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Consider the classic story of the newspaper reporter who got
into a conversation with an airplane seatmate.
“What's your line?” the seatmate asked.
The reporter told him.
The seatmate was impressed. “I envy you,” he said. “In the
newspaper business you must meet such interesting people.”
“Yes,” the reporter agreed, “and that's where they all are—in
the newspaper business.”
Designers trapped in airplane conversations might justifiably
respond in the same way. Although you may, indeed will, encounter
individual designers who are dull and boring beyond compare, people
in the design professions tend to be more interesting than the
clients and users they serve. One reason is the diversity of the
practice. If you were to ask a dozen designers what they've been up
to lately, there is a good chance of their describing a dozen
different kinds of projects, each requiring that the designer learn
a fair amount about a particular field.
In 1983 I was invited to become an honorary member of the
Industrial Designers Society of America, perhaps because the
president at the time was not an industrial designer but the
graphic designer Kathy McCoy. The inaugural ceremony was held in
Chicago, and on the way there I planned my acceptance speech, which
would be a witty (I thought) variation of Groucho Marx's famous
line, “I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a
There was another honoree that year, Arnold Wolf, who was there
to be named an IDSA Fellow. He spoke first. “I will not even in
jest abuse this singular honor by saying that I won't join any club
that would have me as a member,” Wolf said, not only stealing my
thunder but showing me, to my shame, that it was never very
thunderous in the first place. Instead, he talked warmly and
convincingly of the pride he took in being one of “the company of
When my turn came I said that I too was proud of being “in the
company of designers,” because they were the best company I knew.
“I can afford to be extravagant in praising designers because I am
not one,” I confessed, adding however that I was at least a fellow
traveler. Faint self praise, for the term “fellow traveler” was
sneeringly used at the most frigid period of the cold war by
Senator Joseph McCarthy to disparage men and women he was
investigating who thought like Communists, behaved like Communists,
fraternized with Communists and were as deserving of contempt as
Communists, even if they were not actually party members. The term
was soon extended affectionately to describe anyone who followed
the practices and beliefs of a given organization, and associated
with its members, without finding it necessary to join the
organization. The term was popular, for example, among those of us
who identified ourselves as “fellow travelers” of the Society of
Friends, or Quakers. They tolerated our independence, as Quakers do
not proselytize. This was a blessing because, for all their
excellence and virtue, Quakers could on occasion be difficult to
deal with, leading one fellow traveler I knew to explain, “If it
weren't for the Quakers, I'd be one.”
I am not alone in my enthusiasm for designers. I remember
attending a design conference that ended with a professor of
political science whose role was to summarize the discussions. “I
came here knowing absolutely nothing about design,” the professor
proclaimed. “Now, after listening to everything that has been said
here this week, I still know absolutely nothing about design—but I
know a great deal about designers.” Getting to know them, he
concluded, was more important than knowing about the trade they
Actually, the two—designers and design—are inseparable. People
are generally more interesting than things, but things are
interesting, too, and the business of designers is to ensure that
the two come together as usefully and pleasurably as possible.
Designers clarify and enrich what things mean to people. A
designing friend once called my attention to a Japanese ballpoint
pen on his desk. Holding it up he said, “Look at this pen.”
I looked, but saw nothing remarkable. “Take off the cap,” he
said. I did. It came of easily enough, but unlike most pen caps,
this one did not fit on the back of the pen. I laid the cap on the
“What do you think that means?” he asked.
“Does it have to mean something?”
“Of course it does,” he said. “Think of the possibilities. It
might simply mean that the designer was careless, but that level of
carelessness doesn't square with what we know about Japanese
standards of design and craftsmanship. Or it could mean that this
product reflects a culture that puts no premium on the efficient
use of space. But that is even less characteristic of Japan. It's a
As far as I know, it still is, but a working curiosity about the
meaning of things is no mystery. It is the designer's stock in
trade. Designers, like King Lear, take upon themselves the mystery
of things. How interesting is that?
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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