Design: Europe vs. US

Many see Europe as the source of great designers, but knowing that the United States is constantly producing great designers who produce great design work, I wonder why are we not hearing about them?

When I look through US based design publications, blogs, and websites, the majority of the coverage is centered on European designers.  American designers are left in the shadows, seemingly not able to keep up with innovation, intelligence, and aesthetic sensibility that happen across the ocean.  However, American design and European design are not comparable.  Design that is considered to be "good" in Europe is not always "good" in America.  Good design is all about context.  

American designers are in disadvantage to their European counterparts.  Besides the fact that most countries in Europe have state funded programs to support and promote design, American designers are faced with a vicious cycle that traps and prevents them from breaking into their own playing field, to gain the necessary recognition, and successfully reaching their greatest potential.   

This cycle can be divided into three key parts:  a cultural lack of design awareness, low corporate design investment, and an under-developed relationship with the media.  

The American population is hard wired with a quick fix, "bigger-is-better" mentality.  We are supporters of mega retailers that sell products that are cheap in terms of both price and aesthetic quality.  This lack of design awareness has left American consumers with a different set of values and buying criteria.  We do not ask -or demand- to buy good design because we do not understand what good design is.  

The industry in turn plays to this set of criteria, creating more of the same cheap products.  Corporate understanding and trust in design is low.  True, there are companies that are exceptions to this rule- such as Apple, Method, Nike, P&G- and as a result of their successes, a slew of companies are rushing to follow suit.  Unfortunately the majority of these companies do not understand the commitment, leadership, courage, perseverance, and pure guts that it actually takes to pull off such a transformation.  Once design is not in alignment with the bottom-line or creates too much friction with the traditional structure of the company, design and designers get pushed to the backburner.  

The game-changer in this situation is the media.  There are many talented designers in the United States but the public is not aware of them.  The amount of European design-related magazines and periodicals greatly outnumber those available in the US, and US design publications tend to cover the stories and successes of European designers.  

American media needs to look within for compelling examples of good design that are pertinent for Americans and further define a new category of great design: American Design.  We need to realize that we are not the same as our overseas counterparts and therefore are not comparable.   If we can continue to highlight design in America that is specifically designed for Americans, our consumers will become more educated, will demand better design, and eventually, great design will become mainstream in our lives.

Manuel Saez

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  • Jeanne-Marie Byington


    You push so many buttons with this post I don’t know where to begin. Could Americans be insecure? How long did it take for Americans to recognize their own food? Why, when there are so many talented American editors, do publishers swoon over British or Australian accents [talented also, but still..] leaving the Americans on unemployment lines? [By the way: my Dad was French, and I’m all for equal opportunity for newcomers and adore all things French…but I’ve always said, “what about Americans?”]

    Closer to your point: For years I have represented a range of American manufacturers of products designed to enhance homes. One of the first jobs cut in one of the last downturns--and never replaced--was the marketer/product developer who worked with the product designers, adding another dimension to their pattern, style and color decisions--a broad vision--and at the same time, helping the sales staff, and public, understand the products. Now with the sales staff communicating directly to the product design staff, based, perhaps, on one conversation with a retailer, “the flowers should be blue,” or “X, the competition has plaid, make plaid,” the results aren’t as good as they might be.

    In this downturn, communications budgets, with some exceptions forever miniscule in furniture and tableware and not enormous in other categories, are today microscopic if they exist at all. The result: The press, lacking ESP, doesn’t know what American manufacturers are making and can hardly cover them.