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What’s so wrong about design being about design?

There is a growing movement to push all things design into strategy or innovation. As with any strong trend there is usually a backlash in the offing after it blows through. What’s so wrong about design being about design? With this in mind, comes a new publication, a history of design, in this case Industrial Design.

The Industrialization of Design: A History from the Steam Age to Today

In an industrial design world struggling with definitions and seemingly constantly creating new buzzwords, along comes a new book, free of any pretense, that spells out the profession in a factual and engaging way. The Industrialization of Design is an impressive collection of moments and stories detailing the history and evolution of industrial design over the last 200 or so years. Expertly written by Carroll Gantz, former head of design at Black & Decker, a Carnegie Mellon professor and past president of IDSA, this is a must-have for the shelf of any serious industrial design practitioner. For those deep into the field, this book serves as a reminder of why industrial design matters, and how its ability to solve problems gives form and explores new issues that manifest in a better world.

To be honest, at first this appeared to be a textbook. Where was the story? This is a collection of facts; how exciting could that be? What I found instead was a fascinating journey full of surprises. In this book Gantz has assembled an amazing collection of moments in a timeline that explains and defines modern industrial design. Beginning with the 18th century with Paul Revere and early casting and smithing techniques, the book quickly becomes a deeply insightful outline of how modern manufacturing came into its own. It picks up real steam in the section about the 1950s and 1960s, with references to Raymond Loewy and Henry Dreyfuss and their like, fedora-coiffed industrial designers who advised captains of industry and set the stage for all the Mad Men personalities to come. Who were Richard Latham, Robert Tyler and George Jensen? David Chapman? Here’s a chance to learn. For me this section was particularly inspiring and fascinating to read. Don Draper has nothing on these folks.

Another strength of the narrative is the judgment-free clarity expressed in many passages, as in this definition of industrial design penned in 1978: “Industrial design (ID) is the professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer.” I found that kind of declaration to be refreshing and timeless. The book is chock-full of these kinds of references.

In fact, it’s all here, all the key moments—from Time magazine’s 1997 announcement that design was the “hottest profession in terms of job growth and compensation,” and its seminal article of 2000 when design made the cover to museum openings and significant exhibitions, people, places and moments of influence. Gantz also cleverly infuses, at key moments throughout, appropriate political milestones—both geopolitical and more introverted political design insights—that shaped the discipline and the dialogue it engendered.

The only real issue I have with the book is its visual and physical quality. I’m going to go out on a limb here and blame the publisher. I wished for this to be a hardcover tome with magnificent four-color photos, but alas the publisher must have been conservative in its sales estimates. The art direction and quality of the cover leave a bit to be desired; in fact, the book looks a little bit like something that Walter Dorwin Teague or Dreyfuss might have done in the early 1960s. At $55, it’s pricey for that art quality.

That said, its hard to really to find fault with any other aspect, with its well-written moments of keen insight, amazing facts and images of iconic moments in a rich history of made objects. You can read it straight through or jump in at any chapter. And it’s all here, from Massimo Vignelli’s game-changing Heller Dinnerware to the Palm Zire and more. The chapter about the period 1985–2010 is especially thrilling to read for its portrayal as history—recently lived history, of course. You will discover people you know, products you admire and stories you’ve told, presented as a well-written history of the profession.

Throughout the book many designers are mentioned; the index reads like a who’s who list. Although it’s tricky to single out any one person, I was especially impressed with Bill Moddgride, former principle at IDEO, now at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, and his presence at so many key moments in the unfolding of modern design.

It should be noted Gantz artfully includes his own impressive contributions to the profession as the creator of the now iconic Dustbuster and as the unidentified (in the book) progressive candidate for IDSA president, who was elected in 1978 and helped IDSA become a more successful and inclusive organization. But I suspect that in the final tally, Gantz’s major contribution to industrial design will be this book itself. Destined to be a text for schools and a must-have for design libraries everywhere, The Industrialization of Design is, in short, one great book to read and own. Well played, sir.


mark@lunar.com


 

 

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