The legacy of Streamlining and un-sustainability in industrial design

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This is an historical account of the birth of the industrial design profession that seeks an understanding of what industrial design is and does. This understanding is necessary given that industrial design is being called upon to contribute to sustainability. So far, attempts to orient industrial design toward sustainability have been limited because of a failure to acknowledge its agency in the current crisis of over consumption and because of a limited understanding of industrial design thinking. Tony Fry's 'defuturing'- a means of finding the historical bases of unsustainability- is used as a starting point to help understand how industrial design is implicated in the environmental crisis of the present. Primary design and secondary design history texts are used to investigate the early industrial designers' aims and methods. More recent theories from the fields of design thinking and sociology are also used in discussion to help understand why design failed to grasp its future. It is asserted, following Fry, that industrial design is implicated in unsustainability because it sought to stimulate consumption by creating desirable and stylish products. It appears, however, that accelerated consumption was considered by the designers as a means to an end. Industrial design arrived as a new profession in the midst of the Depression in America and announced itself as the means to solve the ills of the world. Its ambition was to design a technocratic Utopia, which it could achieve by providing creative leadership and practical methods. To realise this vision and to speed its arrival, design stimulated demand for the products of industry. Industrial designers quickly became men of influence and their products were in huge demand. They ascribed to Modernism, and developed comprehensive methods that were believed capable of yielding functional perfection. Because the methods were so successful in generating practical and desirable products, they were logically extended to the task of environmental reconstruction. It was the faith in the creative genius of leading industrial designers, coupled with a functionalist epistemology that concealed the indeterminacy of design methods and design's relational consequences. Now, in the face of over-consumption, industrial design needs to know its history and its agency. What it has done to date is attempt to counter unsustainability by making its products less environmentally impacting. It has done this by applying the same design methods that were developed to counter 'under-consumption'. So it sustains that which is inherently unsustainable, contributing always to product-based well-being. It has forgotten its agency in bringing about this conception of well-being and ignores design's creative potential to not only conceive of new solutions, but to steer the sustainability or not of behaviours and attitudes.
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