, and improving the knowledge of the different customers, the history, the traditions, the languages, the ethnic groups, religions, nationalities and political visions that make up Europe.

Exchanges between design students might be positive but are not enough in themselves. The opportunity presented by the European Space for Higher Education Area according to the Bologna Declaration, combining and enriching design studies with the knowledge of European cultures, should not be missed. New means of co-operation in the field of design between schools and universities within Europe should be found, facilitating the mobility of professionals and teachers. Large design firms should have international, multicultural staff and small companies should network in order to be effective and efficient in spreading culture that should be increasingly appreciated all over the world.

Summary
There are important areas of responsibility that help promote interconnections between the different design promotion centres. Supranational organisations devoted to research, development and innovation in the field of design can be created, or existing ones supported in order to allow them to communicate their results. Design is suffering from a lack of depth in its scientific foundations and greater intellectual effort will be required in areas related to the knowledge of the user and of society, especially in areas related to design management within companies. Without these bases, it will be hard to transmit Europe's complex cultural values efficiently.



About Professor Dr. Jordi Montana

Professor Dr. Jordi Montana is director of the Esade Chair of Design Management.

This article is re-published with permission from Design Issues in Europe Today, a whitebook published by The Bureau of European Design Associations (BEDA), ISBN: 1-905061-04-08. Please visit the BEDA website at www.beda.org for more information.