Jill Malek designs everything from this Sleeping Briar Rose wallpaper to yoga mats.
Jill MalekJill Malek designs everything from this Sleeping Briar Rose wallpaper to yoga mats.

Suppose you were the parent of a bouncing new baby girl and a genie let you determine her future. Either she could be a great student, debate-team captain, editor of the literary magazine, class valedictorian, and eventually prelaw at Yale, or she could become a middling student, kind of bored with school, but a whiz at dioramas, self-portraits, and set designs for school plays who goes on to the product-design department at Parsons School of Design. No offense to the set designer, but you’d go for the Yalie, right?

Not so fast. You’re probably thinking of the class artist of yesteryear—the doodler, the tinkerer, the sometimes nerdy, sometimes aggressively bohemian student who ranked in the school hierarchy somewhere above the tuba player and somewhere below the hockey team’s substitute goalie. When I was in high school in the mid-1960s, he was a daydreamer named Ron who used his trusty Magic Markers to make me a dynamite series of posters based on the cartoon Peanuts when I ran for school vice president. (I lost, but not because of the campaign art.) Ron didn’t do that well on his SATs, as artsy types usually didn’t, and went off to I’m not sure where. What could a guy like him do? Become an artist? Mid-century America didn’t offer many options.

But in today’s visual age, the Rons rule. Visual artists are living in a career candy store filled with cool jobs that didn’t exist when their parents were their age; some, indeed, were the stuff of futurist fantasy even ten years ago. There are graphic, industrial, set, and Web designers; costume, dress, shoe, handbag, furniture, wallpaper, tile, and toy designers; strategic, font, user-interface, video-game, and infographic designers. There are creative and art directors, fashion and food stylists, production and lighting artists, and animators. There are even—I kid you not—experiential designers, lifestyle designers, design anthropologists, and design psychologists.

Designers are big shots these days. They can be columnists for the New York Times (graphic designer Charles Blow), Oscar-night celebrities (architect David Rockwell, who was the production designer of this year’s Academy Awards and starred in a preshow film), and TV hosts (carpenter and designer Ty Pennington, host of Extreme Makeover, Home Edition, one of a slew of popular design shows). Designers can be household names—literally, in the case of Philippe Starck, whose famous toothbrushes and toilet brushes grace master baths everywhere. Designers have agents. Designers give courses at business schools—or they start them, the way David Kelley founded Stanford’s new “D School.” Designers sit in offices near the CEO at formerly buttoned-up corporations like Procter and Gamble. Heck, some CEOs practically are designers—get well soon, Steve Jobs!

Of course, like everything else in this tottering economy, the design industry is hurting. But assuming we’re not all collecting grass for our (unleveraged) huts in the coming years, the Rons of this world, people with visual talent and gumption, will remain beneficiaries of a poorly understood shift in the economy, one that has turned artsy outsiders into insiders, raised the stature of aesthetic skills to approach that of cognitive skills, gotten young creative juices flowing, and been the source of major innovation and entrepreneurship.

When most people say “design,” they probably think of the way something looks. There is an object that has a purpose—a table, a refrigerator, a computer—and during its manufacture, it gets painted red or lined with wood veneer or decorated with, say, a silhouette of an apple with a bite taken out of it. A designer’s job is to attend to these aesthetic decisions, exhibiting a feel for color, balance, texture, and shape.

In this sense, design has always been with us. Throughout history, artisans—furniture makers, tailors and seamstresses, cobblers, metalworkers—were de facto designers. But it was only at the turn of the twentieth century, as machines were taking over the production of everyday objects, that design became a profession, and the designer a self-conscious actor in the marketplace. The artists of the famous Bauhaus school were the first to see a way to marry art and industry. The clocks, chairs, cameras, and teapots that they created launched the field of industrial—sometimes called product—design. Machines seemed to rob objects of their souls; the designer would bring the soul back.

At around the same time, industrialization gave birth to a related discipline: graphic design. For centuries, printers had depended on laborious typesetting techniques. Only in the late nineteenth century, with the invention of color lithography, did it become possible to mass-produce color text and drawings. Some businesses immediately grasped the marketing potential. One, the French cabaret Moulin Rouge, gave a historic launch to the new technology when it hired a young scribbler by the name of Toulouse-Lautrec to create posters.

But despite the august names associated with its origins, the design profession never got much respect from no-nonsense Americans. Designers got their hands dirty, like plumbers or auto mechanics, but their work seemed effete and beside the point. In the social pecking order, they fell into an ill-defined purgatory between blue and white collar. “If you worked in a design studio in 1980, you were surrounded by colored paper, rubber cement, X-Acto knives and cans of aerosol spray glue,” Michael Beirut, a partner at the international design firm Pentagram, recently observed. “It was messy.” According to George Lois, famous for his striking Esquire covers in the 1960s, designers working for magazines were lowly technicians. Editorial committees decided by fiat what belonged on an issue’s cover, and the art department shut up and took direction. In ad agencies, copywriters sometimes referred to art directors as “wrists.” The key to product success was “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” not banal reproductions of a cigarette box.

Not any more. If industrialization turned design into a modest profession, technology and globalization have expanded and glamorized it into its own economic sector. Call it Big Design.

Computers are the heart of Big Design. They propelled designers from the ranks of ink-stained wretches to those of postindustrial knowledge workers, in part by making it possible for them to work faster and more innovatively. “In the era before computers, when you had to order typeset, you couldn’t experiment,” says Eric Baker of Eric Baker Associates. “It was much too expensive. And it took overnight.” Then Computer Aided Design (CAD) software—Photoshop being the best-known of many products—came to the market. In the past, “if you needed a picture of coffee and a doughnut, you had to hire a photographer,” Baker continues. “Now I shoot it myself. Photoshop changed everything.” Three-dimensional Computer Aided Design—3D CAD—enables industrial designers to create prototypes of simple products like sunglasses and send them directly to the manufacturer. CAD also makes it easier to customize products, as designers using Solidworks software did when they recently created a swing set for Malia and Sasha Obama for the White House lawn.

The digital revolution has expanded the universe of design and the very meaning of the word. Consider Web design. Ten years ago, a company might hire a graphic designer—or maybe just a skilled relative—to create a brochure and business cards. Nowadays, people want fancy websites with animation, audio and video insets, clever drawings and photos, and user-friendly navigation tools that only professionals can create. “The Internet entailed not only the explosion of information but also the aestheticization of information,” writes Vanderbilt sociologist Richard Lloyd in Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Postindustrial City.

The boundary between technology and design has increasingly blurred. For the post-digital design generation, more efficient computer chips and improvements in circuitry and plastics often are more essential to an object’s aesthetics than are color and decorative detail. Design, in Apple founder Jobs’s well-known formulation, is “how it works.” Apple’s MP3 player—the sleek iPod, designed by a team headed by the Briton Jonathan Ive—embodies the contemporary marriage of design and technology. Like the artists of the Bauhaus school, Jobs wanted his company to “stand at the intersection between technology and the arts”—and so it did. Every appliance maker is now racing to do for the toaster or radio what Apple did for the computer and MP3 player.

While technology added to Big Design’s prestige, globalization spread its message. With Photoshop’s arrival, graphic artists in particular worried that the technological revolution energizing their business would also be its undoing. After all, desktop publishing had democratized design, making it possible for any 12-year-old to distinguish Times New Roman from Garamond. Yet as Virginia Postrel notes in her 2003 book The Substance of Style, the opposite happened. Cheap labor markets in China, Thailand, and India enabled firms to inundate the world with inexpensive designed objects, which educated the public eye, which in turn raised the bar for more attractive shoes, children’s clothes, handbags, and furniture. People have learned to discriminate colors, styles, and fonts the way their ancestors could differentiate the genera of prairie grass. Before, Postrel observes, “aesthetics . . . was a specialized good available mostly in a few large urban markets.” By the last decade of the twentieth century, a mass “age of aesthetics” had dawned.

In the business world, design has thus moved from a decorative sideshow to the main stage. How do you make your camera or washing machine stand out from the crowds of other products that perform about as well and at approximately the same price? Answer: good design. A BusinessWeek article recounts former Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee’s design conversion when he visited Los Angeles in 1993. Why, wondered Lee, did Samsung’s products look so much less appealing than Sony’s, even though their engineering was comparable? He returned to South Korea, introduced an in-house design school, and sent his design staff to world capitals to explore museums and modern architecture. By 2004, the company had 470 designers, was increasing its design budget by 20 to 30 percent a year, was winning major design awards, and had entered “the first tier of global companies.”

Designers have been summoned from their remote studio offices to work directly with corporate strategists and marketers to plan future products and coordinate advertising campaigns; A. G. Lafley, the CEO of Procter and Gamble and a design prophet, calls design his company’s DNA. Corporate recruiters woo design-school students; business schools do case studies of design as corporate strategy. “The MFA is the new MBA,” business-trend writer Daniel Pink announced in the Harvard Business Magazine in 2004, an exaggeration but a suggestive one. Whole nations have recognized the economic importance of design. The United Kingdom and Singapore, for instance, have government agencies to support the design economy, while China is rapidly increasing its number of design schools.

Some visionaries see “design thinking” as the management theory for the twenty-first century, just as Total Quality Management was for the late twentieth. “Businesspeople don’t just need to understand designers better—they need to become designers,” argues Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management. Businesses have always relied on top-down management based on the “quantifiable, measurable, and probable,” Martin says. What they need is the design studio’s more “temporary and project based” approach, which embraces “the unpredictable, the visual, the experimental.”

Like any large, complex industry, Big Design has proliferated into a mass of hybrid subspecialties. Let’s say you own a business selling widgets and want to expand your market. Well, you might consider hiring a “design anthropologist,” a scholar who studies how people use products in their native habitats—home or office, say—to figure out how to improve their experience; Microsoft has sent anthropologists to developing countries to explore how different cultures use technology. Or you might look into employing a design psychologist to advise you about how the brain reacts to the color and shape of your widgets. If you’re so inclined, you can pay a “strategic designer” to help with long-range planning. And don’t forget the “experiential designer,” who can advise you on the emotions and sensory engagement of potential customers. ESI, a New York–based experiential-design firm, revamped some of Best Buy’s warehouse-style megastores into interactive, village-like spaces with six “experience-based zones,” where buyers can try games or watch plasma TVs in comfy chairs.

For your personal use, you can even engage a “lifestyle designer” to help you arrange your home, travel, and general life choices in an aesthetically pleasing way. One such professional, Melissa Galt, promises that with her help, “creating your interior” will be “a process of self-discovery.” Galt, incidentally, promotes herself as the great-granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright. Her ancestry provides a graphic illustration, as it were, of the postmodern unfolding of Big Design.

Also adding to the industry’s résumé are the burgeoning high-tech fields of “creative technology,” “information graphics,” and “user-interface design.” Jacob Barton is the principal and founder of Local Projects, a New York firm that creates interactive exhibits for museums and public spaces (it recently won a commission to codesign the permanent exhibit at the National September 11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero). On Barton’s eight-person staff are a filmmaker, a graphic designer, and a creative technologist—an engineer who ensures that the cool things that the rest of the staff comes up with actually happen when you touch the screen. Creative technologists are increasingly joining the conference table with copywriters and graphic designers to create advertising campaigns, ad writer Randall Rothenberg observes.

Businesses and bureaucracies have long hired people to make charts and graphs so that data become easier to grasp. But the Internet has expanded the imaginative possibilities of such design work. Stamen Design in San Francisco, for example, has created an animated database of sale and rental properties for the real-estate company Trulia, and is experimenting with a project called Crimespotting, a map of constantly updated data on murders, robberies, and other crimes in Oakland. Computer scientist and software developer Valdis Krebs recently took the 162-page list of Bernard Madoff’s 13,000 victims and turned it into an interactive map. Looking like an intricate geometric galaxy, the map lets you click on a victim’s name and quickly zoom to Google News for more information about him or her. In short order, designers will likely make a conventional PowerPoint presentation look as dated as black-and-white television.

The flowering of the design industry has produced gratifying work for great numbers of talented people who otherwise would have yawned their way from nine to five. Some years ago, I published an article about the intensity, energy, and “soulfulness” that many young people were finding and embracing in the new-economy workplace (see “Ecstatic Capitalism’s Brave New Workplace,” Winter 2001). Designers are a perfect example. They’re able to meld play and work, hobby and job. They expect to find personal gratification and significance in their work. They often talk about their “passion for design” and demonstrate the enterprising animal spirits that have always fueled American innovation.

So how do these animal spirits turn into business? Let’s start with an instructive, though admittedly exceptional, example. Chloe Dao, one of seven daughters of Laotian immigrants, grew up in Houston. Like many immigrants, her parents dreamed of medical and law degrees for their children; unfortunately, Dao seemed mostly interested in clothes. She was ambitious enough to design and sew her own prom dress, but her future must have seemed limited, especially after she dropped out of college during her first semester. Eventually, though, she made her way to the Fashion Institute of Design in New York, and after moving through various fashion and marketing jobs, opened her own boutique in Houston. In 2006, she was the winner on the second season of Project Runway, the popular Bravo reality show. Designers Management Agency, a company that does for designers what Creative Artists Agency does for actors and directors, then swooped in to sign her. She now has her own clothing line, as well as a contract to design iPod cases for sale at Office Depot and Target. A generation ago, Dao’s design career would probably have ended with her prom dress. In the design economy, she’s a player.

Deborah Adler, another design-world success, illustrates the industry’s variety. The daughter of a New York doctor and nurse, she graduated from the University of Vermont and then obtained a master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As she was searching for a thesis topic, she learned that her grandmother had accidentally swallowed prescription pills meant for her grandfather. Looking in their medicine cabinet later, Adler realized how the mistake happened: prescription bottles were confusing. To a shrewd design-type like Adler, that meant poor design. For her thesis, Adler created a new kind of bottle, with a label bearing the drug’s name, not the pharmacy’s, in bold at the top; rings of different colors around the bottle’s neck, indicating the person in the household using the drug; a flat instead of a curved surface, to be more readable; and more user-friendly warning signals. Target loved the design—“Safe Rx,” Adler called it—and revamped its computer software and pharmacy procedures around it. Adler went on to work at the studio of the legendary Milton Glaser, where, among various projects, she’s been designing other medical products for safety and efficiency.

Both Dao and Adler hit the big time, but plenty of young design entrepreneurs follow their bliss by starting small cottage businesses. The high-tech economy has paved the way for a revival of artisan-style production, more reminiscent of our craftsman great-grandfathers than of our industrial fathers. It doesn’t take all that much capital or risk to customize production with a computer, just as it doesn’t take a large staff to network and promote a business in the Internet era. Some young designers never do a business plan or spreadsheet, stumbling into, say, a jewelry or stationery business after making a necklace or card for family, friends, then friends of friends, and so on. It helps that they often live in neo-Bohemia, as Richard Lloyd dubs the formerly gritty Los Angeles, Brooklyn, and Chicago neighborhoods where young metalsmiths, letterpress printers, and lighting and graphic designers swap ideas and business contacts in retrofitted factories. If they’re really lucky, designers might find themselves tapped by corporate talent scouts on the hunt for a hip new aesthetic. Back in the sixties, we’d have charged these artists with selling out, but that was before the design economy permanently shattered the boundaries between art and business.

Sarah Cihat is a Brooklyn design entrepreneur participating in this boundary-smashing. Like many other young designers, Cihat couldn’t figure out what to do with her life after high school. She dropped out after a semester at the University of Tennessee. “I knew there was nothing there for me,” she says. Fortunately, she found her way to Parsons School of Design, where her thesis project—reglazing and painting thrift-shop dishes in bright colors with bold graphics—has led to a thriving business. The 29-year-old now sells both her dishes and candles (in partnership with Joya Candles) to a growing number of consumers at places like Barneys and LouisBoston.

Cihat’s fellow Brooklynite Jill Malek was an Oberlin fine-arts major with little interest in commercial design. Upon graduating, though, she learned graphic design and took a number of corporate jobs. After developing her “skill set” and realizing that “the fine artist in me was not fulfilled,” she started her own business. At 32, working out of her Brooklyn Heights apartment, Malek designs websites, stationery, invitations, and hand-screened wallpaper. As it has for Cihat and Dao, the design economy has allowed Malek to spread her aesthetic vision into entirely unforeseen areas: she recently inked a deal with Yogamatic to create a line of yoga mats. When I spoke with her in February, well into the current recession, she was—fingers crossed—“working nonstop.”

It’s no coincidence that these designers are all female. The design economy has been a boon for women. In the 1960s, says Eric Baker, graphic design was a closed fraternity; there were few women in art departments or design studios, just as there were few in law offices or on factory floors. Today, by contrast, women constitute 60 percent of design-school students, and design studios are full of them. (The technology-based areas of Big Design are still largely male, however.) It may be that the design sector suits women particularly well. As the management maven Tom Peters notes, “Women buy most stuff, hence women should design most stuff.” Plus, as Daniel Pink points out in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World, some recent neuroscience suggests that women may be stronger on a range of right-brain talents—empathy, emotion, and sensitivity to beauty—that serve them well in the design economy.

Because designers tend to be independent-minded, they gravitate toward entrepreneurship, as do women these days. According to the Labor Department Occupational Outlook Handbook for this year, 25 percent of graphic designers are self-employed, as are 30 percent of industrial or commercial designers. There’s no way to know what proportion are women, but it’s a good guess that it’s high. The Center for Women’s Business Research finds that nearly half of all U.S. businesses are female-owned; women start ventures at twice the rate of men. On the website Etsy, a kind of eBay for indie craftspeople to hawk their wares, 95 percent of the 185,000 artists are women, with an average age of 33. True, they’re primarily stay-at-home moms and college students looking to supplement their income rather than make a full-time living, but some of those 185,000 will become the next Sarah Cihats and Jill Maleks.

What are Big Design’s future prospects? The short-term outlook is about as bad as it is in almost every other economic sector. People are buying fewer sofas, cameras, clothes, and necklaces. Many of the cottage design businesses that have sprouted in the boom years will likely fail. Advertisers are pulling back: a slew of interior design magazines, including Country Home, House and Garden, Vogue Living, and Domino have shuttered in the past year and a half. AIGA, the graphic-design industry’s professional organization, has seen a precipitous plunge in its monthly “confidence index.” In a recent talk that roiled the design world, Ian Cochrane, one of Britain’s most notable design entrepreneurs, recommended that design agencies consider a three-day week and advised design students to “get out of this business . . . [which] does not need you.”

And it’s likely that shopping patterns have changed, if not forever, then for a long time. Humbled by the unexpected fragility of real estate, people won’t be indulging in regular major kitchen renovations, and when they do renovate, they’ll be interested less in the coolest new countertops than in the ones that will last 15 years. There’s a good deal of soul-searching right now among designers about their own role in the global debt-fueled buying spree of recent years. As they ponder the relation between their profession and the detritus of planned obsolescence, they’re likely to ask the same questions at their studio desks—How necessary is this? How long should it last?—that buyers will be asking at the checkout counter.

Still, the long-term picture is less grim than Cochrane’s advice implies. The democratization of design has changed us for good. There’s no going back to a world where design is a luxury, where art directors are wrists, and where a radio is a clunky RCA. We prefer good-looking things, and we will insist on them. If anything, we may get even pickier. “The recession itself may increase design pressures,” Virginia Postrel observes. “As consumers demand more value for their dollars, design is one form of value they expect at any given price point—including cheap ones. I observed this phenomenon in the 2001–02 recession. Rather than reverting to the expectations of a decade earlier, consumers became even more demanding about design quality, not only in products and graphics but also in environments such as hotels and restaurants.” As businesses keep looking for ways to separate their products and services from the chaff, even seemingly frivolous professionals like experiential designers and design anthropologists will continue to find some demand for their services.

Broadband access will keep expanding, too, making Web content a continuing source of jobs for infographic and Web designers. Employment boards currently list thousands of positions in multimedia jobs, with entry-level salaries between $32,000 and $65,000. And the demand for well-designed personal electronics is likely to remain strong. Even in the middle of the current downturn, iPod sales have fallen only slightly compared with the first quarter of last year, while iPhone sales are growing smartly. Amazon hasn’t released sales figures yet, but by most accounts Kindle, the company’s eye-catching electronic reading device, is attracting otherwise wary consumers.

Also working in favor of the design economy is the spirit of its employees. Designers tend to be a forward-looking, can-do crowd by nature, and they know that they are laboring in a field whose parameters are still unfolding. Yes, designers are hurting, but they’re on the lookout for opportunities. It’s a good bet they’ll find them.


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