Design for Everyone

Jay Johnson -- This week I am going to do something a bit different from my regular column. I am going to "reprint" an advertorial piece written for the OPEN from American Express campaign. This was an advertising insert on October 29, 2007 in the New York Times that I'm betting most folks discounted and skipped over. But the campaign, which focuses on "How American Express Serves Small Business," has focused one of its initiatives on the design world. Interesting, relevant, valuable observations. I encourage all readers to visit the OPENforum website and view the video on The Business of Design, which accompanies the following written piece. I will then loop back and tie in our own Design2Share YouTube video of the week relating to OPEN's design message.

logo_open.gifElegant toasters selling for less then $25 in mass market retailers. Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired furniture for cats. Hundreds of hours of television, all focused on one theme: Design and how it is changing our lives. "Everyone desires it now," says Susan Sobbott, president, OPEN from American Express, in voicing the theme of an American-Express sponsored roundtable discussion, "The Business of Design." Held in mid-October in a midtown Manhattan theater, in front of a crowd of hundreds of interior designers and others working in allied fields, such as architecture, the event brought together four design powerhouses to share their thoughts on the fine art of making it big pursuing an ethereal business: Michael Graves, Barbara Barry, Kenneth Brown, and Cecil Hayes.

Michael%20Graves%20toaster.jpgOne reality: money is flowing into design and that is making the business particularly tantalizing. Not only do we want design, "now we can have it. Design has been democratized," says Seth Godin, best-selling author and the moderator of the discussion.

A take-away concept from the panel is that nowadays design has permeated so many areas of our lives and so many retail avenues -- including, for instance, Target Stores, where Princeton, NJ-based architect-designer Graves has hundreds of low-cost items on sale, from toasters to toilet plungers -- that it is well within the economic reach of most of us. "Design is on all of our minds," says Sobbott, whose OPEN group focuses on empowering small business, designers very much included. "What an exciting time to be part of this industry."

Cecil%20Hayes.jpgBut then there is the question of succeeding, of getting a toehold in the design industry. Florida designer Cecil Hayes related that when she was getting started she borrowed $6,000 and rented a storefront in a strip mall. She had no work, but she sat in front of the window at the store's entry and she drew, and drew, and drew some more. People walked by, some stopped, and they were puzzled by the woman who was drawing -- but eventually some came inside the store and that was when Hayes sold them on the idea that she could design a truly special living space for them.

Design, of course, is not always about the art per se because this is an industry where customers commission works that they will have to live with (or their customers will, in the case of retailers who work with designers). That does not necessarily mean the clarity of the designer's vision has to get lost, however. "Tell the truth," says Barbara Barry, a Los Angeles designer who has won innumerable industry accolades for her cutting-edge work. "Believe in what you do. Yes, sometimes you have to compromise," in producing work that the paying client wants, but when the designer sticks with telling the truth, "you feel good about what you are doing."

BarbaraBarry300dpi.jpgThe business' crucial irony, added Barry, "is that the biggest challenge is finding time to design." That is because so many other chores -- telephone calls from clients, reviewing invoices, preparing bids -- fill a designer's day. But stay in touch with the design instinct and it happens, says Barry. So many designers struggle to make a living, what is it like to really make it? That question went to Graves -- probably the most successful designer of his generation -- and he did not hesitate in his response. "When you think you have made it, you might as well give up work and go golfing. Every day I wake up and I cannot wait until I begin drawing. I know I have not made it." He added a pithy description of his dream project: "It's the next one, because that is my next challenge."

Can a young designer genuinely, realistically aspire to be another Graves, Barry, et. al.? One particularly exciting idea that surfaced at the roundtable: the once formidable stranglehold on helping new designers climb to prominence that a handful of magazines enjoyed is no more. "The Internet means you can put up your own blog that explains who you are and shows off your work," says Godin. When the big magazines scorn a newcomer, no sweat. The 21st century is about self-promotion and the Internet is everybody's tool kit, suggest Godin.

How to start down that road? "If you take away just one idea from tonight that will revolutionize your business, make it this," says Barry: "Write up a paragraph about yourself, your vision, what you stand for. That is what will set you apart." Potential clients have one big question on their minds: What is your design vision? Don't make them guess, says Barry. Tell them who you are and watch the projects roll in.


What I loved about this advertorial, besides the practical business advice it gives for designers, is the point about design democratization made by Godin and exemplified by Graves' work for Target. Good design is starting to appear everywhere. No place is immune, from retail outlets to public spaces. In the 400+ video shorts contained in my Design2Share Video Library on YouTube, you will see examples where I have taken my video camera -- a sturdy palm-sized Radio Shack $99 camtastic Sanyo special -- and shot videos of design in public spaces. I am currently on the road, reporting from chilly, autumn-almost-winter eastern Iowa and western Illinois, and I came by way of Detroit. I shot a video called Public Design: Airport Passageway in the underground passageway connecting concourses at the Detroit Wayne County airport. Based on the innovative music-and-light installation from years back at the American Airlines terminal in Chicago's O'Hare airport, this glass art tunnel installation is more intense and isn't afraid to immerse travelers in a fascinating design experience.

We can applaud the American Express panel's discussion of the implications of design on everyday life and how designers are contributing to a quality of life with their hard work and talent. I also agree with their view that design has reached out to everyone, now more than ever. We are fast becoming consumers of design and it has become embedded in our market speak.

And some of the design we are able to consume or experience is actually quite clever and wonderful.

Comments? They're all welcome right here . . . .


Photo credits: American Express, Target, Merchandise Mart Properties, Cecil Hayes, TGAW

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