Who Are the Real Celebrities in Design?

Most of us can picture this Time cover from 1949 featuring Raymond Loewy. It was probably the first time a designer—in this case, an industrial-design renaissance man who sculpted the shapes of everything from Studebakers to Coke bottles—received such significant and mainstream media attention. But can anyone really remember what came after that?

raymond loewyThere weren't any "covers wars" I'm aware of post-Loewy and his fellow design pioneers, but times are changing. During the past decade we've seen the dramatic rise of a media-generated celebrity design culture—which is beginning to make me wonder, are we accurately presenting a balanced picture of the complexities of the design industry, or simply catering to a celebrity obsessed society?

We unquestionably live in a culture that delights in the success and celebritization of modern day heroes/personalities—those special people endowed with swashbuckling abandon that we can bet our dreams on, that can lead us without fear into the unknown. This adoration is evident in every aspect of our culture (entertainment, education, sport, politics, business, etc.) and design has proven in no way exempt from society's growing desire to measure success via status. Add to that that we're in a period of extreme uncertainty, it makes sense that we'd search out pathfinders to pave the way forward, but at what cost?

The work of these pathfinders is often laudable, but by choosing to fixate on their popularity we miss a valuable opportunity to fully inform consumers. Communicating and celebrating the complexities of design and the design process would go a long way in creating a shared knowledge that could help build the type of educated consumer the world really needs, especially now.

jawboneA very brief example: The San Francisco-based Fuseproject (headed by one of the designers to grace the cover of Fast Company, Yves Béhar), whose most successful product launch to date is with Aliph and their beautifully designed Jawbone range of headsets. Aliph is reportedly edging towards $100 million in revenue which is very impressive and deserving of praise for both them and Fuseproject, This product is interesting, not only in its execution, but in its path to realization and the business relationship between Fuseproject and Aliph that facilitated this success. That's what I want to read about, that's the story. Instead, in our celebrity-obsessed society we get treated to articles about Yves Béhar's apartment. I'd rather see these columns dedicated to telling the Jawbone story, or focused elsewhere.

belkinFor example, take corporate design managers—like the powerful design teams at Nokia or one of my personal favorites, Belkin Corp. who have used design to enormous effect—growing from $400 million to over $1 billion in a less than five years. These companies are also impressive and deserving of praise, yet somehow more or less left out of the media mix.

Let me be clear, my argument here isn't so much against celebrity as it is for much needed balance; providing that balanced coverage will better educate consumers—raising the bar for our work, and as a consequence, the long-term impact of our contribution.

Who are other unsung heroes in the world of design?

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As the President and CEO of Teague, John Barratt is responsible for positioning the company for future success and building upon Teague's rich heritage. During his three years in this position, Barratt has guided Teague in building and strengthening partnerships with some of the world's leading brands. The result of these collaborative partnerships is design work that has been recognized with a growing roster of international design awards.

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4 Comments

  • Steven Sotelo

    Compared to those days, today's designer gets better chance. More companies and online based business required more designing services. From website design to logo, the demand have increase tremendously and it is not hard to find several good service providers today compared to Raymond's time.

    Life Insurance Company

  • Kristina Goodrich

    You have precisely expressed the experience I had with a web site recently. I needed Verizon to fix my service, but the web site was so oriented to selling me something, it was almost impossible to find customer service. Once I did, I was asked to send an email or -- and this was subliminally discouraged -- I could call. So I called. And the simmering anger with the company dissipated as a woman with the charm of an intense southern accent set about helping me. I have now had this experience with every company I need help from. If you can get to a human, life is good. But the road is hard and often I lose patience.

  • william dorr

    Bravo to you Mr. Barratt for including financial statistics in a design blog and for your shout out to corporate design managers. These leaders are challenged every day to deliver value to their organization. As design gains more of a voice in the world of business these leaders also take on more responsibility and accountability. Even seemingly simple decisions (red or blue?) can result in gains or losses totalling tens of millions of dollars (or more). It would be heartening to read more detailed accounts of design in the trenches and the relationship between business and design on a corporate level.

    Bill Dorr
    Sr. VP Marketing & Design

  • Robert Blaich

    Design Leadership ( Celebrities) has shifted from those early leaders such as Loewy,Bel Geddes, Dryfuss, Teague, Eames, Nelson etc. and name recognition has largely been replaced by more anonymous leaders. These are the unsung heroes of corporate design teams or consultant offices who are making significant contributions to the profession. The collaboration between the unsung design heroes and business leaders who champion and support design to achieve strategic corporate goals is the coin of value today.
    Dr. Robert Blaich
    FIDSA/FRSA