Could a Recession Be Good for Design?

Design Loves a Depression is a great read from last Sunday’s New York Times. Michael Cannel, a former Times editor, predicts an era of well-deserved recompense for the design community, one that will atone for the frivolity it has enjoyed over the past decade. Design won’t go away, he says, but it will have a new master: utility.

From his perspective, this is a good thing. Utility is, after all, what led to the design-for the masses Modernist movement in the 1940’s that gave us classics from designers like Charles and Ray Eames. His twenty-first century version of utilitarianism has some benefits I can get behind: a focus on quality at low prices (“it will be the designer’s job to discourage consumers from regarding that $30 Ikea side table as a throwaway item”), open-source design and “cradle-to-cradle” design, a “concept…that calls for cars, packaging and other everyday objects to be designed specifically for recycling so that their parts and materials are used and reused without waste.”

This all sounds very appealing and I can empathize with that kind of call to arms. On the other hand, I think that Mr. Cannell’s perspective that “the design world could stand to come down a notch or two” needs to be understood within the context of his corner of the design world. I hate to say that he’s out of touch, but most of us didn’t have his “front row seats” to Marcel Wanders “thumping” parties and of the three celebrity designers he ascribes to having achieved the one-name recognition enjoyed by Bono, Rem, Philippe and Zaha, I only recognize two. My wife: zero.

From my perspective, design never stopped being utilitarian. If we’ve learned one thing during this era or renewed design relevance, it’s that designers “are good at coming up with new ways of looking at complex problems” (his words, not mine). That evolved concept of design, that it’s about solving problems and creating order, is the the thing that has made these “giddy years,” not the indie-cool thick frame glasses or the self-conscious furniture. And isn’t problem solving the essence of utility? On the other hand, if a recession helps us see through the cliches and focus on substance, then maybe it’s just what design needs!