Again With That Word, “Design”

I subscribe to two magazines, The New Yorker, and BusinessWeek. I enjoy BusinessWeek for its clarity of reporting and its breadth of coverage.

This week, however, I find myself seething at BusinessWeek. From an article titled “Designer Cars”:

Now, a decade-long drive to close the engineering and quality gap among the world’s carmakers has left the companies competing increasingly on, well, looks. “Design is the No. 1 selling point these days…”

Later we’re told to “get the proportions and styling right — an elegantly curved shoulder line or an innovative grille–and you can add up to !% to the sticker price and outsell rivals.

I don’t dispute the facts, I dispute the use of the word “design.” In part spurred by my recent reading of Henry Dreyfuss, I just wrote this letter to the editor:

Subject: Design Is Not Just Styling

For decades, designers have fought being branded as mere decorators, so it’s a shame that BusinessWeek, which sponsors the annual IDSA awards, would equate design with styling (“Designer Cars”, February 16, 2004). Design is a complex process that must work from the inside out. Coordinating relationships with marketers, engineers, and customers, while paying attention to external trends, designers strive to create products that are useful, usable, and desirable. To reduce this effort to “looks” does a great disservice to the design profession.

Peter Merholz
Partner
Adaptive Path

BusinessWeek’s article only bolsters my concerns from a prior post of mine, “That Tricky Word, ‘Design'”. Generally, BusinessWeek is pretty clued in, and pretty clued in about design. If *they* use the word in this way, what should we expect from the less clueful?

4 thoughts on “Again With That Word, “Design”

  1. Although they minimize the desiger’s role considerably, it’s interesting to consider their main point: that “design” even at its broadest (driving innovation, exposing unknown user needs or desires, etc.) has become a commodity for auto manufacturers. That makes it very hard to identify the grounds on which customers make buying decisions. Innovative features, thoughtfully designed, and user-tested are the *minimum* level of design there.

  2. One could say that you are looking at design the Dreyfuss way, whilst they look at it the Loewy way.

    I understand you, but it’s Raymond’s fault. He also boosted car sales through styling. This is one of his favourite sentences: “Between two products equal in price, function, and quality, the better looking will outsell the other.”. Pretty clear, huh?

    The funny thing is that Dreyfuss had trouble understanding Loewy as well. He used to make fun of his pencil sharpener (http://www.officemuseum.com/Raymond_Loewy_Pencil_Sharpener.jpg) for being aerodynamic while screwed on a table.

    Anyway, I agree with you that Dreyfuss way is the way.

  3. Virginia Postrel gets it right, calling it “style” but also acknowledging that “mere” styling has serious economic value.

    The Substance of Style

  4. Design, Technology, and Social Values, is an interactive triangle of symbiotic relationships.

    I discussed this complex issue over 10 lecture course I proposed to UCLA in 1984, and I ended up teaching it as an addenda to Nathan Shapira’s class over the years….now with the global forces unleached, I think it is the time to adderess the meaning of the word “DESIGN” in a direct relation to curriculums and subjective training of the “would be designers” of the future