Parsing through the American design ethos
Many foreign companies outsource design to the USA, and many foreign designers dream of working there. Economic incentives and personal opportunities still abound in the USA but what is it that draws people there for design in particular? Does an American design ethos exist and if so, what is it? Is there such a thing as American design?
America is a big place with a diverse population and there is no single design style, unlike smaller homogeneous societies like Denmark. We create all kinds of things here and like an American western you see the good, the bad, and the ugly. Even with our cacophony of styles and expressions, there is something discernible and special about American design. It comes from who we are and how we are raised, and not from a rich history of art and design like Europe. Most Americans are taught from a young age to “be individual, think different, take a risk, make a statement, and just go for it”. Combine those ego-building values with a profession like design, and it’s no surprise that American design at its best is courageous, dramatic, and spectacular. Art imitates life, and so too with American design – it imitates the American way. It’s original, inventive, confident, and colorful.
The emotional and experiential tendencies of the American people can be a huge benefit when creating and thinking outside the box, but Americans also tend to like exaggerations and superlatives of all sorts, which are sometimes antithetical to design. Quiet or subtle design is hard to sell here, but no wonder considering our competitive consumer economy where items must scream for attention. Americans like choices so the Wal-Marts, Amazons, strip malls, and SkyMalls thrive, and if your choice provides instant gratification, the more the merrier – go to Costco for bulk consumption and pick up a foot long sandwich along the way. Design can also get super-sized, witness how an original notion about freedom inflated to become a three-ton Hummer or a loud over-chromed Harley Davidson chopper. Our TV and films are often over the top too, jam-packed with contrived plots and ridiculous characters. Excess and excellence are rarely symbiotic but with so much going on in the US both creatively and materially, by chance good design is bound to happen.
The emotional and experiential tendencies of the American people can be a huge benefit when creating and thinking outside the box.
Another personality factor that affects design in America is our nationwide Attention Deficit Disorder issue. We flit from style to style, fad to fad, and often don’t take the time to do things right. “Out with the old, in with the new”, says each new corporate management team. Companies like P&G, Ford, and Microsoft constantly produce so called “revolutionary” products, and some become successful, many don’t, and rarely are they revolutionary. Although this impatient experimentation makes development riskier and harder to establish a consistent brand, it does produce a wider portfolio thus increasing the odds for a product hit to elevate the company, and maybe even change society in the process. Change is part of a healthy design process, and like it or not American A.D.D. seems to support good design.
In spite of the emotional, materialistic and changeful nature of the USA, it is still the world’s biggest economy and design is one of its strongest economic drivers.
In spite of the emotional, materialistic and changeful nature of the USA, it is still the world’s biggest economy and design is one of its strongest economic drivers. The design of a product or brand is where you find the elements of demand, in the form of utility, performance, quality, ease of use, appearance and emotional appeal. Approximately half of our Fortune 500 companies utilize some form of design and half of these rely on design to maintain or increase consumer demand. Traditionally it’s been our products and artifacts that have driven profits but now our business models, inventive services and big data systems are also pulling weight. Furthermore quality is becoming cool again. Back when “Made in the USA” meant something, this nation fueled its economy by building quality products. American quality is still a value here, especially since many companies like GM had to learn that lesson the hard way. Quality and Design are interlaced, and American companies like AirBnb, Facebook, Tesla and Google get this. A few older companies like Boeing, 3M, Deere and J&J never forgot it.
America still leads in two ways. One is in creative capital, and the other is technology. America is still mighty in its creative output, probably because thinking creatively has traditionally been a distinct American cultural value, although sadly that is waning of recent. Our schools just don’t get it, but somehow in spite of our poor educational system we still manage to invent the future. We have always been passionate about technology, and have the highest annual patent count to prove it. We’re often the first nation to introduce some new technology, packaged in its newly designed form factor but unfortunately we lag behind in maintaining our lead. We invent all this great stuff and then sit back and hope the marketing and sales guys keep it going. Innovation requires investment, refinement, and continuous development. Other nations eventually take over the markets we create, such as communication, automotive, computing, consumer electronics, etc. and we are left standing there saying “what happened”?
America is still mighty in its creative output, probably because thinking creatively has traditionally been a distinctly American cultural value.
We have been saying that “now is the American design moment” for the last 20 years. America has produced some amazing design in the last several years, but so has the rest of the world. The design world is flat too, as almost anyone with a great idea can be seen and heard like never before. I am however so happy to see that Design is finally becoming part of our national dialect, as it should have been a long time ago. Let’s hope it sticks, after all this is the USA.