Considering that government bureaucracy is the opposite of design — metastatic, inelegant, inefficient — the design professor Elizabeth Tunstall has given herself a nearly impossible task. Sensing the possibilities of a new presidency, Tunstall is trying to persuade the U.S. federal government to enact a national “design policy.” The set of edicts she’s got in mind would compel the government to treat various forms of design as essential to our national life, much as it does money or the food supply, and much as countries such as India, Brazil, South Korea and Finland support their design industries already. The feds would themselves become model design clients but also promote design and innovation as ardently as they protect the homeland.
Like reforming health care, it’s a marvelous idea, but pulling off something so radical yet sensible is like trying to hog-tie a whale. Where on earth do you start? Tunstall has started almost from scratch. It is hard not to applaud her optimism. It is even harder when you learn that she began by rubbing two sticks together in early 2008, before it was clear that the new presidency would be Barack Obama’s. His administration’s interest level is not known, though it’s probably safe to call it a multiple of what John McCain’s (or Mitt Romney’s or Mike Huckabee’s) interest level would have been.
Tunstall seized on the idea of a national design policy after having served as a director of Design for Democracy, a flank of the AIGA founded in response to the chaos of the 2000 election to help set national design guidelines for ballots and polling places (which have actually begun to make headway among some election officials). At first, Tunstall told me, her research was theoretical, focused on ways that design influences civic participation. She was investigating the notion of a design policy “from an intellectual, comparative perspective,” she said. “What would be a prototype? How would you structure it?” Then she began mobilizing others around the project.
Last November, Tunstall convened a National Design Policy Summit, in Washington. Nearly two dozen people — leaders of professional design groups, accreditation officials and federally employed designers — spent two days sketching out a raft of detailed policy proposals, from the vague (“Calculate the cost of inaction”… “Use crowd sourcing for creating best design standards”) to the concrete and useful (enhance K-12 design education) to the very wishful (“Create an executive office-level design position”). They boiled these down to 10 fairly coherent imperatives that were then packaged and delivered to members of Congress and the incoming administration after Obama’s inauguration.
There are, as Tunstall learned early on, precedents for her grand proposition to make design a federal priority. The history of similar efforts is not entirely discouraging, but their results have usually been equivocal or short-lived enough to give anyone but a total zealot a measure of caution.
But there have been watershed moments in modern times. Architects, in particular, page back fondly to 1962 and the “Guiding Principles for Federal Architecture,” penned by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the future senator and godhead of government design, when he worked in the Kennedy Administration. They state famously that federal buildings should “embody the finest contemporary American architectural thought.” Though they did not entirely sterilize the government against producing godawful buildings in the following years, the principles laid groundwork, most significantly, for the Design Excellence program, founded by Edward Feiner, the chief architect of the General Services Administration (the government’s main real estate developer) in the early ’90s. To leap ahead a bit, Design Excellence chucked the old qualifications that favored workmanlike firms for federal contracts (Have you done a government building before? You may do another…) in favor of rigorous competitions and peer reviews among leading architects, and has made it unsurprising to see blue-chip federal architecture by the likes of Thom Mayne or Richard Meier.
During the Nixon years, Moynihan, who worked then in the White House, was likely the force behind the Federal Design Improvement Program. In 1971, the White House asked Nancy Hanks, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts and a formidable figure in her own right, to promote design among federal agencies.
Hanks took this directive and covered the waterfront. Starting in 1973, the NEA organized a series of Federal Design Assemblies, which served as mixers for bureaucrats and designers of all types. The Endowment launched the Federal Graphics Improvement Program, under which 45 federal entities got new graphic identities — without it, we wouldn’t have Massimo Vignelli’s gorgeous maps for the National Park Service or Danne & Blackburn’s NASA logo. A task force of the NEA’s Federal Architecture Project enlisted Charles Eames and Harry Weese and led to Congress’s passing of the Public Buildings Cooperative Use Act of 1976, which helped make federal buildings less aloof and more engaging to their surroundings. And before fizzling out in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Federal Design Improvement Program birthed a protocol for commissioning better public art in the federal realm through peer reviews much like those for the NEA’s own grant-award panels.
By comparison, the Reagan administration threw bones to designers in the form of the Presidential Design Awards, which were handed out five times through the year 2000.
The next pivotal moment in federal design involvement that Tunstall and others point to came in 1990 in the guise of a civil-rights revolution: The Americans with Disabilities Act, signed by George H. W. Bush. Besides outlawing employment discrimination against people with disabilities, it created comprehensive design standards for access into any place the public is welcome. Still, at the time, you could not literally draw architects and business owners a picture of a proper bathroom-door radius without hearing them complain it wasn’t clear enough. (Actually, the government itself had already largely proved the workability of such standards with the Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which put the feds ahead of the accessibility curve in buildings and grounds and also electronic and information technology.)
The last time anyone attempted an effort like Tunstall’s, though, was at the start of the Clinton administration. It did not end brightly because it barely got started. During Clinton’s transition in December 1992, Christopher Hyland, Clinton’s deputy national political director, called Chee Pearlman, then the editor of I.D. magazine, and asked for her help convening a roundtable of prominent American designers in Little Rock, Ark., to help draw up proposals for a national design policy.
The effort moved quickly. Nearly two dozen designers went to Little Rock, including Maya Lin, Max Bond, Alexander Cooper, David Kelley, Michael Sorkin, Laurinda Spear, Sylvia Harris Woodard and Tom Matano. The meeting resulted in a policy paper that called for three major initiatives, each sensibly grounded in specific overtures: one prong outlined an innovation strategy among designers, manufacturers and investors; a second prong focused on making cities and towns sustainable; and a third proposed creating design standards that encourage the public’s participation in government through items like improved tax forms and, yes, better voting machines. If only the proposal had survived.
“The interesting thing was how quickly it didn’t go anywhere,” Pearlman said recently. The group came away with its policy paper and “so much euphoria,” she said, but “there was no place to channel that within the government…there wasn’t a place where this lived.”
Hyland blames myriad factors for the idea’s ultimate failure. “I think the design community was not organized enough or saw clearly enough the opportunity that was presented at that time,” he says. “There were too many conflicting interest groups, and it was hard to take control of it.” Mainly, though, the notion of design as a driving force in government was lost on the Clinton White House, Hyland remembers, although the Clintons did eventually hold some sort of reception for the participants, which Pearlman calls “very nice.”
It’d be a pity to see Tunstall’s gusto for design in the public realm go down the drain in the same way. Richard Grefé, the executive director of the AIGA and one of the first people with whom Tunstall shared her vision of a national design policy, doubts the idea, under that very rubric, will fly. “The term itself appears to reek of industrial policy, which is anathema in Washington,” he says. The installment of a cabinet-level design czar is improbable at best. And equally daunting but more likely prospect, Grefé offers, is to go to work on Congress to insert specific language in some type of omnibus legislation (they pass these all the time). “It takes only one sentence to say, ‘Professional design standards shall be used in executing any reform efforts between government and citizens,’” Grefé posits. “And lo and behold, it’s there.”