It was September, 1981, when design critic Ralph Caplan first unveiled the phrase. He was speaking at a Design Management Institute conference in Martha's Vineyard. His talk was titled "Once You Know Where Management Is Coming From, Where Do You Suggest They Go?"
"I want finally to address in some detail," Caplan said toward the end of this talk, "a role that I call 'the designer as exotic menial.' He is exotic because of the presumed mystery inherent in what he does, and menial because whatever he does is required only for relatively low-level objectives, to be considered only after the real business decisions are made. And although this is a horrendous misuse of the designer and of the design process, it is in my experience always done with the designer's collusion."
It's 25 years later. Has anything really changed?
Yearning for the spotlight — respect from the business community and attention from the general public — has been a ceaseless, all-consuming theme of ambitious designers for the last quarter century, and maybe long before that. W.A. Dwiggins, the American designer and typographer credited with introducing the term "graphic design," mocked this yearning in a 1941 essay, "A Technique for Dealing with Artists," that purported to advise clients on how they might get the most out of the design process: "If you like the work an artist shows you, do not try to express your approval in the form of apt technical comment. Confine yourself to the simple formula: 'I like that'; or grunt in an approving way." Sounds familiar.
Caplan expanded on his original speech in his 1982 book By Design, which was reissued last year with a new chapter aptly titled "The More Things Change, the More We Stay the Same." In it, he enumerates the many ways that the awareness of design has increased among the general public. However, he adds, this increased awareness "cannot be equated with an understanding of design, which is still easily confused with styling."
The confusion is forgivable. Over the past quarter-century, designers have reacted to client disregard by upping the ante in exoticism, so that many of today's well-known professionals are as famous for their sartorial choices as their actual output. Capes and cigarette holders used to be reserved for a few iconic figures like Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy, but now designers of all types are eager to cloak themselves in a suitable air of mystery. Eyeglasses, especially, have been a potent device with which to command public attention: witness Daniel Libeskind's square black frames (which provoke cries of "Hey, Mister Architect!" on the sidewalks of New York) or Karim Rashid's even more aggressive rose-colored aviators.
Graphic designers have had no proponent of this approach more exciting than Peter Saville. Greeting visitors to his Mayfair apartment in a silk dressing gown, voted the "most admired individual working within the creative industries," currently in possession of a sinecure at M&C Saatchi that seemingly requires no actual work, surely the indisputably talented Mr. Saville would seem to have it all. Yet even a character this charismatic seems unable to break through to the general public at broader levels. Much excitement in graphic design circles attended the release of "24 Hour Party People," the story of Factory Records and the Manchester music scene of the 1980s, a scene as much associated with Saville's persona in the minds of designers as that of any of the actual musicians. What a disappointment is was to find the Saville character reduced to a bit part: in the credits, Enzo Cilenti, the actor who played Saville is listed 27th, right after Tracy Cunliffe, billed as "Other Girl in Nosh Van." And a running gag as well, since the character is usually shown arriving at the Hacienda with freshly-printed invitations to events that took place the night before. The exotic menial strikes again! If Peter Saville can't do it, what chance have we mere mortals?
For those who find that more exotic is not doing the trick, the other line of attack can only be less menial. And designers seem to have lost patience with halfway measures. Design in the service of low-level objectives? Forget about it! Rather than trying to inch up the totem pole, the favored strategy today is to declare that design is the totem pole itself, or perhaps even the whole reservation. Bruce Mau's Massive Change project started with exactly this kind of insight, a napkin sketch transposing design's role from something embedded, pearl-like, within concentric circles representing Nature, Culture and Business, to something encompassing All of the Above. "No longer associated simply with objects and appearances, design is increasingly understood in a much wider sense as the human capacity to plan and produce desired outcomes," it says elsewhere on the Massive Change website. "Engineered as an international discursive project, Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, will map the new capacity, power and promise of design. Massive Change explores paradigm-shifting events, ideas, and people, investigating the capacities and ethical dilemmas of design in manufacturing, transportation, urbanism, warfare, health, living, energy, markets, materials, the image and information." Or, in other words, everything.
Similarly ambitious napkin-based impulses informed the founding of the Institute of Design at Stanford University. The D-School seeks to "tackle difficult, messy problems," the solutions to which are unlikely to be featured in the pages of I.D.'s Annual Design Review. These include drunk driving, oppressive commercial airline travel and the boredom of waiting in line. In a world even more virtual, the NextDesign Leadership Workshop has no napkin but plenty of diagrams nonetheless, repositioning design practice from its tired focus on (menial) things like websites, chairs, buildings, and brands to more visionary, "unframed" problems. The scope of these problems is painted with a big brush: "Unlike traditional design, NextD focuses on building cross-disciplinary leadership skills and behaviors. NextD is designed to not only scale-up problem solving skills but to make such ability applicable as the primary form of leadership navigation in any kind of problem solving situation. Unlike traditional design, NextD recognizes a multitude of possible value creating outcomes beyond the creation of objects." Tomorrow's designer, it appears, will settle for nothing less than a vast, limitless remit, and keep those goddamn objects out of it, thank you.
NextD, Stanford's D-School...a pattern starts to emerge, and it involves the fourth letter of the alphabet. What better way to transcend the earthbound chains of traditional design by abstracting it to a single letter? Indeed, language is an especially vexing problem for the graphic designer. "Most business people — the ones that hire us — think that we are at the table to create the 'look and feel,'" complain the proprietors of the website Beyond Graphic, in a nearly note-for-note reiteration of Caplan's 25-year-old speech which blames the word "graphic" for our travails. "They see our work as decoration, a nice-to-have after the strategic thinking is performed. This is why graphic designers remain at the bottom of the communications chain — below advertising professionals, communication consultants, and marketing strategists." Below ad guys: ick. The recommended solution appears to be the substitution of "communication design" for "graphic design." Nice try, but a little behind the curve. More up-to-date is the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now officially known as "AIGA, the professional association for design," leaving generations to come wondering what those four letters once represented. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future we can achieve the perfection of "AIGA, the professional association for D" and final victory over the dreary inhibitions of specificity can be declared once and for all.
Whipsawed between the roles of unchallengably exotic stylemeister and incomprehensibly non-menial solver-of-all-problems, what's a designer to do? As writer and critic Virginia Postrel observed in a recent interview, "The first mistake is to justify design's importance by ignoring its unique contribution. Designers say 'We solve problems' and 'We can do strategy,' and they forget that everyone else is also solving problems and contributing to strategy. The question is what problems can you uniquely solve?"
"The second mistake," she continued, "is to swing in the opposite direction and push the style equivalent of basic research when the marketplace wants style's equivalent of applied engineering...Theoretical physics and engine mechanics are different, and both are valuable. So are cutting-edge design and less prestigious, more mundane design. It's important to remember that 'good design' depends on context—good design for whom, for what purpose?"
Good design for whom? And good designers for whom? Thinking about the exotic menial brought Ralph Caplan back to the same point 25 years ago. "Making things nice is not making things right," he wrote in By Design. "And it is in the rightness of things that consumers have a stake. More than a stake, a role to play. For the designer's final collaborator is the end user." He concluded: "There is an implicit contractual relationship between designer and user and — as with other contractual relationships — the contract may be betrayed."
In our quest for respect, designers spend a lot of time trying to muscle our way to center stage. Maybe we — and the world — would be better off if we spent less time worrying about the spotlight and more time worrying about all those people out there in the dark.