Design Needs a Hat

Without a hat, is your profession on the radar?

About a week ago I was having a business dinner with Marc Hoit, a recent acquaintance from North Carolina State University. He's the Vice Chancellor for information technology and the CIO at the university. I can't even imagine taking on this complex task for such a demanding user community. During the course of the conversation I learned that his daughter had recently discovered the profession of industrial design. Like many, including myself, she did not learn of the profession until she was already in college. Now she was thinking of switching majors and delaying her graduation. How does this continue to happen? Industrial design has been around for many years. Many claim the term industrial designer was introduced in the early 1900's. This predates the foundation of the Bauhaus by quite a few years. To me, this seems like a long time to go unnoticed.  The Industrial Designers Society of America has certainly tried to promote the awareness of the profession. They even publish a nifty but rather academic definition of what the profession does. Here is a brief excerpt from that definition: Industrial design (ID) is the professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer.Industrial designers develop these concepts and specifications through collection, analysis and synthesis of data guided by the special requirements of the client or manufacturer. They are trained to prepare clear and concise recommendations through drawings, models and verbal descriptions.  Who will ever see this description, and if they did, does it sound romantic enough to engage future designers? Maybe it should talk about reinventing the world, changing society, or just plain old using your imagination to invent things. When I was in K-12, I don't think I ever talked about collecting or analyzing data. What does that mean anyway? I wanted to make things! Is this a lost art too?  It's also rather unlikely that a parent (unless they are a designer) would ever stumble on this nicely written, but rather academic, description. I think it's similarly unlikely that a educator in the K-12 system would know of the profession, or discuss it during the educational journey. How would they know? This issue, however, is not just limited to industrial design. With the possible exception of architecture, the design professions are flying under the radar when it comes to early student exposure. Design needs to take the stage. Fortunately for us, someone has thought about this in a most creative and unconstrained way. Marc's daughter, Sarah, did it for us. She explained to her father the solution in very simple and clear terms, "Design needs a hat". Children's first exposure to jobs, careers, and professions comes from toys that support role playing. Fisher-Price has for years sold their highly iconic Little People.  The Little People line started in 1950 with the "Looky Fire Truck" and three permanently attached round-headed fire men. Who doesn't love them? Doctor, nurse, construction worker, sea captain, astronaut, cowboy, chef, fireman, engineer, etc. are all represented by what boils down to a hat. The bodies are all pretty much the same, with the exception of color and facial expressions. Alas alack, there is no hat for designer, and thus no "Little People" designer to play with. Sure there are others missing, but that is not my concern. I want a hat for design.

I can't see kids fighting over who gets to be Le Corbusier

What would the "design hat"  be? Honestly, I don't think I could suggest a beret, and I'm certainly  not wearing one. That just seems way too esoteric, and so much more about being a painter rather than a designer. Do painters really wear berets? Frank Lloyd Wright brandished a hat, but who would know what that looks like other than another architect who studied his work and dress habits? I'm not even going to talk about Wright's choice of hats. That is way too easy to pick on. Okay, maybe it's just an all black body, simple bow tie, blading head, and a pair of Le Corbusier glasses. I don't think so. Who would want to pretend to be that guy? At the early formative stages of my life, I think I would rather have played with a pair of  fresh socks. Design needs a way to influence the career choices of  future designers. Our profession is too valuable,  and most sadly, too invisible.  There are far too many stories about people discovering the profession late in life and making dramatic educational shifts. Unfortunately, some may never discover it. Thankfully, Sarah is now a textile design graduate student at NCSU doing something she loves. Congratulations to her. Lets make design sound as exciting as it really is, energize our future design recruits, and once and for all, lets decide what our hat is. If you have suggestions for the perfect hat, please share them here.

David Hill