Where Credit Is Due

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice

American stamps were once the shame of American pen pals and collectors, who wondered plaintively why ours were not as beautiful as those of other countries. As I recall, their improvement ironically began just as the functional demand for them began to dwindle. The dwindling is nearly done now. Once an essential artifact of both social and business communication, stamps are now primarily of philatelic and aesthetic interest. In January the U.S. Postal Service announced a forthcoming set of 12 stamps celebrating “Pioneers of American Industrial Design.” The stamps were designed by Margaret Bauer and art directed by Derry Noyes, with Niels Diffrient as a consultant. But you'd never know any of that from reading most of the news releases.

A selection of stamps in the USPS series Pioneers of American Industrial Design

In July 2011 the U.S. Postal Service will issue a 12-stamp series commemorating “Pioneers of American Industrial Design,” designed by Margaret Bauer and art directed by Derry Noyes.

Stamp designers have not been wholly devoid of recognition. When Paul Calle died last September his New York Times obituary described him as “one of the most highly regarded stamp designers in the nation,” a category I doubt many readers knew existed. USA Philatelic's Beyond the Perf web journal reports regularly on the “people behind the process,” such as recently retired Terry McCaffrey, a 40-year veteran stamp designer with the USPS, and art directors Ethel Kessler, Derry Noyes and Phil Jordan, filmed discussing their favorite designs of the past year.

But in general stamp designers, like most designers, have had to live with the common failure to realize that anything is designed at all. As Julie Lasky has written, people need to be taught “not to presume that objects and graphics fell from the sky ... but that smart, highly trained people are behind them.”

Apart from the recognition that artifacts are designed by someone, the question of design credits is as old as the practice of design, and has been debated as long; but it has never been laid to rest. It won't be laid to rest now, either, but with the publication of two new books, neither of which I have read, this seems like an appropriate time to try to consider it freshly.

One book, The Story of Eames Furniture, reputedly purports to reveal that Charles and Ray Eames did not really design the furniture that famously bears their name. The other is Clara and Mr. Tiffany, a fictional biography of Clara Driscoll, the apparently nonfictional designer of most of the Tiffany lamps.

The pioneers honored in the new stamp issue, all deceased, are Frederick Hurten Rhead, best known for Fiestaware; Walter Dorwin Teague, who designed cameras at a time when they required film; Norman Bel Geddes, whose “Futurama” dominated the 1939 world's fair; Raymond Loewy; Donald Deskey ; Gilbert Rohde; Greta von Nessen, designer of the Anywhere lamp, which at one time was practically everywhere. Russel Wright; Henry Dreyfuss; Peter Müller-Munk, Dave Chapman; and Eliot Noyes, who was the father of Derry Noyes, who, in addition to her other achievements as a graphic designer has been an art director for the postal service, since the mid-1980s.

Most of the honorees headed their own design offices at one time, and several have been accused of taking credit for products that they had not personally designed. In many cases the charges were accurate enough, considering the way things were at the time. Many celebrated designers were widely identified as the designers of specific products, although the character of the products and the size of the office that issued them indicated that they could hardly have been the only designers responsible. During the hegemony of the designers honored in the new stamp issue, there were frequent tiffs, argument, and even lawsuits over the question of who designed what. This was largely accounted for by the prevailing business culture and the circumstances under which the design professions emerged. The first designers were essentially craftsmen offering a service, often misunderstood, for which there was no anterior need. Once a need was established, design offices had to become organizationally equipped to meet it. Attributing a design to everyone who had worked on it would have been a messy business. At least that was the rationale. Or the rationalization. So designs were routinely credited to the person whose name headed the office. Egos were involved of course. Office heads defended the system on the grounds that they were the ones charged with initiating and developing ideas and who took responsibility for whatever was done. As products became increasingly complex it became correspondingly clear that one person could hardly have done all the thinking or all the work. And the expanding size of design offices suggested the involvement of many hands and many heads. If the completion of a design project did not necessarily take a village, clearly it took a bullpen.

Soon firm names were changed accordingly. Rumplestiltskin Featherbone became Rumplestiltskin Featherbone and Associates. This struck a blow for accuracy, but did not do much for justice. (The ever-inventive Bran Ferren once, in a move towards egalitarianism, named his firm “Associates and Ferren.”) The resentfully perceived injustice was compounded by the fact that clients typically wanted to meet with the prestigious name designer, rather than someone in the backroom, no matter what he or she was called.

“Life,” as John Kennedy said, “is unfair.” One difficulty was, and is, that designers who went elsewhere after spending years working in a particular design office, were left without any clear evidence of authorship of their work.

During a period when some designers who had worked for him were complaining that they got no recognition for work they had done in the George Nelson office, George complained to me, “I understand that some people are saying that some of our products came from their ideas. Well, if they didn't think they were hired to have good ideas, why did they think they were hired?”

The postal service has honored design in the past, having put Frank Lloyd Wright's face on a 2-cent stamp in 1966. By 2008, when the Charles and Ray Eames stamps (also designed by Derry Noyes) were issued, the price had gone up to 42 cents. Meanwhile the concept of postal service had been disparagingly relegated to“ snail mail,” used largely for delivering bills, fund-raising pitches, wedding invitations and jury-duty summonses. The character of design-office credit has undergone equally radical change. I still encounter people determined to destroy “the myth of the solitary designer.” That may be a worthy mission but it seems late in the game to take it on. Never much of a myth to begin with, it has by now been thoroughly exploded and its substance made obsolete. Today there are few major design projects that are not transparently collaborative, making attribution more complicated than ever.

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.