Until the 1900s, designers didn’t really exist.
Before that people bought what they needed, when they needed it.
Need to carry stuff, buy a cart.
Need to sit down, buy a chair.
Need to sleep, buy a bed.
Everything just fulfilled a function.
You had a need for something, a craftsman would make it for you.
It was mass-production that created the need for designers.
Suddenly things were made by machines.
Things weren’t just made as one-offs when you needed them.
Someone had to draw up the blueprints before the factory started turning out thousands of identical products.
The guy who drew up the blueprints was a draughtsman, but because thinking was involved he was called a designer.
Early designs were about simplicity of manufacture.
Making sure all the parts could be made by the machines.
So designers were very practical people.
They solved problems.
Gradually, machinery became able to build better things, more powerful, faster things.
And that created a new problem to solve.
As things went faster, air resistance made it more difficult.
Lots of different shapes were tested in wind-tunnels.
And they found that nature had already developed shapes to combat resistance.
Nature formed these shapes to slide through the stream of resistance.
So it became known as a ‘streamline’ shape.
And streamlining became a practical solution for anyone designing objects to travel fast through resistance.
Airliners, trains, fast cars, submarines, fast boats, motorbikes.
In fact streamlining became the look of everything modern.
And of course, manufacturers wanting their products to look modern, so they wanted them to look streamlined.
And it was the emergence of the designer superstar.
Designers like Raymond Loewy and Norman Bel Geddes.
When a client said he wanted something designed, he didn’t mean he wanted a problem solved, he meant he wanted it to look streamlined.
And streamlining became the fashionable form of decoration.
But it wasn’t functional anymore.
It was something to use even where it had no relevance.
Designers were producing streamlined radios, streamlined chairs, streamlined toasters, streamlined slide-projectors, streamlined pencil-sharpeners.
Objects that never even moved, things that would never encounter air-resistance, were streamlined.
Hair-dryers, prams, kettles, cameras, steam-irons, desk-lamps, vacuum cleaners, even staplers.
Streamlining went from being a valuable design solution for fast-moving objects to just another decoration.
And designers stopped being practical people and they became decorators.
Do you notice how we do that with all new thinking?
We take genuine innovations, like digital or social media, that start out as great solutions, genuine game-changers for thinking.
Something incredibly useful in the right place on the right problem.
Then we assume it’s the answer to everything.
And we unthinkingly apply it everywhere, whether it works or not, whether it’s needed or not.
Until we turn it into just another decoration?
As much use as a streamlined stapler.