08 November 2006
Ben Hargreaves
Ben Hargreaves

Ethics, so the joke goes, is a county to the east of London: everyone knows where it is, but you wouldn't want to go there. While moral issues may be becoming more prominent as industrial designers make their own attempt to engage with the serious economic, social and environmental problems facing the world, the interplay between ethics and commerce remains at best complex, and at worst antithetical.

"Traditionally industrial designers have not been involved in ethical issues because of having to conform to design briefs laid out by the manufacturer," says Edgar Laguinia, business development manager at London-based design consultancy Opius, which is involved in consumer product design and also has completed key projects on aircraft interiors for British Airways, Singapore Air and Aquajet. "But now our role is increasing and we have a bigger part to play. It's important for our company to keep abreast of ethics and encourage dialogue on those issues.

"The world is paying attention, and there is more recognition of what designers have to say. Conferences like Superhumanism are efforts to directly address these things. But balancing those concerns with the commercial aspect? That's the real question. Too often designers are locked into design, and it's bad salesmanship and bad PR to present in your own language without any consideration of how it's being taken."

In this context, Laguinia relates a telling anecdote about the perceptual gulf between designers and their clients in industry. On meeting with a large airline, the Opius team asked the board members to write down their impressions of what designers were like. Opius was confronted, to much hilarity, with a picture of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen tacked to the wall, and a series of unflattering adjectives on Post-It notes. "They wrote some really nasty stuff," he recalls ruefully. "Mostly it was funny - but at the end of the day, this was what they really thought, and it was scathing: pompous, know-it-all, insufferably artistic types."

However misguided (and basically ingenuous) the preconception of designers as foppish and arrogant may be, it's clear that the vapid Changing Rooms culture is having a considerable impact on public perception. Earlier this year, as a seminar on interior design organised by the Interiors Forum kicked off at Tate Modern, it was the image of Llewelyn-Bowen that filled the screen. "How come," demanded Callum Lumsden of the Lumsden Design Partnership, as he gesticulated at the backdrop, "my neighbour thinks I do what he does?"

Laguinia's experiment with the airline proved instructive. It broke down a barrier or two and allowed Opius to proceed with its project on a level playing field. "We took back the papers and read them out, and then we said: 'OK, flush all that out. We know what you think of designers, but from now on we're working on a project.' Just by letting them air all their grievances, they were able to meet our designers and engineers at the same table."

Opius has recently opened an Innovation Centre for the aircraft interiors industry at its headquarters, in an effort to bring about greater collaboration between designers, vendors of interior products and the airlines themselves. Not before time, perhaps. The first lawsuits brought by long-haul passengers who have suffered deep vein thrombosis were launched last month in Australia, and Laguinia hopes that the Innovation Centre will encourage airlines to be more forward thinking in their approach to design. But it's indicative of commercial dynamics that this is likely to be achieved through collaborative partnerships rather than any enhanced awareness of ethical issues from the perspective of designers themselves.

Laguinia's story illustrates a wider point concerning the way in which designers view themselves in contrast to the way in which the world views designers. Ascribing to higher values than those of the consumer status quo may be regarded as noble, but the world remains indifferent, and commerce and consumerism play by different rules. Or maybe commerce, consumerism and business play by exactly the same rules - designers merely like to think that their own creed is somehow more ethically engaged, or capable of bringing about change. Ethical rhetoric is perhaps just that: the fly on the back of the rhino - irritant, not instigator.

"As culture becomes increasingly homogenised globally," wrote Naomi Klein in No Logo, "the task of marketing is to stave off the nightmare moment when branded products cease to look like lifestyles and suddenly appear as the ubiquitous goods they really are By embodying corporate identities that are radically individualistic and perpetually new, the brands attempt to inoculate themselves against accusations that they are in fact selling sameness." This is a problem that airlines face as much as any other corporation - good, consumer friendly design is likely to take place because airlines need to differentiate their services in a ruthless marketplace. Laguinia comments that the larger airlines may well circumvent problems with economy seating by making their planes business class only: the profit margin will remain unchanged.

In terms of product design, the marketing strategies Klein highlights can be felt in design philosophies like 'psycho-aesthetics' from California-based RKS. This model of design links anthropology, aesthetics and hierarchies of consumer desire. Ravi Sawhney, RKS president and CEO, describes psycho-aesthetics as a potent cocktail in which design reflects consumer expectations and the visual stimulus of a product taps into the unconscious of the buyer. Contra Changing Rooms, design itself - and the ego of the designer - is subservient to the need to make connections with consumers. Such is the spirit of the times, perhaps.

"What we're starting to discover," says Sawhney, "is that it's not how you feel about the product, it's how the product makes you feel about yourself. We had a number of products that we've intuitively designed over the last few years that kept hitting home runs. We analysed what we were doing, and found we weren't falling in love with our own design work as much as were falling in love with the consumer who would be the recipient of our design work. We love the consumer more than our esoteric, cutting edge, avant-garde designs."

Is this, in reality, where early 21st century design is at? Should designers just accept that the function of design be entirely subsumed by consumer culture? Should they fall out of love with design itself, and learn to love the 'recipients of their products'? "Every time new ethical issues come up, it's worth reflection," insists Laguinia, before adding a dose of realism: "It's worth putting your all into it - if only because you get the press coverage if you come up with products that address those issues. But in our designs we will try and integrate what we've learned, and what we've learned often comes out of the media, as well as through our own research."

It's worth remembering that journalists are as implicated in the whole web as any corporate doyen. The profession has something in common with that of the designer: media rhetoric reinforces the bogus concept that anyone can stand back and look at things in a supposedly more objective manner than everyone else, and that the agenda is reported, not created. "The media has to move from one topic to another," argues Laguinia. "For better or worse, the topic over the past year has been branding. It's on its way out now, and organisations like the British Council are hard at work making inclusivity the topic of the day. We don t know which will be the next big topic." But despite being wise to the ephemeral nature of media obsessions, Laguinia agrees that No Logo sparked an important debate. "The discussion over branding has grown our sense of what industrial design does."

Similarly, Ravi Sawhney applies a business pragmatist's edge to design ethics. "I've seen in the last ten years that the consumer has become increasingly informed and critical of design, and unforgiving of designs that aren't economically, environmentally and socially responsible. Again, it's not about the product, but how the product makes them feel about themselves. If they are naturally responsible, they are not going to want to associate themselves with a person or object that disconnects from that." Might ethical discourse, in the end, just form yet another marketing superstructure ('the anti-marketing dollar', as the late American comedian Bill Hicks described it) - another way of differentiating products for consumers while the rhino charges on, casually spraying shit over our ideals?

"We will always push to make products renewable and to design in the longevity of products," says Sawhney. Why? Because of commercial logic. "It makes sense to the consumer. Why buy disposable designs today, when for a little bit more they can last for years? Our challenge is to make sure they can perceive those benefits and justify the purchase."

"It's been said that after graphic designers, industrial designers are the most powerful people in the world," concludes Laguinia. "Graphic designers help determine what you think, and industrial designers dictate how people interact with their world, and how they move around in space." It is tempting, then, to invoke the old adage that with power comes responsibility. Whatever the divide that still exists between socially responsible design and commercial realities, the key challenge facing industrial designers over the next few years undoubtedly involves bringing about further integration of the two.

But it is a project that will ultimately rely on more than abstract, idealistic arguments, moral sense, or even good design (although these elements will all prove important). Because industrial design as a discipline is inextricably bound up with commerce, the market itself must provide the grounds for a partnership that moves towards socially responsible design. The postmodern world that we inhabit is about being alive to the contradictions in one's own position - not retreating into a hermetically sealed, idealistic bubble in the belief that this will effect change. And just as designers are also consumers, so consumers are also designers, in the very real sense that the power over what gets designed, produced, and is finally commercially successful, lies with the whims of whoever buys it. Are designers part of the problem, or part of the solution? The inevitable answer would seem to be both - as are we all.

About this article
The above article was first published in New Design magazine and is reprinted with permission.

About the author
Ben Hargreaves is Staff Writer on the UK's leading industrial design title, New Design. He writes regularly on a range on issues including ecology, transport, inclusivity, and innovation in product design. He also contributes regularly to the magazines Engineering and Vehicle Engineering & Design. He holds an MA in 20th Century English Literature from Sussex University.

About New Design
New Design magazine is the only title devoted wholly to the business of industrial and product design. Published six times each year, New Design tackles the issues faced by designers, design managers and those involved in the purchase of design services, both in the UK and the rest of the world. With its powerful combination of intelligent, incisive journalism from an dedicated in-house editorial team, contributions from major industry figures, and innovative graphic design, New Design has already established itself as a must-read in all its key market segments. As the designer's role changes in the 21st century, New Design is tracking, predicting and helping to facilitate that change.