Blogs The Gradient Alex Quinto

Alex was a Walker intern (as it was known back then) in 2001-2002 with Alex DeArmond. I had to go by my full name (Alejandro) to avoid confusion. I am now in Toronto, as a partner/designer at an interdisciplinary design studio called Work Worth Doing.

Design and regional economic development, or how the government office learned to love design

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend a semester at North Carolina State University as a designer in residence in the Graphic Design department. The Raleigh-Durham area is well known for its Research Triangle, developed nearly five decades ago as a partnership between the state’s government, industry, and academia to attract investment and employment […]

Last year, I had the opportunity to spend a semester at North Carolina State University as a designer in residence in the Graphic Design department. The Raleigh-Durham area is well known for its Research Triangle, developed nearly five decades ago as a partnership between the state’s government, industry, and academia to attract investment and employment in the technology and science sectors. Nearly 40,000 full-time employees work in the Research Triangle today in companies like IBM, Lenovo, Cisco, Red Hat, and BASF.

During my stay in Raleigh I had the opportunity to do a presentation to the Masters students in graphic design about the influence of design in cities. It took me six months to articulate some of those ideas a little better, which I’d like to share with you. In my presentation, we talked about how designers tend to concentrate in economically prosperous areas and how some cities develop a specialized work-force in design, while other cities tend to have a diverse design workforce. I mentioned the example of the Lombardy region in Italy, where various product and lighting manufacturers like Alessi, Kartel, Flos, and Artimede are concentrated. In contrast, other cities like Toronto, Canada, have a more diversified design workforce. I showed them the maps by Yale University professor William Nordhaus, who has paired economic activity with geographic areas. It was evident that the design powerhouses in Canada and Italy were located in the prosperous regions of both countries’ biggest urban regions (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figs. 1 and 2. Geographically based Economic data (G-Econ) maps for Canada and Italy. Peaks highlight the economic predominance of Toronto and Lombardy. Maps by Prof. William Nordhaus, Yale University.

italy 3dmap
Figure 1. Economic activity in Italy.

Canada 3d map

Figure 2. Economic activity in Canada.Governments have become big promoters of design and creativity.

Gordon Brown, Britain’s Prime Minister, recently asked the Design Council to find ways for Britain to enhance the country’s business competitiveness through its creative talents. A few years ago, India drafted its first national design policy, following other Asian countries. This year, the city of Turin was designated as the first World Design Capital. The city is proud of its diverse economy hosting a variety of industries, from aerospace to wineries. Seoul has already been designated as 2010’s design capital, riding on the success of its global brands like LG, Samsung, and Daewoo.

Design’s love affair with government perhaps began in the 90s. The Creative City book was released, following a 1995 article by Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini. Demos, the British think-tank began advising policy-makers to look at creativity as an enabler of regional economic prosperity in face of globalization. In 1998, Peter Hall’s Cities in Civilization also built the foundation to what Richard Florida would later dub the “creative class,” a term that includes designers, as well as workers in IT, science, financial sectors, among others.

I have not seen how these design policies are drafted, but they lead me to believe that they are based on theories regarding the diversity of design activities in urban regions and their connection to regional economic drivers. As designers, we lack economic tools to draft these theories, so it is very likely that design policies are drafted largely by non-designers. Regional economic theories for design that include designers’ perspectives are needed.

I can only speculate on the content of design policies by doing some reverse engineering. To draft such policies, I would start by quantifying the contributions of all the design industries in the local economy such as graphic design, product design, and so on, and do an inventory of the local economic output. I would look at the design workforce, based on designers’ supply and demand, the annual number of design students graduating each year from local universities and new hires. If the number of design students exceeds the number of local design jobs, a city is likely to experience a “brain drain” of designers.

Based on an economic theory of design diversification and specialization cities could also invest in the development of new design areas and diversify their design economies. Concentration of graphic designers, for example, has a direct relation to the advancement of profession and the economic value that they create for a city. A desired concentration of designers, based on the number of institutions, organizations, companies, and gross domestic product (GDP) of a city could be calculated. I imagine the visual output of such estimate would look like slightly like a bell curve. (see figure 3).

economy and design graph

Figure 3. Regional economic benefits of design are diminished as design workforce grows beyond demand. After a peak in optimal density has been passed, the addition of new graphic designers would not greatly benefit the economy of a city, nor the advancement of the profession. After the peak is passed, it would be recommendable for graphic designers to diversify their skills, or to specialize their skills even more, depending on the economic activities of the region. Graphic designers could focus on type design, or editorial design, for example. Designers could develop a new specialization, such as gene sequencing visualizations.

A city like Raleigh already has most of the criteria found in the “creative economy” principles. Raleigh-Durham is the sixth city with most “creative” workers in the U.S. according to Richard Florida’s Creativity Index (2002). It also has a highly educated population. Masters and PhD programs in design are available at NC State University, for example. There is a large number of companies with large Research & Development budgets, as well as connections to global markets. I don’t know if the region will become a creative economy driven by design, like the ones I mentioned earlier, but if Raleigh-Durham does draft a design policy for the region, I wonder how involved designers will be. Can design organizations drive such change?

A design practice of engagement

I was inspired by Silas’ Seeing 20/20 posting to write this entry, as it briefly addressed some of the issues i’ve been thinking about in relation to graphic design. In recent years, our profession has been transformed by the influence of other disciplines. Four years ago, during the inaugural class of the Institute without Boundaries, […]

I was inspired by Silas’ Seeing 20/20 posting to write this entry, as it briefly addressed some of the issues i’ve been thinking about in relation to graphic design. In recent years, our profession has been transformed by the influence of other disciplines. Four years ago, during the inaugural class of the Institute without Boundaries, our class spent one year studying the question “What is the future of design?” The Massive Change book, one of the results of this post-graduate design program, opened up by stating that “design is invisible until it fails,” referring to the infrastructures that sustain modern life as objects of design (i.e. transportation systems, the internet, cities, etc.) By opening up design conversations beyond 20th century models of production, broader understandings of the profession that embrace design within larger systems emerged as a result of this project. As Silas mentioned, the graphic design profession was coined nearly a century ago. For the most part of last century, the graphic design profession remained fairly stable until the last couple of decades.

First spread of Massive Change book. Photograph shows transmission towers crushed and power lines downed by freezing rain in Boucherville, Quebec, January 1998.

Second spread of Massive Change book. Photograph shows burned-out control room of Reactor 4. Chernobyl, Russia, 2001.

Although the notion of a “designer-less design office” makes no sense at first sight, it raises a lot of issues that graphic designers are struggling with today. Rapid technology changes have swept the industry and drive some of the major innovations in the field today. Design businesses are constantly required to add value to their products and services in face of global competition. Many of us are left wondering what just happened to our tidy understanding of graphic design. I believe that a more engaged design practice could be a way forward for graphic design to continue being relevant.

My design studio, Work Worth Doing, might be a designer-less office. However, I do not seek autonomy as Silas’ concept suggests. Instead, our office seeks a more direct engagement with the world. Even though I am the only “design-trained” designer at the office, we operate as a design studio. Our focus is on systems designs often born out of our own initiative that are parsed through inter-disciplinary inquiry. The resulting outcomes address social or environmental challenges. For example, our Now House project involves the design of a home retrofit system for a wartime house that reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 6 tons on an annual basis and could potentially be applied to millions of existing wartime houses in North America. It is through a direct engagement with architects, engineers, and energy specialists that this project emerged. Other projects have required us to engage with political scientists, economists, and sociologists. My roles have been paradoxically those of a graphic designer and generalist designer.

As designers, we often forget to look at the past for answers to our profession’s current ontological struggles. Buckminster Fuller, designer, architect, and inventor, strived to find an answer to the relevance of design in the world, or how design can “address humanity’s present and future needs.” The legacy of his work is now articulated by the Buckminster Fuller Institute as design science, a design practice that is comprehensive, systematic, anticipatory, ecologically responsible, able to withstand empirical testing, and replicable.

In face of current scientific knowledge that indicates humanity’s current lifestyle can not be sustained for the remainder of this century, I find Fuller’s design legacy very relevant. Recent studies suggest that climate change, the result of human activity is of great concern, warning that if the earth’s temperature were to raise by two degrees celsius, irreparable damage to the world’s biosphere, societies, and economy would be caused. However, recent studies by WWF and UNEP suggest it is still possible to prevent such damage if we act today simply by scaling what we already know how to do. In other words, existing technologies and knowledge would suffice to solve the world’s climate change problem.

Embracing complexity with the world at large remains a challenge for our profession, but some designers –not only graphic designers — are beginning to address this issue. The evolution of our profession is a complex process, but I believe that a commitment to engage beyond traditional notions of graphic design and addressing broad challenges is a positive step forward for our field.

Southern Walker gathering

I just remembered I had these photos i thought i’d share. The photos are from last February when Andrew and Emmet visited NC State. They did a very nice presentation of projects done at the Walker’s Design Department dating back to 1998. Above: One of the slides in the presentation: Poster for Allan Wexler exhibition […]

I just remembered I had these photos i thought i’d share. The photos are from last February when Andrew and Emmet visited NC State. They did a very nice presentation of projects done at the Walker’s Design Department dating back to 1998.

Walker poster

Above: One of the slides in the presentation: Poster for Allan Wexler exhibition designed by Daniel Eatock.

It was indeed a mini-Walker reunion when we went for dinner following the lecture. I happened to be that semester at NC State as a Designer in Resident.

Raleigh dinner

Pictured from left to right: Santiago Piedrafita, Deb Littlejohn, Meredith Davis, Andrew Blauvelt, Emmet Byrne, Alex Quinto, Matt Peterson, and Katie Meaney.

Hello everyone!

It’s me Alex… or Alejandro, as I was known back in my Walker days. I was a Walker intern from 2001-2002 with Alex DeArmond and the rest of the very missed clan (Andrew, Lisa, Linda, Santiago, David, Kathleen, and Pamela). I am now in Toronto, as a partner/designer at an interdisciplinary studio called Work Worth […]

It’s me Alex… or Alejandro, as I was known back in my Walker days. I was a Walker intern from 2001-2002 with Alex DeArmond and the rest of the very missed clan (Andrew, Lisa, Linda, Santiago, David, Kathleen, and Pamela). I am now in Toronto, as a partner/designer at an interdisciplinary studio called Work Worth Doing.

mmm… perhaps i’ll share some thoughts on the design scene here in Toronto and whatever other projects I encounter on this side of the border.

I look forward to meeting other Walker alumni :) Later!