A Plea: Design With Conviction, Or Don't Design At All

Does the world need another plastic chair or container house? The Apartment's Stefan Boublil urges designers to stop riding past achievements and act with purpose.

While driving the other day, I decided to throw caution to the wind and turn on my parents’ Spotify, i.e., the radio, only to hear Madonna’s voice emerge, treading ever so subtly on the lyrics of her 2008 "Give It 2 Me": "Got no boundaries and no limits. If there’s excitement, put me in it. If it’s against the law, arrest me. If you can handle it, undress me."

I cannot sufficiently express how disingenuous and tacky that half-hearted drivel sounded to me. Thing is, I had believed her when she told us, all those decades ago, that she had been through the wilderness but somehow made it through, and that like a virgin touched for the very first time, her fear was fading fast…

Those were the words of someone with more than a rhyming dictionary handy but something to declare, something inside that begged to escape, an unquenchable thirst to announce her vision of the world to the world. Listening to her now, clinging to predictable expectations of herself, I could not shake the sadness I felt about her apparent lack of conviction, and it got me thinking about others in the chosen and over-rewarded fields of art and entertainment. Did Steven Spielberg really care about the journey of a foreign national stuck in The Terminal as much as he made us believe he did about extraterrestrials? Was Damien Hirst ever as certain of the importance of For the Love of God, the diamond-encrusted skull worth $100 million, as he was, 13 years earlier, about The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, the formaldehyde-bound white shark that kickstarted a movement and, at the time, sold for less than $100,000?

Sometimes, upon reading about this or that on the Internets, I get the feeling that few people are serious about what they do anymore. Maybe it is because of age, maybe because of success, but the lack of conviction seems to be a virus spreading through too many professions faster than a promiscuous Gwyneth Paltrow. And there is no better example of such apathy than in the design industry.

What are we to think about yet another plastic chair from Philippe Starck, another re-used container from Lot-Ek, another minimal movie poster from freakin’ everyone? Do these and other designers not create from visceral need anymore? Is design not of greater impact when it is the result of a serious principle applied by a serious person with serious skills? It seems to me that design lacks conviction of its own.

Now, far be it for me to devalue consistent style. What I am smacking down is rather the lazy climb on one’s own shoulders that is often called a "career" for today’s designers. There is so much to accomplish in our time by people who see themselves as the designers of the world that there is no excuse for Karim Rashid to apply yet another curve to another vase, for Marcel Wanders to laser-cut a lace pattern into a rug, for me to make another black apartment. It just doesn’t seem serious, and I, atypically, find this lack of seriousness disturbing.

What I mean by serious in this context is the designer’s seeming disappearing instinct for immersion in any one path that she deems so deeply interesting and/or important that she may find not mere opportunity but understanding of the medium. Conviction is a willingness to invest the time into said path so that we investigate and interpret what we have found to be true or false and act on those principles. That is what designers must express, every day, with faith and confidence: That what they are doing is indeed important, if not to others, at least to themselves–-a quality still hard to find in the aisles of design fairs the world over.

This rant, in fact, is not so much a smackdown of those who seem to cash checks earned on little more than autopilot as a love letter to the Béhars, the Boyms, the Hechts, the Ramses, the Fukasawas, who I imagine getting up in the morning with a mission, certain of the seriousness of their purpose. They are the ones we can count on to tackle such worthwhile projects as giving poor kids affordable glasses to making thought-provoking art, from rethinking the alarm clock’s impact on a day to eliminating the seldom-used parts of a citrus juicer. They are the ones we can trust to take their vocation dutifully so that we don’t end up looking at half-hearted products in our kitchens, cities, and landfills.

Design with conviction or don’t design at all, please. We can be serious and funny. We can be serious and jackasses. We can be serious and not change a bit. But please be serious and let us care enough to take the time to understand our world, not simply be observers or pragmatists. Let us even be serious about frivolity. Let us be serious about everything but ourselves.

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  • colinmturner

    I wonder if there is not a disconnect between the concept of design and the reality of authoring in the language of design. Comments regarding the regurgitation of the past makes me think about the reason we do that. It is ideogrammatical. While there are ergonomic, environmental etc. considerations, a vast output of design is focused on communication. Cultural and historical reference is the slang and jargon of visual communication. Original design requires first a non-referential idea. Is this possible in an information saturated existence? Can we silence the voices long enough to hear an original thought from our own minds? Is there a client for such results? These are the questions I ask myself. How elite do I need to be to deserve the name Designer.

  • Mikepoteet

    But the sad truth...people say they want conviction and new advances, but what is being bought are old 'one step up' designs.  This can be seen in most design area's (product design).  Especially in house wares.  Even if you had the 'holy grail' of kitchen ware, no one would buy it...they only buy new colors or form design.  I don't think consumers or those who supply them aren't ready for big jumps.  Boring is safe.  Though I is reality.

  • Jake Wells


    I agree too that there is definitely a lack of conviction in many professions, although I think that design is not suffering from this lack of conviction but moving (slowly) into the opposite direction. For instance, if you take a high level look at the design education programs of the world many are focused on empathy, research, and usability. These are things that help designers design wonderful products for people, not pretty things selfishly designed for the artists themselves. Rather they are the essential elements that are used in any of the "GREAT" designs that your aformentioned designers (Béhars, the Boyms, the Hechts, the Ramses, the Fukasawas) use. And so how could it be that if this is what is being taught, this is not what's being practiced? I think we are at the forefront of a moment in history for the field of design. We as designers are maturing in our motivations, and hopefully good things will come of it.

    Jake Wells

  • Glen Isip

    Something that's bothered me about the seemingly recent boom in design interest (in the US, at least) is the obvious omission of specifics. A graphic designer, an industrial designer, and a software designer are all nominally in the same field, but do very different work. What succeeds in one field can be disastrous in another; even within the same field, different designers can have very different goals. (A graphic design example of two different goals would be legibility vs. shock value.)

    What is the overarching goal of plain old "design"? Is it the fulfillment of the brief, or the usefulness in a user's hands, or the appeal of an aesthestic shape? It  More importantly, will the difference be obvious if designers do take themselves seriously?

  • Hamami

    Spot on,
    as for my self, I ve been involved in functional Design for the Foodservice industry for the last 20 years, untill i have decided to ask my self the same question, DO anybody needs the product that  i am producing ??
    I have my partner kay last year who had experience in Promotion design, so we joint forces and created a new product thats really fantastic. ( experimental prototyping 10 month.
    We maneged to make a turnover of about 700 T US, which is pretty good for the start.
    karm Nr 2 from Germany

  • Espen Brunborg

    Thank you Stefan and thank you Karim, you both have really good things to say about the design (and fashion) industry. It's a theme that's bothered me with increasing frequency, especially since starting designing for web, where trends and styles are passed around like trading cards. Perhaps fuelled by analytics and test results, there is a lack of will to break conventions and push things forward. 

    My plea to you, Karim, is to write up your comments about the fashion industry as  an article – I'd read it for sure. 

  • Stefan

    karim, much, MUCH respect for your comment, every point you make in it is correct, especially that of design not being just a creative act but a social one. however, if so, and design indeed engages us in welcome and overdue conversations about all aspects of our humanity, why do most, myself included, keep repeating the same sentences, using the same vocabulary, arrive at the same conclusions: mold a chair! draw a bird on a tea-pot! luxury plastic lamps! my sense is that conviction does NOT lead us down paths well-traveled and simply let us add a "twist," my sense is that conviction forces us into uncharted territory because we have seen, heard, tasted, touched and loved things and people no one else has by virtue of our unique experiences, that which in combination gives us OUR visions of the world to translate into art, design, entertainment, to be applied with force and certitude. designing what has already been, in mostly the same way, to me seems like an act of laziness more than anything else.

    conviction, combined with the social mission you correctly speak of, is what we need to fill our lives with the meaning of others, don't you think?

  • Karim

    Frankly i think you should rant on the fashion industry (or the automotive industry), not the design industry. The design industry is really struggling to even bring the public up to speed with the subject of design. The Bauhuas and modernism which is now already 70 years old is still alienating to most people in the United States. So design has a long way to go to make people live in a contemporary world, with better objects, more beautiful, more inexpensive, more human, more emotional, more functional, and more sustainable worlds. 

    Agreed design must surpass styling, that is what the fashion industry does. it borrows constantly from the past and gives us irrelevant and meaningless offerings. A woman's leather handbag today is still a 200 year old concept that really has nothing to do with how we live and navigate this world. High heel shoes are a form of bondage. Suits are just uniforms that are banal signifiers of so-called business. Lapels are meaningless, buttons, collars, ties? even patterns?really? is that industry saving the world? 
    And Yes we are witnessing an exhaustive excavation into the vaults of the past in design too, even more so than the post-modern eighties. It seems as history is unfolding at a hypertrophic rate, we keep searching into the past to unveil everything and anything, be it good or bad. But we should look to the future for change and innovation. I always believed that design and innovation are inseparable. Design is the modus operandi for moving society forward. Design is not about reiterating the past. Design is not about adding a 'curve'. Design though, is not only about problem solving for the impoverished, or helping the underprivileged - (which is completely necessary - thank you to my teacher in the 70's Victor Papenak), but we work with the production of goods, with this capitalism and mechanizations of consumerism and within those boundaries if we did not make things more emotional, more human, then they would be produced regardless WITH or WITHOUT US the mechanizations of the 20th century are in place. So if we left the profession tomorrow the goods would still be produced at hypertrophic rates. And i can't imagine a world without the designer involved in industry. The future of design is one that utilizes technology seamlessly, from construction to human interaction, to create new traditions and shape new experiences. Design needs to create a world with minimal impact on the environment, yet increasing the emotional connection between mind and physicality, between mind and space. 

    I have no excuse. I may apply another curve to make something more humanized, maybe more comfortable or more ergonomic, but I must add in every project another 100 issues to meet the criteria of today which is what i do to almost every product i work on, every space i design, every project i tackle. I may make that curve from biodegradable PE, or for a water bottle that can be refilled 300 times, or to make an object less expensive. But if you are not working within the criteria of today then you are just styling and derivative of history. Design is visceral and intellectual. It is a leeft-brain right brain balance. Design is not just a creative act,  it is a social act, and a political act and i think that is what we do.