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Design's Boom-and-Bust Cycle: Ten Years In, Ten to Go

frank lloyd wright waterfallThe topic of design has generated a lot of buzz lately—so much, in fact, that some suggest that the renewed interest in all things creative is a passing fad. Not exactly. If we let history be our guide, we'll see that there's a cycle at work here, and in my view we are presently half way through it. Let's call it the Design Cycle. Case in point: JC Penney. Not many people remember that not so long ago, a design job at this now undistinguished department store was a coveted position for a designer. JC Penney had its own design staff and was promoting design. Sure, it was '70s design, but design none the less. JC Penney was today's Target.

There's no doubt that we are in a tough economy, but while the current recession may be more severe than some earlier ones it, too, is part of a cycle. Since 1854 there have been 33 periods of economic contraction and expansion. That's 33 tough economies of various duration, and there are sure to be more. The same is true of the current interest in design. Design cycles in a robust way, with what appears to be about a 20-year sweet spot. JC Penney's rise and fall in the design world really boils down to survival of the fittest in the marketplace.

Let's take a look at design's boom-and-bust cycle:

  • Late 1920s to mid-1940s:
    In the late '20s early '30s, with the move to an industrial age from an agricultural age, design rose to prominence with celebrated architects and designers such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, and the formation of the Bauhaus. Then the Depression hit and design stayed in a slump until the end of World War II.
  • eames chair
  • 1960s to 1970s:
    The mid-century to the early seventies brought another revival of interest. Herman Miller embraced Charles Eames, Braun was the era's Apple-equivalent, and JC Penney was the retail world's Target. Then, things such as finance and distribution became more important. Enter Wal-Mart, exit design.
  • Late 1990s to today:
    Fast forward to the late '90s, with a new surge of interest in design, and here we are now, 10 years in. It is great to be able to name all kinds of wonderful design successes of the last ten years: the Kindle, Pom Wonderful, and the Mini, among them...and anticipate those of the next ten. Brands and companies that really want to get on board should invest now because 2018 just isn't that far away.

kindleA quick peek under the kimono of the companies where design has always been great offers an additional perspective. At Bang & Olufsen and Sony, design not only defines the brand, but is built into the fabric of a company as a core business strategy. These firms are organizations with long term staying power when it comes to creativity and innovation, and design will always be a critical element to their success and longevity.

As the next ten years play out, the next new thing will surely appear. My money's on social networking and Internet retailing diminishing the relevance of design for some. When it comes to investing in design, whether you're in it for either the short or long term, now is the moment, because I think I see the top of the hill.

Read more of Mark Dziersk's Design Finds You blog

Mark Dziersk is the VP Design at Brandimage-Desgrippes & Laga, one of the world's largest design and branding firms. At brandimage, Dziersk has worked on projects for clients ranging from Dove to Banana Republic to a pop-up store for Henri Bendel. Dziersk joined brandimage in 2007, after 13 years at the Chicago product design firm Herbst Lazar Bell, where he and his teams won dozens of awards for products as diverse as the Motorola NFL Coaches' Headset, to the first-ever single use camera for Kodak. Dziersk, himself, holds over 100 patents.

Dziersk gives back to his larger professional community as well, having served on the board of the Industrial Designers Society of America and as president of the Society in 1998. He also acted as executive editor of IDSA's premier publication, Innovation, introducing new design elements and recruiting authors from outside the design field. Mark's course, "Essentials of Industrial Design," in Northwestern University’s Master of Product Development program, helps left-brained types get comfy with their inner tattooed design side.

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  • Eliot Schreiber

    If the design profession continues to nurture and enrich its offering, then I see no hilltop in sight. Perhaps I'm overly optimistic about the enduring value to both commerce and society represented by design, but I believe that if design = expression = experience, then as we become ever more technology led, people will need to process the world around them with even greater speed and clarity, and design's role in part will be to continue to provide the short hand/short cut in connecting people with where they need/want to go, providing not just the message but more importantly the experience that cuts through the oppressive informatics clutter, and offers a dose of sanity in the daily drill.

  • John Edson

    I’m a big fan of the mid-century furniture. My wife and I have scattered a few of the originals throughout our home – and we love them. They are genuine and time tested for their timelessness. In eras like these, it’s stuff we feel good buying because it’s worth it. Unlike a crappy chair from IKEA that merely suggests contemporary design, a Herman-Miller Eames lounger will be with us and our children – and perhaps their children. It’s considered, comfortable, and beautiful to look at.

    It’s certainly interesting to suggest that there have been periods of design renaissance and design dark ages. I’m not certain that I buy that pattern as one that will go forward. The bigger issue I have is with a definition of terms. Design is multidimensional and often gets reduced to only one of its attributes because it seems like such a simple idea. Design as a noun has come to mean the expression of a thing. How does it look? And I think that’s what Mark must be referring to. But design is a verb too. And the practice of design is becoming pervasive. It’s invading technology and business, government and education. And that invasion will change those practices forever. Design is helping these institutions tailor their offerings and behaviors to the needs of people. It’s helping create connections and solve problems, the other things that design is good at.

    Will people care less about the aesthetic of products and experiences in 10 years? I think so, but maybe not.* Will they demand that products and experiences be useful and resonate with meaning in their lives in 10 years? Absolutely. And that’s an effect that design has mastered.

    *Don’t forget that there are cultures outside the US where content and form are inseparable.