• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Why are Kiwis so afraid of design?

"It's a good question, daaaaahling".

Art director Jenny Nicholls wonders why designers are not rioting in the streets.

Edna: “This is a hobo suit, dahling.
You can’t be seen in this. I won’t allow it – 15 years ago, maybe, but now? Feh!”
Bob: “Wait, what do you mean?
You designed it.”
Edna: “I never look back, dahling! It distracts from the now.”

Edna Mode, fashion designer to a family of superheroes in Pixar’s animated movie The Incredibles, doesn’t mince words. Although, being so visual and everything, she doesn’t like them much, either.

Edna: “Yes, words are useless! ‘Gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble-gobble!’ Too much of it, dahling! Too much! That is why I show you my work! That is why you are here!”

Scientists, it is said, tire of seeing themselves depicted in film as cold, evil and sexless with the social skills of a laboratory beaker. (I’m looking at you, Dr Evil.) But as a designer, I’m cool with Edna – partly because it is so rare to see a working designer on film, but also because she is assertive and funny.

Read more: What makes some Kiwi designs last when others fade away? | The man who tried to design New Zealand 

Edna also, refreshingly, expresses a little-understood truth about design. She makes her clients’ clothes work properly, because she understands her materials – like all good designers.

“Your boy’s suit I designed to withstand enormous friction without heating up or wearing out, a useful feature,” she tells her superhero client. “Your suit can stretch as far as you can without injuring yourself, and still retain its shape. Virtually indestructible, yet it breathes like Egyptian cotton.”

Edna’s creator gets it. Design is not just about the way something looks, although that matters too.

Steve Jobs, famously, understood this, too – and it made him as rich as Scrooge McDuck.

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like,” Jobs told the New York Times in 2003, in a story about the iPod. “People think it’s this veneer – that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Spatial designer Michelle BenZur.

When my late father, a retired farmer who was definitely not the black polo-neck type, was adding an extension to his house, he hired an engineer, not an architect. When he got the plans back from “the young bloke in town”, I offered to show them to Michelle BenZur, a dazzlingly talented spatial designer I know.

I didn’t call her that when I spoke to Dad, though. I didn’t want to put him off.

“Dad,” I said, “you know I have a very clever friend who could check your plans for you. She designed our kitchen. I didn’t know you could come up with so many ideas for such a small space!

Dad gave me an amused look. A farmer needs to be a jack-of-all-trades and know how to build a hayshed. I mean, house.

We didn’t show her the plans.

After his place was finished, it turned out the engineer had forgotten to specify that an expensive bespoke window should actually open. And Dad didn’t like the way the pantry took up so much room in the kitchen, or the size of the staircase.

I didn’t say anything.

A year later, Dad sold the house for $200,000 less than his neighbour got for his a few months earlier.

I didn’t say anything then, either.

The Kiwi she'll-be-right attitude to design...might not be

BenZur trained in Israel and worked in London before coming to New Zealand. She tells me there is a tangible difference between European and New Zealand attitudes to design.

“I feel that in many ways New Zealand is still a No. 8 wire nation,” she says. “When I tell people I’m a spatial designer, I see their eyes glaze over. I can see them thinking, ‘Why would I need you? I know what I want.’

“In the UK and in Israel, where I lived and worked, many people do understand why you would hire a designer. Is it that Kiwis aren’t used to relying on professionals? Or is it that many don’t find aesthetics important? Or don’t understand how good design can improve function?”

The Great Big Bloody Expensive Kiwi Flag Fiasco – to pluck just one Great Big Bloody Design Fiasco at random – shows how right BenZur is.

The 12-person Flag Consideration Panel contained sportspeople, entertainment executives, writers, CEOs, academics, a soldier, a youth councillor and an ex-mayor... and no designers. If the panel had been made up only of designers, it’s hard to see how the outcome could have been any worse.

What were we so afraid of?

Even Auckland University’s Elam School of Fine Arts, which proclaims itself “New Zealand’s leading tertiary provider in art and design” and so should know better, seems confused about design. Their own blurb and course offerings make little mention of such critical design skills as typography. “Design”, it seems, is a word to be trumpeted in a slogan but used grudgingly from then on. (Unitec, AUT and Massey’s School of Design websites make for a telling comparison.)  This snootiness in our leading art school is pretty odd, as graphic-design jobs outnumber gallery-curator jobs (or famous-artist jobs) on the Seek website by about 100 to one. In fact, a search for “curator” on Seek brings up “Store Manager, Ladies Fashion, Milford Mall”, which is probably not what you imagined doing after the four years’ full-time study a Bachelor of Fine Arts requires.

While art is a wellspring of technique and inspiration for design, as maths is for physics, they are not the same thing.

“It took me a long time to learn this,” said BenZur, “but I was very surprised to find out how and where you learn design in New Zealand. In the UK, in Europe and in Israel, design institutes are part of universities, architectural institutes or art schools. The spatial design curriculum, for example, includes arts, culture and engineering. I was very surprised to see the curriculum in New Zealand of ‘interior design courses’ was so narrow. Could this have something to do with the low prestige that design has in the eyes of much of the New Zealand population?”

In March, a beautiful book was published: Design Generation: How Peter Haythornthwaite Shaped New Zealand’s Design-led Enterprise, written by design historian Michael Smythe (Rim Books, $60). The cover was designed by Auckland graphic designer Peter Roband.

Haythornthwaite, who taught at Elam in the 70s, is a pioneer of New Zealand industrial design. Perhaps, he suggests, it might not kill us to consider not just function but form as well. Although he puts it more carefully than that:

“Beauty and deftness of resolution is experienced… when the solution performs its task with eloquence and ease… Take time to quest for beauty. Beauty demands discernment, judgement, perceptiveness and meditation, but the reward is that it will enhance your fulfilment in life.” 

Chances are good that, unless you are a designer yourself, you will not have heard of Haythornthwaite – a towering figure in New Zealand design. And Roband, a distinguished designer, should be as familiar as an All Black.

Why are designers so unsung here? Maybe it is their fault. Our fault. Maybe we are quiet, backroom types who wilt at the application of limelight. Graphic designers, font designers, industrial designers, spatial designers and urban designers tend to work behind the scenes, at the mercy of their clients’ favour. Unless they are architects or fashion designers, most are unused to expressing their opinions in public.

Like Edna, many don’t consider words to be their thing. The homepage of multi-award-winning Auckland design company Alt Group is empty save for a sentence in miniscule typewriter font: “This page intentionally left blank.”

The downside of communicating visually, of never being quoted, of always being in the backroom of popular culture is that when you are most sorely needed – during a flag debate, for example – no one knows who you are.        

Edna might not like words, but she knows how to make some noise.           

Check out Peter Haythornthwaite’s exhibition Design Generation, which runs until April 29 at Auckland gallery Objectspace. This is a major survey of one of our most influential industrial designers, including many manufactured objects that will be familiar to most New Zealanders.