THE FUTURE OF DESIGN – are designers moving in the right direction ?

Background – Having spent 71 years as a designer in very different areas of design, largely in the 20th century I have witnessed some significant changes in the way designers (and architects) have interacted with society. This started with the more general recognition of the term ‘industrial design’ just after the second world war which gave us new materials and new techniques, stimulating new thinking about old problems. Shortages of materials in the late 40s also caused lateral thinking about alternative ways of using new materials which by-passed conservatism and blinkered attitudes.

It was an exciting century with new horizons and new freedoms, forming a heady cocktail of perhaps too many alternatives from which we had to learn to select wisely before throwing old ways into the rubbish bin. New alloys, laminated timbers, plastics and electronics had been generated by a grossly extravagant war – all of which was a rich diet for a latent, under-nourished and almost invisible design profession.

The commercial arrival of television around 1956 in Australia, desktop computers around the 1980s, the growth of an increasingly aware media and the rapid acceptance of mobile telephones – all based on electronics – have changed society, its habits and attitudes to nationalism and global economic pressures. 1

Now – we, as designers have also become agents of change and we have flourished and expanded beyond our most optimistic expectations. Society took some time to appreciate and accept the thinking of a new multi-headed profession which questioned everything. Traditions died hard but new opportunities arose from new perceptions by designers who had the urge to create better designs for a better way of living.

But design can cut both ways. It can be a powerful double-edged sword if not used with perception. A good design needs to be recognised by a potential buyer and it is not an easy exercise. It is virtually impossible to assess the functional efficiency of a product at the point of sale – the visual qualities such as form, shape, colour and texture etc. being very subjective. This subjective assessment makes it comparatively easy to decide between ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ even if unquantifiable, leaving us to rely on the brand name and the promotional language to assess its many functional qualities.

The perception of good design by society has in part been subversively changed by a voracious and unrestrained media seeking novelty, massaging the ego of some designers and their designs with superlative language. This has stimulated consumption and waste in a western world that has apparently not learned when ‘enough is enough’.

This is quite evident in the upper ranges of domestic architecture where many stylistic and egotistic excesses abound. It has aroused the criticism that the extravagance was a designer’s way of getting a house featured in the magazines rather than to quietly improve desirable functioning to achieve health and happiness for the occupants. The egotistical drive to seek novelty and be different is very strong in an increasingly competitive world.

Such a stylistic direction can be seen as negating the ‘sustainable’ ethos we, as responsible designers, should be taking in this new world of anthropogenic global warming. This should be demanding our urgent attention and there are some encouraging signs. Intrinsically, however, design should point toward improvement.


Regrettably, large design egos and equally large and/or pretentious houses abound in wealthy countries, and statistics indicate that Australia is the world leader in this race – not an enviable record.

It concerns me that this display of extravagance depletes our resources in many ways and is usually at the expense of our grandchildren. Intergenerational inequity is being caused by simple greed, and displays of conspicuous wealth – and design is heavily involved – even encouraged by it. We are still to learn when ‘enough is enough’ and I fear that future generations will severely criticise us for some of the obvious examples of profligacy.

Designers of all kinds might well heed Mies van der Rohe’s famous statement that “less is more”. If we do not, I feel that ‘design’ might well become a dirty word if we do not caution our designers – and their clients.

Shouldn’t we, as designers, adopt the Hippocratic oath of ‘doing no harm’? It will require some concerted effort and internal discipline to tame our collective ego and instil some sense of intergenerational responsibility. It is a huge educational challenge, but do we recognise the need and do we realise the harm we could be doing ?

I have tried to arouse interest within the Design Institute of Australia because the issue of public acceptance of design is deeply bound up with an understanding of the direction that design is taking in a rapidly changing world.

The simple phrase ‘good design’ so heavily used in the mid 20th century is changing its meaning in the 21st century by the addition of ‘sustainable’ – we ignore it at our peril.

If we in Australia are not careful we will be quickly sidelined by other countries whose capabilities already far exceed ours in manufacturing and when they wake up to the value added nature that better design can offer then our economy with its high living standards will suffer greatly unless we become a more clever society1 and reduce our reliance on digging our own grave for products (eg. coal) the world cannot afford to use.

The design profession has a heavy implicit responsibility.


Derek F. Wrigley, OAM

May 2016

1 Thomas Friedmann’s book “The world is flat” deals in great detail with how the world has changed dramatically, and is still, changing due to the internet and other technologies – and future changes may well be even more dramatic.

Yesterday was a diminishing opportunity to plan for a happy and sustainable future for our children

If we don’t change direction we will end up where we are going.          Now is our last chance to get the future right.