New Zealand by Design: a History of New Zealand Product Design, by Michael Smythe (Godwit, 2011), 511 pp., $65.
‘Design’ is a mercurial, not to say deceptive, term. Used as a verb to refer to a process, and used as a noun to the product of that process, it has become amongst the most ubiquitous and the most tortured of labels. Often now lumped together with buzzfuzz feel-good notions of expressiveness, and used interchangeably with the tags ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’, it is constantly and lazily colonised, while the shades of discrimination it originally implied have become hidden or lost. Design only really takes on meaning with the words that surround it, as in types of design — and even then the implied associations can serve to obscure a deeper understanding.
There are over three hundred sub-fields of design, a spectrum of endeavours that is perhaps best seen as platforms for action — action driven by assorted prompts, motivations and frameworks, which can range from the empirically-derived ultra-rational approach to the intuitive-judgment and guesswork-implementation approach. Design, more often than not, involves a balancing or harmonising of such factors. Similarly, designers offer visions of the future that can vary from the carefully and incrementally grounded to the radically speculative and fantastical.
Concerns for the future, and by implication ‘designing for the future’, resonate with everyone. The late Herbert Simon, political scientist, economist, sociologist and psychologist, signalled design’s inclusive importance in his quote: ‘Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’. The nub of Simon’s assertion is that it makes clear that good design is an enabling strategy, which is human-centred. The future is what we construct, whether we agree or disagree about what is preferred. This ‘futuristic’aspect of designing, in a time of environmental and economic constraint, has actually become more important than any form of identity-giving (or ‘brand-making’) that we usually associate with design.
Too many books written about design for lay audiences — especially about product design — fail to demystify the narrative of the product and adequately address the value and meaning of design generally. While there is value in mystery, the elevation of book anthologies of consumer products to art forms — with products disembodied, enshrined in white space and tagged with a minimal commentary, often airy or whimsically cryptic — is a clichéd and unhelpful format. It may produce a seemingly helpful and desirable-looking ‘must-have’ printed object, but it is ultimately a formula for vacuousness.
A glib, slick surface appearance and lots of white space are not, though, Michael Smythe’s primary or even secondary concerns in his book New Zealand By Design: A History of New Zealand Product Design. This is an important anthology, packed with yarns, photos, portraits, maps, drawings and models, attempting an explanation of the evolution of New Zealand product design, from early Maori artefacts to the latest computer-assisted manufactured products. Functioning as a simple chronology on one level, the book represents a long, laudable and energetic research effort. The synthesis of its findings serves to integrate archeologically significant products with the intimacy and immediacy of oral histories and interviews, all set against a background of shaping social, economic and political conditions of the times. Smythe, too, goes further than simply recording design histories; he amplifies and promotes them, successful or otherwise, as strategic attempts to get products to market. In profiling these attempts he unearths a national attitude to design.
And Smythe’s jaunty writing style for the most part has a Kiwi authenticity to it, with scholarly gravitas and historical complexity providing the background to a convincing Country Calendar documentary-style no-frills vernacular. The insistent alliterative titles of some of the chapter titles, intended to provide helpful guidance and focus points, may grate at times, but they confirm that the book is written intentionally to reach out beyond the specialist audience. In this way it begins to address the very real need for a public understanding of design, and of the value of a national design consciousness. We can only envy the Italians and Scandinavians in this respect, and what the design-industries in those countries have achieved for their economies and cultural identities.
Why the need to broadcast the value of design in New Zealand at all? Well, in Smythe’s careful tracing of product design over the last century or so, a pattern emerges, and it is a disturbing one. Potentially compelling design concepts developed by clever designers have been repeatedly dismissed, to remain unrecognised, misunderstood, or even vilified, locally. The costs to the country for these missed opportunities have been never calculated and could be the basis for further speculative investigations. Whether this elective blindness to possibilities is simply a national ‘fear of the new’ — endorsed by conservative and incompetent management in conjunction with obstructive bureaucracies — or whether it’s something even more perverse, one thing is made very clear — at decision-making levels generally in New Zealand there is a consistent legacy of unwillingness to acknowledge and effectively harness the competencies of designers as economic catalysts. Smythe’s relentlessly accurate yet ever-hopeful documenting of failures is as instructive as it is heart-breaking.
There is valuable pedagogic scope in Smythe’s considerations of what might have been: the great New Zealand product prototypes that were not recognised at the time of their inception. The design history of Colin Murdoch, a resourceful pharmacist who developed the first plastic pre-filled syringe in the mid 1950s, is a poignant example. Murdoch taught himself plastics engineering, built injection-moulding tools and made refined fully operational prototypes. They were rejected as too futuristic by the Department of Health. Not long after his idea was published in patent gazettes, multinational drug companies distributed vaccines in similar disposable syringes. At once the story is revelatory. Murdoch as a serial inventor/designer (the relationship between invention and design is never really explored satisfactorily) thought and acted on a very sophisticated level. The realisation that patents only really give the right to sue, and not the resources to defend intellectual property, serves to emphasise the vulnerability of new design concepts. Murdoch learnt from this, and went on to enjoy design and manufacturing success.
What is humbling is the sheer volume of astonishing design stories presented here, many of which have escaped any serious mainstream media or specialist design commentary. A strength of the book is that Smythe includes some very recent case study summaries, involving topics from transportation design, to medical equipment, to agricultural implements, to recreational equipment, to domestic household items. The chapter entitled ‘Global Positioning’ bombards the reader with reassuring examples which are responses to strategic design-drivers articulated within national initiatives such as the Design Taskforce and the Better By Design forum. This chapter, too, more positively, shows that the resourcefulness, diversity and brilliance of pioneer designers, coupled with wider support, can sometimes lead to sustainable success domestically and internationally. New Zealand, it seems, does not lack for thinkers and doers who have constantly and enthusiastically adapted to changing international conditions. What is called for — as ever, it is implied — is a smarter, wider, enabling network and a more agile bureaucratic response.
Being so densely packed, the book consequently takes a while to unpack. It is something of a challenge to read as a methodical overview: darting hither and yon, and displaying a necessarily diverse variety of references and examples. Its most obvious use will surely be as an important general design reference book, hopefully as much seminal to current business practices and to corporate and government policy analysis, as to secondary and tertiary cross-disciplinary teaching programmes, as well as to design programmes generally.
Some readers might even find it best to navigate this book backwards – seeing the historical development of product design through the most recent advances and hierarchical rankings. The least compelling part of the book, though one for which the author is admittedly apologetic, is the first chapter: ‘Whakairo Follows Function’. It is there by necessity, but it seems disconnected from what follows. A stronger connection to useful Maori design practices might have been made using contemporary Maori design initiatives, such as Nga Aho (a network for Maori design professionals), woven into the unfolding history. However, from whichever end of this survey you regard it, the most compelling parts of the compendium are easily the latter pages, where Smythe, himself a noted designer, is immersed in the vicissitudes of industrial design practice, and demonstrates a more personal knowledge of the more recent development of the profession, its personalities and its representative organisations.
NICK LAIRD is a design consultant who formerly lectured in design at the University of Otago.