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A Secret History Of Selling Out: How Designers Reluctantly Embraced The Corporate World

From planned obsolescence to focus groups, designers and corporations haven’t always seen eye to eye.

“Do I want to be honest but broke, or do I want to prostitute myself and be loaded?” In 1961, Bernard Benson, a British aviation designer, articulated one of his generation’s core dilemmas: selling out.

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Today, corporations and designers have a less fraught relationship. Making money off design isn’t viewed negatively, and using design to strengthen business is widely accepted. “Things have changed a lot,” Wim de Wit, adjunct curator of architecture and design at the Cantor Arts Center, tells Co.Design. “The fear of selling out to commerce is no longer the same.”

But it’s been a rocky road, as de Wit shows in a new exhibition from the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, Design for the Corporate World: 1950-1975. The mainstreaming of design in business took decades and was hotly debated by designers and executives alike. And today, we’re seeing similar debates rekindled as designers question their relationship to corporations and the effectiveness of established ideas, like design thinking, in combating today’s problems.

With that in mind, Co.Design spoke with de Wit about how designers and corporations became uneasy bedfellows.

Henry Dreyfuss (U.S.A., 1903-1972) and James Conner (U.S.A., 20th C.), “The Swinger,” Land Camera Model 20 for Polaroid, 1965. [Photo: courtesy Cantor Arts Center/Stanford University]

How WWII Proved Design’s Value

Design for the Corporate World focuses on insights from the International Design Conference in Aspen, or IDCA, a multidisciplinary symposium that was like the midcentury’s version of TED. (In fact, TED’s founder, Richard Saul Wurman, was a former IDCA chair.)

Founded in 1951 by Walter Paepcke, an influential Chicago industrialist and early adopter of modern design in the United States, IDCA centered around convincing corporations that design could help their businesses, and that designers should be involved in decision-making–a radical idea in the postwar era.

As de Wit writes in a monograph that accompanies the exhibition, the uneasy relationship between designers and corporations was emblematic of the larger societal concerns with big business. In the 1920s and ’30s, corporations were perceived negatively. “Many people resented their existence,” he writes. “They were often described as soulless entities.”

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But that perception softened as a result of World War II, when corporations’ contributions were viewed as vital to the war effort. In the years following WWII, rationing and scarcity gave way to a thriving American consumer goods market and economy, which was further fueled by the Marshall Plan, a government aid program to help Western Europe recover from the war. The emergence of new markets posed a challenge for corporations, which weren’t equipped to compete on the global scale.

Enter branding and design–mechanisms that could give companies an edge.

“Traditional means of standing out through quality of product and low prices were no longer effective,” de Wit writes. “American manufacturers therefore embraced a new strategy that would enable consumers anywhere in the world to visually recognize their products through design and though the creation of brand identities.”

Mass production had more or less leveled the playing field–lots of companies could make good, affordable products at scale. What would make a difference at the cash register, then, had to do with how a consumer decided to buy one company’s product over a competitor’s–how it looked, how it made a consumer feel, and how well it performed. In other words, all the things that a designer imparts on a product.

Design was now viewed as essential–but designers themselves didn’t quite get a mandate, as the IDCA proceedings revealed. Companies didn’t fully trust designers. Nor did designers trust companies.

Henry Dreyfuss (U.S.A., 1903-1972), Telephone model 500, for Bell Telephone Laboratories, 1953. Molded plastic, metal, rubber. [Photo: courtesy Cantor Arts Center/Stanford University]

Mutual Distrust: Designers Enter The Corporate World

For the first three years of the IDCA’s existence–the conference was active until the early ’90s–the event’s theme was “Design and Management.” Its thesis was clear, as articulated by an announcement letter by Paepcke:

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“A design department, properly staffed and given support and wide latitude, can enhance a company’s reputation as an alert and progressive business institution within and without its organization, and assist materially in improving its competitive position.”

Designers, who had to support themselves financially, were interested in working with companies. However, even in the early days, full of optimism about what designers could accomplish, there was trepidation and uncertainty about how exactly their services would fit into the corporate landscape.

De Wit singles out the emergence of market research in the ’40s and ’50s as an example of the tension between designers and management. Corporations were using information gleaned from focus groups, surveys, and interviews as a yardstick for what would make an item sellable and “good” in their minds. Meanwhile, designers were relying on their expertise and education to determine what defined an innovative product–knowledge that management dismissed in favor of their own intel.

“There was this issue of designers wanting to work with corporations, but also being very afraid of what they were doing to themselves,” de Wit tells Co.Design. “There was mutual distrust.”

For example, companies were skeptical of artists and designers, and “suspicious of the artists’ intentions,” de Wit says. “Would they take the product too far to where customers wouldn’t buy it? What emerged was this notion of being the ‘most advanced yet acceptable,’ as Raymond Lowey described.”

Designers, too, were wary. Walter Dorwin Teague–founder of the 90-year-old design company now known as Teague–cautioned conference goers about the need for open and willing collaboration and a thorough understanding of the landscape. “[Industrial design] should understand and solve the necessary restrictions placed upon it by the manufacturer’s plant operation, tools, the necessary cooperation between designer and engineer–without which work does not progress–and ultimately price level.” At the 1956 conference, J. Gordon Lippincott–designer of the Campbell’s Soup label, among other things–said: “Rather than having design-oriented management, we dealt in the main with management-oriented design.”

Additionally, designers had to reckon with planned obsolescence, a consumerist corporate strategy to get people to buy more things more often. It was an ethical dilemma for designers.

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As the conference progressed, the relationship between designers and corporations diminished as a conversation topic, especially after Paepcke stepped down from his organizational role in the mid-’50s. The theme changed from design and management to design as an instrument for social progress during the ’60s. Priorities had shifted, and in 1964 Reyner Banham told conference attendees: “[W]e are no longer dealing with a confrontation between management and design, but between designers and the world at large.”

It seemed as though designers had come to terms with their role in corporations and were focusing on the next big dilemma: their profession in the context of a world of crisis.

Lester Beall (U.S.A., 1903-1969), Style Book for Connecticut General Insurance, 1958. [Photo: courtesy Cantor Arts Center/Stanford University]

Progressive Design And The Countercultural Revolution

The emergence of radical design collectives in the late ’60s and ’70s fundamentally changed the relationship between designers and corporations yet again.

In 1970 the conference invited Ant Farm, Sim van der Ryn (a Berkeley professor who pioneered the environmental design movement) and his students, as well as some French philosophers–and “they caused quite bit of trouble,” de Wit says. There was no fine line between designers and corporations to debate; instead, the countercultural groups essentially lumped them together. Everyone who was at the conference–both corporate management and designers–was part of the capitalist machine and the machine itself was the enemy, in these radical designers’ mind.

Yet after the tumultuous conference of 1970, the tense relationship between designers working with corporations ceased to be as dramatic. The designers’ roles became more accepted, and their work proved to be successful. The conference continued to focus on broader societal problems, rather than designers’ fear of becoming corporate stooges.

Soon, the corporate design world began to look more like the one we know today. Businesses invested more heavily in their in-house design teams, management began to integrate design thinking into their operations, and some organizations bought up independent studios to boost their credentials–a practice that ignites debate even today over whether or not it stifles creativity.

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So what can today’s practitioners learn from the dialog of designers and corporations in decades past? De Wit hopes his research into this tumultuous relationship during the midcentury offers context for contemporary designers. “It’s important for [designers] to know where they came from, to think of their own work in that context, and to appreciate that they have a stronger position [in the corporate world] today.”

Today, the debate over the role of design in society is repeating itself. We’re experiencing political instability, we’re reckoning with an environmental crisis, and there’s civil unrest. At the same time, companies are producing tone-deaf (and outright offensive) ad campaigns. Some of today’s most influential designers are creating irrelevant products that have become the butt of jokes, and investors are pumping money into companies with egregious business practices.

Now, more than ever, designers have a responsibility to assert themselves, reassess their professional ethics, and flex the vaunted position their predecessors have afforded them to become a more positive force in the world.

About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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