In the Oscar-winning film The Artist, the main character, a silent movie star George Valentin, is caught in a particular predicament. His entire industry is changing from silent to sound pictures, and he is not ready nor willing to catch up. The story follows his gradual fall from stardom, loss of all riches, and the end of his relevance as an artist.
On the eve of my 58th birthday, I sometimes catch myself identifying with George Valentin. Our industry is changing too. From making objects design has moved into proposing scenarios, experiences, and social modes of communication. From individual project the focus shifts to communal effort, from proprietary ideas – to open sourcing, from industrial manufacturing – to self-production. There is no clear direction: the key notions, according to Paola Antonelli, are “ambiguity”, “vulnerability”, “open-endedness”.
There are now new players in the field. For example, I look at a list of jurors at a prestigious design competition. If only a few years ago such list would be composed of design directors of manufacturing corporations and principals of independent design consultancies (like myself), today the picture is different. These jurors come from Twitter, Airbnb, Pinterest, YouTube, Facebook, and they have titles like ‘director of global concepts’ or ‘senior director of experience design innovation’.
These people represent the forefront of design today. Schools of design are busy updating and reorganizing their curricula to be sure the young graduates are competitive and familiar with the changing field. But what about us, seasoned design professionals? There are, of course, plenty of furniture and product companies who are still drudging ahead as if nothing new has happened under the sun. Should we continue working for those, oblivious to the spirit of change? Or should we try to reinvent ourselves, adapt to the times, jump on the bandwagon, so to speak?
Incidentally, The Artist has a happy ending. Our hero discovered tap-dancing as a new language for making a different kind of movies. The lesson is to look for personal and unpredictable ways. A successful design career will continue neither as perseverance, nor as compromise, but in finding a new relevance for the changing times.