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Formulating national design policies in the United States: recycling the “Emperor’s New Clothes”?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press
Publication Date
  • W200 Design
  • V230 American History
  • L900 Cultural Studies
  • V000 Historical And Philosophical Studies
  • W000 Creative Arts And Design
  • Design
  • Education
  • History


This article was a response to the publication on 5 January 2009 of the American Design Communities’ Redesigning America’s Future: 10 Design Policy Proposals for the United States of America’s Economic Competitiveness and Democratic Governance. Analysis is made of the extent to which self-confident, yet historically very familiar, assertions about the capacity of design to engender real change in national and international settings stand up to serious scrutiny. It is argued that such reiteration is more a reflection of an underlying desire to effect transformation than any comprehensive articulation of a series of well-researched arguments that would, in reality, engender significant change. Indeed, if the document’s propositions show little that is new, those designers, design historians and others with a longitudinal perspective of design activity and policy making may see these ‘Design Policy Proposals’ as reminiscent of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ or, if viewed more positively, their recycled equivalents.

 The fact that the title ‘American Design Council’, a trademark owned by the AIGA (until 2006 the American Institute of Graphic Arts), was envisaged as ‘a unified body representing all U.S. design bodies to be ‘revitalized as a collective voice for the design community’ was perhaps one of the reasons why the American Design Communities’ traditional, conservative and innocuous proposals were largely framed in twentieth century thinking. As such they emphasized the priorities of the design profession rather than those of society as a whole. In fact, at the original National Design Policy Summit in Washington DC on 11-12th November 2008, the Ten Principles of Design’s Necessity used to frame discussions were 35 years old, echoing down the decades from the First Federal Design Assembly of 1973. They reappeared in the 5 January 2009; report on Redesigning America’s Future and again in the more action-based Report of the U.S. National Design Policy Summit of 19 January. Albeit with greater acknowledgment of the significance of the environment and citizen-centred design, both 2009 documents lacked the bite or authority of those of many external international design organizations that were more fully engaged with the needs of the new millennium. The U.S. Summit’s key participants responsible for drafting the policy proposals amounted to seven representatives from design professional organizations, four representatives of design and design education accreditation bodies and four representatives drawn from US federal agencies, a questionable cross-section for devising an attractive or effective design policy reflecting the aspirations of American society as a whole. Although some acknowledgement of the work of other design promotion organizations around the world was acknowledged in the documentation for the November 2008 Washington DC Design Summit, there was little obvious influence in the ensuing Design Policy Proposals, other than a commitment to commission the equivalent of the British Cox Review of Creativity in Business (2005), published by the Design Council. This is carefully analyzed in this article, both in the context of emergent policies for the cultural and creative industries in Britain in the previous decade and also the suggestion that a number of Cox’s findings were, in a number of respects, outdated by the time of their publication. Indeed, this article makes extensive references in tabular form to the exponential increase of state-sponsored design promotional organizations outside the USA over the past 60 years in general, and over the last decade in particular.

Much is also done in the article to set these somewhat insular US Federal design initiatives within the context of a global agenda, such as that pursued by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICSID) and the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design (ICOGRADA), which had established the International Design Alliance (IDA) in 2003.

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