As a naturalized American the 4th of July is an opportunity for me to reflect about this great country. As a designer I noticed a few media streams that have come together to paint an interesting picture—a picture that should be talked about in design circles just as much as any new trend or eco-philosophy.
?The things we make, make us" is the new tag line of a visceral Jeep ad campaign, recalling a country that used to "make things." Andy Grove, Intel's legendary ex-CEO, wrote a quintessential piece on this week's BusinessWeek, suggesting that the loss of manufacturing in the USA is a big mistake. At the same time a few economy writers are starting to rethink recovery and suggest that the millions of jobs lost in the recession are not coming back. See Chris Isidore's story for CNNMoney.com: "7.9 million jobs lost, many forever."
As Andy Grove suggests, without strong manufacturing we cannot yield the social, long-term economics and even the innovation, we need to sustain our culture. He goes on to suggest that the focus on start-ups was misleading as it ignored the adverse effect of avoiding the scale-up phase of companies becoming leaders—a phase that grew thousands of jobs and was supervised by him as Intel grew to become the giant it is today. He's criticizing his own milieu of running away from such grueling task of building large companies, opting for the quick exit through promising start-ups. I sense that he suggests we have become a society for the few, the "smart" ones who do less and less on their own, think fast, and take the exit faster.
Together, the Jeep ads and media streams deliver a simple message: America is not in a mental state for doing things, it's in a mental state of opting out of any detailed, tangible work of building goods. We grew accustomed to deferring the hard work of delivering real, tangible products to someone else, usually across the ocean. We grew complacent, convincing ourselves that white-collar derivatives of such actionable, tangible creations is just as good and even better—we Strategize, Manage, Research, Innovate and Market! Yet when it comes to delivering the finished products, we opt out, assuming that none of "that stuff? has any value or merit.
This phenomenon is a cultural one, more than economical or strategic calculation. The perception—not reality!—is that the more you defer doing actual things, the better and smarter you are. Outsourcing is far more than an operational gimmick to beautify the books—it has become a leading bon-ton philosophy all around, including the design world. We think we can outsource everything, even design, to someone else, even "everyone" else: Crowdsourcing is another new empty slogan.
As we develop slogan after slogan, the irony is that the same people routing for slow food and locally-grown produce are the ones importing everything around their lives—iPhones, cars, washing machines, you name it. Produce sent from over 100 miles away is considered bad for you, yet an iPod manufactured by Foxconn is not. No one speaks of Silicon Valley adopting the 100-mile rule for electronics. As we glorify some crafts for good reason, we should consider others as well. How about "slow cars" or "slow TV" movements? Cars or TVs made locally, by the people in your community, which take seven to 10 years to be replaced? For example, Tesla's upcoming car factory in San Francisco's East Bay which will replace Toyota's factory, and continue making cars in the Bay Area.
People assume the more you defer doing actual things, the better and smarter you are.
Take software as an opposite example. As part of this process of removing ourselves from doing, we were first told that hardware is bad and software is good. However we now use software that has been manufactured, qualified and distributed from far away. Just like the way we make hardware, software has a great tradition of craft—coding—yet this is going the same route: Overseas.
Design practices have changed much in the last decade and the root cause is the phenomenon above. Designers, like many others, started doing less and thinking more. A profession that straddled white and blue collar worlds became a managerial profession. We pay premium for high-level hand-waving practices while deluding ourselves that it is smarter, better—even faster—way to achieve progress.
This goes farther than ideological camps of the design community: There is not a week gone by without me trying to convince one of my studio's designers to go down to the shop and get their hands dirty to get some real action going. Last week at our firm we had a case of measuring a component to fit inside a large device. It was suggested that a 3D CAD model should be sent out to be milled as a "check model." I insisted on getting the designer to show me with calipers how the thing is going to be put together...15 minutes later we discovered a mismatch in dimensions. I call it CAD Vertigo: We are so accustomed to white collar computer work that we think it represents reality. Wrong. It represent a distorted reality, where blue collar sensibility (like fixing a component inside a device) is relegated to someone else...probably in China.
Designers have limited ways of changing the world but we can start reversing this trend ourselves by focusing on Design Doing: A sensible balance between craft, thinking and creativity. With such sensibility we could possibly persuade our clients to start doing things with the same dedication to local craft, thinking and creativity. ?The things we make, make us.?