Can the U.S. remain competitive, design-wise?

I just read an excellent, and perhaps scary, article written by our own Niti Bhan and published on the BusinessWeek.com Innovation Blog.Her article, A Competitive Nation, by Design, notes that the United States, long a leader in innovation and design, runs the risk of falling behind in this category as nations like India and China — today regarded as low cost manufacturing centers — are pouring far greater resources and placing far greater emphasis into design than the United States:Niti observes that policy-makers and professionals in the U.S. have acknowledged the threat on the part of China and India — not to mention Korea and Japan — to the U.S.’s dominance in technology and innovation and have taken steps to both grow domestic and attract foreign scientific and technological talent. However she also notes that there is no corresponding effort to grow and attract future design leaders.

However, one must raise the concern: What about design? Is any of the increased funding to the National Science Foundation and other basic research focused on design methodology and tools, the building blocks of innovation? We’ve all heard the success stories in which design-led innovation has directly increased existing market share, grown new markets, added value to the bottom line, and raised the visibility of brands.

She also notes that the lack of cohesiveness of the disparate design organizations has left the overall design community with absolutely no governmental representation and no national initiatives on design:

Putting aside the debate on whether design is innovation or vice versa, it is difficult to understand why the design industry — the august bodies such as the Industrial Designers Society of America, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, and the Association of Professional Design Firms — have not raised their collective voices for representation.Is it time for a national design council or design policy? The Indian government has just announced imminent ratification of a national design policy to be released in early 2006. Their plan includes a “Mark of Good Design” that qualified companies can affix to the items they export. Only well-designed products that take the user, the environment, materials, and ergonomics into account would carry the mark.

Now time for the dirty little secret: Americans suffer from an air of entitlement that leads us to believe that we will always lead in certain categories. It was long believe, 2 generations ago, that all the Japanese could do is copy U.S. innovations and produce them at a fraction of the cost. That belief was turned on its ear during the 80’s when it became clear that in certain areas — particularly consumer electronics and automotive — the Japanese had not only surpassed United States technological superiority but they had also surpassed United States innovation.Today, Japan is no longer a cheap labor market and if history is any indicator, the Indians and Chinese will catch up with us eventually as well.Can the U.S. continue to ignore the emerging role of design in the 21st century? Can designers continue to be satisfied with our own second class status in the business community? At what point is it time to call upon our design organizations to set aside petty differences and realize that a coordinated, national effort is necessary? At what point does the design industry realize that in a global economy, we have issues that need to be lobbied on a national and international level — like intellectual capital?Design history is not encouraging when one looks at the future. Graphic designers have typically not been the type to embrace the future or deal with future problems before they confront us. Graphic designers have always preferred to burry our collective heads in the sand and ignore change until it smacks us in the behind with a 2 X 4. To this, I say it’s never too late to change bad habits..chris{}

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