When does a musician decide whether they prefer to perform or to compose? Is it a decision of the head or the gut, or do genetics determine which path the musician takes? The fact is that, with a few exceptions, they will either take one direction or the other. It is also a fact that most musicians will make a living as performers.
An acquaintance of mine was an excellent example of this: He is a musician with a renowned orchestra. And he is a musician through and through. When, during a break in a performance, I asked him whether he liked playing what they were performing, he didn’t hold back: Bruckner, that was “a schaaas” [utter garbage, in Austrian German]! Of course, he had his preferences and loved the old music, but that was a private matter, and since he was a professional, he could play anything anyway. “Good musicians can do that. Only amateurs always stick to their style.”
When I pointed out that many well-known musicians became famous precisely because of their style, such as James Last, his reply was succinct: “Amateurism doesn’t protect you from success!”
If you want to devote yourself entirely to your own ‘style’, you compose and instrumentalize yourself. Then you are completely yourself. But if you’re a musician in an orchestra, you have to be a professional, master your instrument and be able to play what’s on the bandstand exactly.
The same applies to design. You can also decide what is to be ‘played’ and articulate it yourself. Many design authors exemplify this and are, therefore, entirely themselves. And many are successful at it!
However, if you want to design for a company, you have to be a professional and master your instruments so that you “play along with the company”.
The question of a future career begins during education: composing or performing? Who can do both? Who goes one way and who the other? Those who compose are extremely rare. They are well-known design gurus such as Stark, Rashid, Jongerius, etc. And many a design professional would describe some of them as ‘successful amateurs’… Perhaps you must be an amateur first and foremost to realize your style in all aspects, against all odds.
And then there are corporate ‘composers’ who deliberately leave the performance of their vision to design professionals. They know very well that it is their job to lead design and that it is better to leave the actual design of products, services, interactions, spaces and communication materials to professionals. Steve Jobs wasn’t a professional designer himself, but he knew exactly how to lead design – he was the composer of the Apple ‘score’. The few designers he hired left their style at the front door without a second thought. Of course, they had personal preferences, but as professionals, they could design to match the company’s tonality. Because they knew that if they didn’t, the quality of the ‘performed’ customer experience would inevitably suffer, as would the value of their own contribution.
I would therefore like to see more clarity in design training: what are the basics of design (what does everyone need to be able to do), and what do trained professionals bring to the table so that they can ‘play their part’ in the company?
It should speak for itself that this requires a good deal of ‘company knowledge’. Anyone who wants to ‘play with the company’, whether as a designer, developer or manager, must understand how ‘playing’ works. Practical proximity here does not mean disciplinary proximity but proximity to others in the organization: why, how, where and when designers are needed in the organizations and how they integrate themselves to be perceived as participants. Knowing this is a skill that was already at the forefront of the Ulm School, where the aim was to train designers as specialists among specialists so that they could act on an equal footing at the “round table” with engineers and managers. Otl Aicher aptly expressed that this is not an easy task and role: “it’s not an easy life.” […] [a designer] never knows what will emerge if he has not already succumbed to his own style. […] who can stand this?”
As my friend, the musician, said, professionals can stand this. Indeed, this role is not a desired one for every designer. Still, it is bitterly necessary: without professionals, companies cannot ‘perform’ and thus lose their ‘audience’, and the products or services fail their real purpose of providing utility value for customers.
Without professionals in design, companies run the risk of becoming a catwalk for the vanity of self-absorbed ‘authors’. It might be interesting if you have one of them. It becomes a cacophony when all of them are.
Aicher can also be quoted here: “craftsmen, developers, engineers do not do signatures.” Neither do designers: they are professionals.