Last week, fellow Design Observer author Rick Poynor and I had a rare face-to-face meeting at a forum in London sponsored by Creative Review. The topic was "What is Design For?" and obviously there was a lot more to the subject than we could handle in one evening.
What kind of work do we do? For whom do we do it? These are the fundamental questions for practicing designers, and it's tempting to reduce the options to a depressingly simple choice: do commercial mainstream work that may have an impact on the mass market, or do what Rick calls "independent" work: projects of a more personal nature that may never extend beyond a small, specialized audience of connoisseurs. In other words: sell out, or resign yourself to marginalization.
But it wasn't always so.
The years following World War II were giddy ones not only for American designers, but for the corporations that employed them. These were the days of "good design is good business," to quote the emblematic business leader of the age, IBM's Thomas J. Watson, Jr. And what is striking today about these postwar design patrons is not just their willingness to use good design to advance their company's commercial aims, but their seeming conviction that design could do more than simply move product: it could make the world a better place. Watson's counterpart at Container Corporation of America (CCA), Walter Paepcke, wrote in 1946:
[A]rtists and businessmen, today as formerly, fundamentally have much in common and can contribute the more to society as they come to complement their talents...It should be made easy, remunerative and agreeable for the artist to 'function in society not as a decorator but as a vital participant.' The artist and the businessman should cultivate every opportunity to teach and supplement one another, to cooperate with one another, just as the nations of the world must do.
Just as the nations of the world must do! Paepcke put his money where his mouth was, commissioning dozens of artists and designers to create advertising and design for CCA, and starting the International Design Conference at Aspen, conceiving it as a summit at which business leaders and designers could meet, share ideas, and, presumably, plan together how to save the world. Herbert Bayer's extraordinary World Geo-Graphic Atlas, which Rick would like to see displayed at MoMA, exists thanks to a commission from CCA. In its foreword, titled "Why Container Corporation Publishes an Atlas," Paepcke writes, "We, in Container Corporation, believe that a company may occasionally step outside of its recognized field of operations in an effort to contribute modestly to the realms of education and good taste" and "It is important that we know more about the geography and the conditions of life of our neighbor in the world so that we may have a better understanding of other peoples and nations."
Paepcke was by no means alone. Watson's IBM not only commissioned graphics from Paul Rand, products from Eliot Noyes, and buildings from Eero Saarinen, but extraordinary exhibits by Charles and Ray Eames like "Mathematica" which could have had only, at best, an indirect influence on the corporation's bottom line. "How much business did a good-looking exhibit attract to the IBM Company?" asked Watson. "These are intangible things that we believe are genuine dividends of a good design program."
Other notable examples include General Dynamics and their long-term relationship with Erik Nitsche which produced his masterpiece volume Dynamic America, as well as the ultimate expression of corporate munificence, Cummins Engine Company's hometown of Columbus, Indiana. There the visionary CEO Irwin Miller transformed a southwestern Indiana city into a virtual demonstration laboratory for design in daily life. A church by Saarinen, a firehouse by Robert Venturi, an elementary school by Richard Meier and a newspaper printing plant by SOM's Gordon Bunshaft are among dozens of buildings there built in the second half of the twentieth century that can be visited today with the help of a tourist guide designed by...you guessed it, Paul Rand.
In 2004 America, one is hard pressed to find counterparts to Watson, Paepcke and Miller. After the tumult of the late sixties, Watergate, stagflation and Reagan-era deregulation, corporations are no longer looked to for civic leadership. Offshore "outsourcing" makes the Columbus-style company town seem like a paternalistic anachronism. The inefficient realms of "education and good taste" no longer tempt rigorous CEOs with their eyes on the bottom line. Even Thomas Watson's heir apparent, Steve Jobs, limits his passion for design to stuff that sells product; Apple's dazzling contribution to civic life is the Apple Store, where you can go have a social experience that has solely to do with buying Apple products.
Is all hope lost, then? Here is some optimism, perhaps perverse, from a surprising source. "I offer a modest solution: Find the cracks in the wall," wrote Tibor Kalman in his valedictory monograph. "There are a very few lunatic entrepreneurs who will understand that culture and design are not about fatter wallets, but about creating a future...Believe me, they're there and when you find them, treat them well and use their money to change the world." Wishing will not make it so, but Kalman knew that the search itself was fundamental to the design process. The more of us out there looking, the better.