Discuss "Toward a Cultural Innovation"

"Recently flipping through Product Design Now, a glossy new yearbook of current trends in product design, I was floored by the mind-numbing sameness of page after page of slick new gizmos flaunting the formulaic look of iPod minimalism—a radiused box—which seems to have colonized every corner of the industrial globe. If this ‘global voice’ truly is product design now, then it’s not surprising to hear IDEO co-founder, Bill Moggridge speculate that more of IDEO’s form-giving tasks may soon be dispatched to their Shanghai office, where 10 talented designers cost the same as one in the U.S. This forecast may be the writing on the wall for American designers: not all design-thinking is created equal. Strategic creativity will grow in demand here, but formulaic ID skills are in greater supply than demand, and when quality supply is plentiful, the job goes to the lowest bidder—in China.

These brutal economics should have American industrial designers spooked. We face a Darwinian imperative: evolve or perish. And ‘innovation’ is not immune to these forces. In fact, historic shifts suggest that American ID will be forced to re-mix innovation, combining our rational, problem-solving backbeats with some daring new rhymes that bring a cultural point-of-view (POV) to the forefront of design strategy. But what IS point-of-view? And why is it important for industrial designers NOW?"

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I’m basically responding as a retailer faced with what you all decide we need to decide on. I think Scott really hit the nail on the head in many ways. There should, however, be a stronger differentiation here between innovation in design and innovation in marketing. american apparel is marketing, I would argue. Cool or not, I still look at design in the old school way- which is exactly what the writer requested I don’t do. And too many designers have focused on being marketers instead of designers (I am sure all of us could name a few). If you want to lead you need to lead. Innovate or die.

there is a tremendous amount of homogeneity of product in the retailing world- and people are looking for something different. the same problem is true with design/objects- most of the designers are producing knee-jerk reactions to other people’s designs- accomodating something here and there to sell a few kopek’s worth. where’s the passion? It has become extremely difficult as a retailer to pick and choose from the tremendous amount of junk and slightly ripped-off concepts out there- and this is made even tougher by our decision to try to support young designers. Go to Accent on Design at the NY Gift Show and you will begin to understand the world we operate in. If I get approached with one more laser cut stainless piece I will puke. (Unfortunately we also have a stipulation that if our customers ask we will stock- for the time being) You (as designers) have technology- develop it and figure out other ways to use it.

I would also argue a point against BUILTNY. While I appreciate the point scott is making (it is impressive that they have built a market for themselves), we have refrained from continuing with built primarily because we view it as a one trick pony just carving out niche after niche with the same concept. A healthy business model would suggest differentiation at this point. Okay, neoprene is durable and it comes in cool colors and you can make a cool pattern or two. and your margins are good. What else can you do? This product is begging to be ripped off (if it hasn’t already). I am not talking as if ripping this off is not flattery- it is a good concept- but the design and products from these designers/company need to develop in other ways in order for this company to thrive and survive. Unless they want to be known as neoprene central and lose market share in a very quick and ugly fashion. I’m going to hide a bit from that statement, but I think it is very true. Innovation needs to continue beyond first base and first success.Unless you just want to cash in your chips and move to a nice little island. We look at their product as a short cool flash in the pan concept. I would prefer a long term relationship with a reliable source of innovation and coolness. Perhaps this point needs to be in another article.

I think if you really want to look at a nice little US company with some core values go see Context Furniture. Scott probably didn’t mention them because he’s involved with the company and designed some nice stuff. Context might also be little more than a speck on the radar at the moment. They are small, innovative, dedicated to their own concept and brand, and produce lower priced but very unique products- in a number of different styles. They also show temporal development of design and concept. If they can get the marketing right and continue on their own path it would be a very interesting story to watch. Their next step, of course, is to get support from the ho hum retailers and their clientele. They need to develop their own sense of cool. I suppose that is our job as retailers; we bang our collective heads against the wall regularly trying to figure that out. The american consumer often appears as lemmings in our nightmares; “we want something different but not TOO different,” they say. Perhaps this point needs to be made in another article as well.

“So is it really a red alert? Does American Industrial Design really face extinction? I hope so.”

Beyond image and “cool factor,” our American culture needs substance in order to reach new innovative design platforms. Thus succumbs the big fish to the little fish, as little companies seek to shape a new face to niche culture markets in their own key cities. It’s little man’s complex in some twisted marketing form, where a small company’s key downfalls must be overshadowed ten fold by their own substance in order to admit themselves into the world of culture shaping. So lets just leave the big companies to their empty blandness.

Leave the slick gizmos to the brain dead of suburban society mindset. These artificial tastes thrive upon the bland products and storefronts bespeckled throughout our new age boomtowns. Crossing paths with these synthetic cities disgust me, as each place echoes the same boring arcitecture, store names and fatty restaraunts. The culture out there bellows little more than a loud yawn for creative embrace, and I should know being raised in America’s second fastest growing boomtown myself.

Innovative breakthroughs aren’t left for big boys waiting to spoon feed their mass of drones, but for the little guys that are compelled to innovate or die in the small colorful world they operate in.

The question isn’t why does this happen, it’s clear that there’s too much people to feed the good soup to, so we have to water the base down to reach across to everyone. And this soup needs to span a range across half the continent of North America, and then some. So then we lose to creatively advanced European countries whose dense population spans over a land the size of our one of America’s average states. Inter-country ideas are more far reaching amongst a great population of creative thinkers, and innovations in response to these ideas emerge at a faster pace.

Lets go beyond bashing American design and just let it fizzle to a bubbly death so we can shape a true culture in peace like real artists engulfed in our own contributing arts. I digress, probably should have stopped at soup anologies.

Scott is right and the essay is very well written. But I think that the stakes are even higher, and the situation is even more challenging.

Our society will only reach stability (sustainability, sanity) if we reduce nonrenewable-energy-intensive activities and curtail extractive industries. We need less physical production, less consumption. The growth imperative built into the economy contradicts the requirements of the planet-- and guess who wins when push comes to shove? The fundamental cultural problem at hand, our central problem, is how to calm and redirect consumption patterns without presuming revolution, since that is a non-starter-- and without excessive idealism or emotionalism, since they are also non-starters.

There are a few ideas afloat on how to reduce consumption and reduce the speed of material throughput-- incremental approaches, like the “negawatt”, or the idea of selling service contracts (like “floor covering services”) rather than products (like"carpet’). But these are only a start. We need more creative research on the subject. Scott, I’m sorry to be a wet blanket. More, smarter, culturally innovative products are fine, but they will not get us where we need to go.

If you look at the Economist’s guide to economic and social statistics for the various nations (arable land; education; public health; number of Nobel prizes…) the United States is exemplary, or at least of-a-kind, in comparison to other industrial nations in all but one respect: consumption. In energy use and resource consumption we are off the charts. Buy the little book at the statistics yourself; everything is presented in black and white. If the US was a patient and we were doctors, we would be wheeling him or her into OR immediately.

Exporing this path is extremely difficult for at least two reasons. First, design/architecture culture is fueled by the design/building industry. High consumption and economic expansion are preconditions for these industries. Second, effective solutions tend to be imaginable only at higher and higher levels of social organization-- for example, in the realm of policy as opposed to the realm of product innovation. By training and proclivity, our thinking as designers/architects begins in the tangible world: we need bottom-up strategies, ways to change the collective mediated world from our foothold in the immediate world. The further we dig, the more we realize the less we know. Our skill set needs to be expanded tremendously. I know that Kent Kleinman, the new chair of the Department of Architecture, Interior Design, and Lighting at Parsons/The New School, is expanding the academic curriculum this way-- to include knowledge and critique of large-scale economic, social, and global cultural forces.

Peter Lynch
Architect, Bronx, new York

Good points, Peter. When speaking of point-of-view in design, sustainability is clearly the most pressing issue, but I don’t want to limit the topic to this issue alone. I agree that a top-down policy is needed - and would be expected if only we had REAL leadership at the top- but until that happens I’ll have to put my faith in a consumer-led revolution. What you are describing is a new story, a new vision, a new set of values regarding production and consumption. Many consumers want that vision and are beginning to understand the new story. ‘Good’ companies like Toyota are being rewarded in the market. ‘Bad’ companies like Ford are punished in the market and forced to play catch-up on the sustainable POV. Slowly (too slowly) our context - our mental environment- changes. Higher oil prices would certainly speed the change toward a flood of ‘cultural innovation.’

Packaging the sustainability story –making it desirable and essential for consumers – is the best tool we have right now to lead this change. And the volume on this POV needs to be cranked to ’11.’ My favorite new term (from Sunday’s NYTimes Mag) is ‘semiotic disobediance’. Sustainability (and frankly, many other common-sense social agendas) can and probably should speak with a spirit of disobediance in our current climate of right-wing meme wars. Indeed, the stakes have been raised for POV.

I sense these issues take on a different tone in architectural discourse, which often seems removed from a consumer context.

Scott Klinker

This is one of the best design article I’ve read in a long, long time.

Klinger’s steadfast resistance in the face of the “Either/Or” thinking that haunts design (“I’m a business person…” “I’m a creative person…”) is note-perfect.

The creation of culture is tremendously difficult business…many (most?) designers aren’t up to the task…but then, most business people aren’t, either. That’s because culture-creation takes an enormous measure of courage. Courage. An old-fashioned word that signals resolute steadfastness in the face of significant opposition. The resistance of conventionality (in this case, radiused rectangles).

Courageously using the inspiration of a deeply held point-of-view IS designing. Everything else else is derivative. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that! It does pay the rent.)

That piece sounds like some of the threads we’ve had here. Correction: like a very few of the threads. And that’s a big part of the problem imo: designers in general don’t seem to care enough about any of these issues. Just look at this thread and how few people visit this section of the forum. Then go look at the thread on some dweeb’s personal issues. What a joke. Designers don’t seem to be any less superficial than the people on the street who can’t name a Supreme Court justice or the three branches of government. You can’t have designers become cultural innovators if they’re largely ignorant about the culture (except for “cool” products). So rallying them with the “Let’s become cultural designers” rings hollow to me. I’ve largely lost faith in the ID community being anything more than pawns for Engineering and Marketing. Count me as one of those who’ll be glad to see Industrial Design die.

While there is ample room in one definition of “culture” for the notion of creating: pearls, stones, moonshine— when we conflate the anthropological, psychological, and sociology definition: religious culture, national culture, even office culture —and make it a design goal, or systems design goal, is where we risk slipping. The words contrived and artificial come to mind. And if you start there, chances are, you’ll finish there. Using examples of companies that have created a version of a culture through a well-developed product and some gifted individuals (the obvious ixample) is fine, even inspiring, but making the inversely proportional leap that if you design in a certain way, you can create a culture is backasswards. It might happen, it might not, but as an approach to process, it seems pseudoscientific. Culture, like shit, happens.

When I review the cultural rites and their corresponding artifacts that are important to me, they are either spontaneous in origin, serendipitous, or purely adhere to a form follows function dictum: modern Jews still use menorahs for example because of oppression and survival reasons thousands of years old, other cultures created drums because they needed musical release and gourds were abundant, etc. I covet my ipod because it’s a brilliant innovation and appealing design, not because it puts me in some “tribe” with someone else [yes, I’m over thirty]. There’s no humility in that, no belief larger than oneself in that sort of pseudo culture, save the almighty Steve Jobs. Practically speaking, if you look at an iLife as a culture, it’s more insular than uniting, as the marketing lets on. An insular culture is oxy moronic.

While things can enter the zeitgeist in a variety of ways, including events that become cultural phenomenon by pure design, I personally am most interested in listening to reggae performed by Jamaicans and eating sushi prepared by Japanese. There are instances (as Hugh pointed out) where marketing trumps authenticity (our first domestic import, Haagen-Dazs comes to mind) but they are far and few between; in fact most people probably don’t know that Haagen-Dazs always was an American company.

There is a fine line between culture and trend. While it’s true that certain things break through and in fact may become a significant weave in our cultural fabric, the over-emphasis on this notion of culture creation alone does not make significant strides toward a healthful journey from the junk on our shelves to those things that culture meaning. Not only is it arrogant, but the misnomer degrades the meaning of culture. The whole point is that it’s this meaning we’re after as designers (and people in general). So while this may be an issue of linguistics, and my response is not necessarily a polemic on Scott’s core point, I just want to be sure we’re using similar definitions while pursuing this debate.

The achievements, customs, and social institutions of a people evolve naturally --fast or slow-- growing and changing as we change. So should their artifacts. Forcing it is pretense. So As designers, our approach should be a thoughtful reflection of this process, one that indicates we are listeners, artists, and sometimes visionaries, but we should always be humble and cautious of hubris. It’s dangerous to think that we can whip up some culture on our whiteboards and Blackberries.

I don’t know the answer but feel obliged to attempt an alternate perspective. Rather than focusing on culturing design, we need to improve our design culture. While it’s very American to rush things, our true strength lies in our ingenuity, work ethic, and tunnel vision (all of which produce various outcomes). American design will be reborn with distinct flavor at a natural pace. And when it does, I imagine it will see its day as a world leader. What’s most empowering is that all signs seem to point to a revolution that has improved priorities over the old paradigm.

That’s one of the best posts I’ve ever read on this forum. Thank you, Mark. Well said.


For MarkMosk:

There’s nothing in the article advocating a pseudo-science for posers. To the contrary, to me it seems obvious that the best ‘cultural’ authorship always comes from those who are intimately engaged with, and inspired by, the subject matter of their creative efforts, whether it be in design, literature, music, or other Arts.

The article also points toward giving consumers more truth and authenticity rather than duping them with marketing.

Linguistically, I know it’s risky to put the words ‘culture’ and ‘innovation’ together, because culture is loaded with values - innovation, so far, seems devoid of values. That is, innovation seems removed from critical questions of intent, it wants to be seen as value-free. Innovation can easily apply to making more efficient war machines, more diapers for the landfill or more cost-effective ways of packaging colored sugar water. So the notion of a ‘cultural innovation’ may be discolored by our current perception of an amoral ‘innovation’. This article is an attempt to broaden the discussion of innovation, but I see how the associations get tricky. Well, ‘The Morality of Innovation’ is another article, and no doubt, a good one.

However, I’m not opposed to thinking strategically about culture, nor do I think it’s backasswards ,as you said, to suggest ‘that if you design in a certain way, then you can create a culture.’

On this one, I’ll absolutely side with Winston Churchill who summed it up: ‘We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.’

This is a good thread. Thanks for thoughts!
Scott Klinker

It’s clear that we’re both after more meaning but if designers were to rally behind a set process --albeit broad in scope-- for getting there, we’d approach a monoculture of design thinking (to keep the core terms in play). I understand you’re not advocating that, but you are putting more faith than I would in being able to produce endlessly divergent, interesting, and plain good ideas from a (to be) defined approach. I tread lightly around the notion of prescribed anything, especially in a creative field, and reiterate my point that all ducks can be in a row for a certain process and it doesn’t ensure more meaning from the end result. It didn’t take long for the expression, “think outside the box” to be right in the center of one.

Look at the difference between Ross Lovegrove and Karim Rashid. In some ways their end results have similar formal languages. I would imagine that Mr. Rashid fancies himself a real “culture-maker”. Certainly his new book, “Design Your Self: Rethinking the Way You Live, Love, Work, and Play,“ not to mention his other book with the even more pretentious title wouldn’t belie that. The suit, the glasses, the posturing, he’s certainly his own best creation yet. Lovegrove on the other hand, undoubtedly with an equally large ego, creates what I consider more meaningful (and attractive) forms through a scientific and obsessive interest in understanding ‘the past’ at its most root level, cellular/structural, and enhancing that knowledge with the amazing technology he’s lucky enough to share an epoch with. His belief in something larger than his own ability to make beautiful forms (of course coupled with his own ability to make beautiful forms) is what gives his work meaning and makes Rashid look like a stylist in contrast. For more on Lovegrove, check out this short lecture of his:

If I were able to always design in a way that produced culturally significant artifacts, every time, arguably a perfect process, I would still be afraid for my culture. Just as much as we all are now.

Most of us began our art/design careers in Kindergarten, being told to stay within the lines while coloring. Perhaps it’s this early lesson that’s to blame for what currently graces the pages of Product Design Now. Hunting too hard for the right process is bound to produce these monocultural problems all designers need to avoid.

While it’s hard to dispute Churchill, I’ll have to side with Ed Norton’s narrator character in Fight Club, “You are not your khakis.”

Scott, I appreciate you opening up the dialogue on this design juggernaut and respect the clear articulation of your POV. Realizing the awesome potential of the internet through discussions like this, which could easily reach cultures around the globe, reminds me that there is plenty of amazing innovation in our era.

This is a pretty vehement and clear call to action, quite compelling,
but I am hoping that Scott will go even further and declare what kind
of action, what kind of values need to be expressed, what kind of
“stories” are the ones that will help the culture grow. Let’s have a
radical statement of design ethics and efficacies here! Forget losing
business to the offshore designers, to clever marketing and giant corporations—there are more important issues at stake, such as halting the dramatic destruction of the planet, and dealing with world events that are recently approaching the apocalyptic. It’s about time that we get
beyond art for art’s sake, design for design’s sake and move into salvation mode. Let’s toss politically correct equivalencies out the window. I no longer care if an object is “just” beautiful. That’s great, and
definitely important, but what else does it do? How many different
ways can I use it? What can I connect it to to make it even more
useful? How can I recycle it when I’m done with its first usefulness,
and use it again? And again and again? It’s time that we agree that
certain values are vitally important in design, and should not only be
taught in the academy, but INSISTED upon during all phases of the
design process from inception through production. To whit: Local
production using local labor. Renewable resources. Low carbon
footprint. A preponderance of recyclable and/or green materials.
We’re running out of resources and polluting the planet into
extinction all at the same time.

And coming up with an ethical design aesthetic is all the more
important because we live in a rapidly-transforming world where single
catastrophic events—whether natural or human-made—or both—are
swiftly and dramatically altering the histories of nations and
individuals’ lives. Ten-thousand-mile-long Tsunamis. Devastating flu
pandemics. Million-acre wildfires. Category 5 hurricanes. Subway
bombings. Magnitude 9 Earthquakes. Massive Lightning strikes. Polar
melts that alter ecosystems. Biological warfare. Volcanic eruptions
in urban centers. Humongous mudslides that bury towns. Mass
evacuations. Crop contamination. Mass quarantines. Suicide bombs.
Suitcase nukes. Killer blizzards. Tornadoes where no tornadoes can
possibly occur.

We’ve had every one of these events since 2004. There are and will be
populations living in transitory and temporary ways for decades as
people are displaced, fleeing, relocated. Homeless, and objectless. In addition to the green imperative, now more than ever the story designers need to tell—the
values that need to be privileged—have to do with creation,
purposeful, directed, action, to literally re-make the world from
salvaged materials, recycled materials, recombinant materials, from
garbage and glittering things……

Is is interesting, and extraordinary, that Scott has taken one huge
step in this direction, perhaps unwittingly. His very successful toy,
the Spaceframe kit, is very close to being a flat-packed
temporary shelter. AND it’s made of recyclable material. Slap some
waterproofing on it, cover it with a tarp, and you can house a family
of six in a temperate climate for weeks. But perhaps more
importantly, Scott is teaching a whole generation of kids how to design
shelters from the ground up. Now THAT’S the kind of values
transcendant design should convey every time!

to DollSoldSeparately and Szeto. The world isn’t ending. The issue is: there are too many humans. Teaching people to better themselves will only compound the problem that you are worked up about.
The reality is there was a time when volcanos flowed and exploded and the plates of the earth moved at random. Why was this not a problem then? Because there weren’t billions of people who are keenly aware of “life”. If you want to help something then don’t have kids, talk your friends into getting fixed and please for goodness sake move to the northern territories of Canada and live in a shelter you made yourself. …oh and enjoy winter and eating.

Eco issues are real and humans are the issue my friends. Furthing quality of life is how we got here in the first place.

My point, radical calls to action noting the apocalypse and complaints about “brainless suburbanites” are a detriment to the profession. If you don’t like commerce then please find something else to do with your life.

Scott your article was well written.

and tornados where tornados couldn’t possibly occur before…heh, that was funny. don’t forget we have media that can present this info to billions of people the second it happens. that is new in the history of humans. we have satellites in space that tell more info than we ever knew. …and more people living on every square inch of the planet. the core issue of the article is, find value in your profession because there are better values elsewhere in areas where the people are better educated and the labor is lower cost. that is about value. we are facing that in our own design group. our answer was the same as scotts…provide context. If it doesn’t add value then we let it be done overseas in asia. that is a reality. art design and one off design and green design won’t change the value component. as humans we have always sought value and where we couldn’t get value we fought for value.
man, that got me worked up.
…ethical aesthetics? geeezzzzz what do they teach in school these days?


Good article, however, in your post you mentioned that a ‘top-down’ policy is needed with REAL leadership at the top. I’m curious as to what exactly this means. The answer might help me to understand what you mean by ‘common sense social agendas’. Surely you aren’t suggesting that there really is such a thing? Few things are so frightening as ‘top-down’ policy issued by a self-proclaimed arbiter of ‘common sense social agendas’! I hope I’m misunderstanding your sentiment.


I was in agreement with your first sentence. The rest devolved into a bizarre caricature. Especially the litany of disasters.


“The issue is: there are too many humans”

No. Ehrlich was as wrong as wrong can be. The population of humans is not the problem, or any problem at all. The political oppression of peoples and economies is the problem. You are correct that the ubiquitous radical calls-to-action about the impending apocalypse are counterproductive at best, and more typically the ominous foreshadowing of wannabee crackpot tyrants looking to assert their idiosyncratic notions of ethics on everyone around them.

I think of sustainability as a common sense social agenda. Sometimes government must step-in and correct the pathologies of capitalism. Policies that mandate more sustainable practices would seem to be common sense in light of scientific evidence that proves the threat of climate change. Not governing these practices, not only shows a lack of leadership but is really a kind of gross negligence.

scott klinker

Great article, but Scott lost me on the transition to “let’s look at the new realities of ‘mass’”. The only example for “heavy tooling” given in the following paragraph was that of Apple, packaging lifestyle decisions into ‘iLife’, etc.

In contrast to the cut-and-sew industries, or to the one-off production of gourmet coffee, some of us, a lot of us actually, still have to make decisions based on how to best spend 1.2 million dollars of Non-Recurring Expenses on plastic tooling for Next Season’s model. And this is not like fashion design or food design or wine bottle cover design. Within those tooling dollars are minimal provisions for customization to specific niches within the entire audience expected to buy the product.

So while Droog and Memphis are nice examples of how massclusivity could work if people actually didn’t want a consistent result, a consistent product, they bear little resemblance to the kinds of design struggles I, and many of my counterparts, undertake on a daily basis.

I’m not saying it can’t work - but the economics of production plastic tooling, as I’m sure you are aware, cannot be amortized in short-run, niche-market satisfying production quantities. Now I’ve heard of rapid prototyping in quantities, and am all for it, especially with the suspect source of even Apple’s nice white plastic being fought over in the Middle East. But we have to sell two years worth of the product I am now designing in order to pay off the tooling expenditures.

Sorry for sounding like a caveman on here. I did appreciate many of the thoughts in the article, especially the “taking a risk - creating culture” part. Sottsass said something about the thing designed for eternity, becoming lost in time, whereas the thing designed for the immediate, the now, becomes eternal, eventually. How I would interpret the “heavy-tooling” challenge in this regard is to focus entirely on the niche characteristics, and gamble that everyone else would get on board.

Did a post about watering down ideas for the masses get turned around into talking about ecofascism?

The iPod style of chrome, aluminum, white and perfectly clear plastic isn’t going to be forever … its a fashion. The idea that it will be some end to product design is hilarious.

Don’t even cite it as a reason to worry. If nothing else, the fact that some highly paid designer is getting props from her peers for picking “the” white used for the ipod is pretty funny.

Really inspiring article I agree as well! One thing that I am still thinking about is the question about the bottom-up v. top-down creation of culture and trends. All cultures start from the bottom-up–from fringe users(Make magazine for instance), artists, patterns of everyday life…And now the empowered masses with open-source technologies and consumers with DIY attitudes(Home Depot, Readymade mag, instructables.com…). The ipod? Well sure it has become an icon of a popular design trend. However, it is still self-referential of apple and its designer without allowing for transformations and change(i broke my mini trying to replace the battery!). Partly to MarkMosk’s point, I think there is a clear distinction between culture and trend. Values of culture are created and contributed from the bottom up; while trends are mass-marketed from the top-down. They feed off of each other but I think the distinction is clear. Cultural change is in the hands of everyday people, not just people labeled as designers and artists. I think the best we can do as people with those labels is provocatively communicate the values from these cultural changes; into trends for everyone to understand and act upon.