Designers: Help Me Rebrand American Innovation

To maintain its leadership position, the U.S. government needs to support innovation. But designers can do their part in furthering the cause by promoting American-made products.


“We have lost our ambition, our imagination, and our willingness to do the things that built the Golden Gate Bridge.” Last October, critics seized on this controversial declaration by President Barack Obama in San Francisco. But maybe he was right after all. We remain ambitious and imaginative, yet as the president correctly noted, our cultural willingness to make investments in discovery and new technologies has become too anemic. Americans are undeniably ambitious and imaginative–arguably inventing more, discovering more, producing more, and helping more than any people in history. No matter how one attributes it–providence, karma, luck, or mistake–the country is blessed in terms of natural resources, productivity, ingenuity, generosity, and many dimensions of freedom. The United States’ leadership role in creation, driven by our culture, is strong and indeed sustainable–but not without focus and support.


Making the Smartest Investments

I find former President Bill Clinton’s proposals for economic-policy investments, which he details in his new book, Back to Work, to be very considered and straightforward. He suggests greater enforcement of trade laws, accelerating energy-efficiency rules for common household appliances, focusing on exporting more services through technology (education, health care, consulting, insurance), and increasing Small Business Administration–backed investments and other loan guarantees. He also proposes student loan forgiveness options for STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), and more H-1B visas to immigrants in these fields until U.S. citizens can fill them, and the creation of more empowerment zones through tax policy to support the “in-sourcing” movement.

I believe these ideas are great, but they’re not enough. The U.S. also needs:

• Modern Tax Credits: Design is valuable for business and consumers, but R&D tax credits don’t recognize the work designers do today. Currently, engineering technology counts for R&D, but aesthetics do not. Designers now work strategically on venture design and consumer experiences vital to service development, especially online, so our understanding of R&D and drivers of consumer adoption need to reflect these changes. Great design increases demand, and increased demand creates jobs.

• Target Earnings Repatriation: You’ve probably heard political proposals for repatriating corporate earnings earned abroad with some sort of tax holiday. I’d support such an idea offering a 0% corporate tax rate through 2015, so long as those earnings are spent on investments in domestic manufacturing and operations, research, or design. Such an incentive could be a big catalyst for renewed growth at a time when all the drawbacks of outsourced manufacturing are better understood.

• Lengthen STEM Focus: Beyond focusing on STEM, we need to incentivize design, agricultural management, and manufacturing operations. If we’re to provide greater student loan access, subsidized interest, and even loan forgiveness as part of national investments, designers must ensure these three critical professions aren’t lost in the discussion. Why? Because designers will be critical in driving the development of products and technology-driven services. Our farmers are getting older, and we can’t lose this expertise or area of future export growth. Business students could use incentives to study operations management rather than sexier areas like finance. Some experts suggest a national program at the high school level focused on technical-skill development, which I think would be another smart investment.


Getting Designers Back to the Future

Good domestic and foreign policy will be critical, as will smart investments, but these aspects are largely outside of the design community’s control. So where are our areas of leverage? How can the U.S. design community support and encourage government and corporate efforts?

In short, designers can encourage domestic preferences for U.S.-made goods and services, lead a renewed focus on intellectual property creation, boost the national psyche and attitude, and provide vision and branding support to national policy efforts, among other things.

Architects and interior designers have the ability to influence modern infrastructure building (LEED) dramatically. Designers can also support continued patent strength, as well as accelerate ID patent and trademark creation through better professional collaboration with government agencies and business incubators, focused industry contests and competitions, and better academic preparation of technical and humanist design skills.

Those who know me know I’ve long been a student of psychology and consumer behavior, which have helped inform our research and design process at RKS. In getting back to the future, national psychology can’t be ignored. Rather, it should be harnessed, and the design community can help here, too.

People’s attitudes change when they’re on a mission. Huge, big-idea projects and national investments are a part of a mission that builds community and results. We should also recognize that the United States has not lost its edge. But it very well could. As a motivator, the fear of competition is a blessing to the U.S. It could be harnessed to fuel this country, as well as foreign competition, toward better solutions and collaboration.


A great friend and adviser would often remind me that a rising tide lifts all the boats. Creation lies at the very heart of humanity. So does the need to compete and increase the quality of our lives in ways that feed us spiritually and physically. Harnessing that connection will be key to understanding and embracing the competitive landscape with renewed enthusiasm and dedication.

Staying CooL in the 21st Century

Alongside our willingness to invest in the future, we’re also losing our message, meaning, and brand. The design community can and should lead a reversal, so let’s also revisit last month’s discussion about CooL (Country of Origin Labeling) and branding. When you have the best-in-class product (American creation) yet confusion and/or misinformation abounds, you have a marketing or branding problem. The same holds true for the U.S. in terms of perception management, and to counter this, we’ll need better branding by the design community and better marketing by much larger and more coordinated constituencies.

But what can we do now to make a difference? Today, CooL is ubiquitous in agriculture, textiles, and product manufacturing. I believe CooL represents one of the best opportunities for the design profession to impact a cultural awakening and realignment toward the new areas of creation throughout the 21st century.

By better branding “Designed in USA,” “Invented in USA,” “Discovered in USA,” “Grown in USA,” and others, you’ll likely see several positive outcomes. That’s because branding can assist in reviving the pride that accompanied our quest to land on the moon; such national brands can subtly uplift, inspire, attract, and reward, as they do for corporations. They also just might help revive the tenacity and courage that took America there.


This Made in USA brand certification mark is registered for identifying goods made or grown in the U.S. and is available to any U.S. business that meets the accreditation standards found here. Made in the USA brand president, Marcie Gabor, indicates that “at present, 540+ companies have signed up to use the label.”

Let’s let design be recognized as essential and valuable by acknowledging it and its origin. Let’s not forget, the United States is a melting pot, and if you look around at design firms, they are filled with people from everywhere. My own has 10 different nationalities. We all come here, or stay here, because of our belief that we together create something unique in the world. We are a tribe of varied cultures that share a vision as designers to fulfill our need to create and contribute to a greater cause than ourselves.

The Designed in the USA brand certification mark is a new identifier and brand enhancer for goods, services, and environments designed in the United States. Branding our design community is one simple but powerful step to make our voice and value better known; we welcome and encourage your help, and have made it simple and free.

Here is my team’s logo design that we believe reflects the pride and creativity of the design community we’re proud to belong to, and might contribute to our growing brand here at home and abroad.

Just click the logo or go to to download it.


[Image: Gunnar Pippel]

About the author

As the founder and CEO of RKS Design, Ravi Sawhney has spent more than thirty years at the forefront of product and technology innovation, and has grown his industrial design consultancy into a global leader in the fields of strategy, innovation and design. While leading RKS, Sawhney has helped generate more than 150 patents and over 90 design awards on behalf of his diverse list of international clients, and his work has been featured on the cover of Business Week’s best product design issue