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Come Back, Raymond Loewy: All is Forgiven

Anyone who thinks the problems of today's designers are unique should read Raymond Loewy's 1951 book Never Leave Well Enough Alone. It's a glimpse into a time when another design discipline, industrial design, was in its nascent stage, just like interaction design is today.

Loewy, for those of you who aren't up on your design history, was one of the premier industrial designers of the mid-20th century. He (or more correctly his firm) did a staggeringly broad selection of designs, from refrigerators to trains to logos, and changed the look of products forever. His most famous dictum is the MAYA principle: Most Advanced Yet Acceptable.

Reading Never Leave Well Enough Alone as a 21st century designer is a little like looking into a warped funhouse mirror. So many of the issues and problems he tackles during his career echo the same ones we face right now with our digital devices. Of course, you have to look past the casual sexism that pervades the book, which should probably be expected from a book written in 1951 by a middle-aged French businessman. You also have to get past Loewy's not-inconsiderable ego. But some of the tidbits are worth it.

After arriving in New York after WWI, Loewy began his career as a fashion illustrator. Through a series of chance encounters and chutzpah, he ended up designing cars and in the process helped launch the discipline of what became known as industrial design. Listen to his description of the industrial products of the early 20th century and see if they don't sound like the digital products of the early 21st:

"The first mechanical products were put together by men of ingenuity and resourcefulness. Their prime objective was to make the contraption--whether a coffee grinder, a lifting crane, or a steam engine--work. Will it work? was the question. No one gave a thought to cost and far less to appearance. Products were "engineered as you go" and they betrayed this technique by their haphazard, disorderly look."

Windows 95 anyone? Hell, for that matter, three-quarters of the software, websites, and devices out there.

Loewy starts working for Chrysler to redo the look of their automobiles and is immediately told by the engineers everything he can't do. He spends months working on designs only to have them ignored or misinterpreted or implemented incorrectly by the engineers. It's frustrating, but slowly he builds trust (he spends his own money building prototypes often) and his business.

The business side of things is interesting as well. In an uncharacteristically quiet moment for him, Loewy describes the toil of the business trip:

"I would like to be able to forget those business-getting trips in the Middle West, pushing doorbell after doorbell of small plants and factories...these trips were an ordeal...the long wait in the November rain for the sad streetcar that would bring me back...to my hotel, tired and feeling grippy, disillusioned, lonely--and empty-handed. But above all, so tired."

Loewy's business philosophy was pretty simple: 1) do something well, 2) deliver it on time, and 3) stick to your word. His other rules sprung from this philosophy and his experience: 1) deliver designs on time, 2) do careful follow-up with the client's engineering staff, and 3) constantly check on the client's competition. And his one unalterable rule was this: "Nothing is to come out of the R.L. offices until it has been checked and double-checked for practicability and manufacturability. Heads of divisions will be held directly responsible for the observance of this design policy." By 1939, after about a decade of work (most of it during The Great Depression) in a field that hadn't previously existed, Loewy had over a hundred people working for him and a penthouse office in New York. Impressive.

Loewy's book is filled with anecdotes, some pointless, some poignant. He relates a story of being taken to a client's factory in Dayton and shown the hundreds of men working there, and reminded of their dependents and of all the people not in the factory involved in the product he designed, three hundred and twenty thousand people in all "directly affected by the success or failure of what you put on paper." "We never lose contact with reality," Loewy later reflects. "and we do not underestimate our social responsibilities. As we have over one hundred clients on our list, it may well be that the soundness of our designs affects the lives of millions." It's refreshing and rare to hear a designer acknowledge such a deep connection to his clients. When Loewy became head of the Society of Industrial Designers (now IDSA) the first thing he does is establish a code of ethics.

At the end of the book, Loewy touches on the future of industrial design and its ultimate goal: to create peace of mind.

"The countless and incessant complexities and disturbances of everyday life are so many handicaps making this goal all the more difficult to reach. Sensory unpleasantness created by ugly form, color, feel, noises, temperatures, or smoke are so many obstacles on the road to our destination...Transcending his early purpose, which was merely surface styling, the industrial designer becomes an integral part in the planning of every product, service, or structure. His presence at the inception stage will increase assurance that the end product shall be as free as possible of annoying features...the designer will try to make it more pleasant for you."

Amen, Raymond Loewy, amen.

Originally posted at Wednesday, July 20, 2005 | Comments (0) | Trackback (0)

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