If It Weren’t for Designers, I’d Be One

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 member.”

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 designers.”

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 worked.

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 desk.

“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 mystery.”

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?

About the Author:

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.