Design and Industrial Design

Considerations on Choices in The Field of Design’s Training


Industrial Design emerges over the nineteenth century as a subject that is exclusively devoted to large scale production of material goods aiming to improve both the plan of the productive process and the utilitarian function of the product. It changes the product’s performance, advancing from the object’s design to the creation of consumable symbols (styling), as it adjusts to the changes brought about by the world economic crisis of 1929. It also plays a role in the post-World War II economic boom, when it is consolidated as an autonomous subject in relation to Architecture, broadening its field of action. The critical re-evaluation of the Modern movement (throughout the 1960’s) and the assimilation of knowledge generated by subjects such as Semiotics contribute to the definition of design no longer as a subject that attains to material production exclusively, but as one that participates in the complete project-production-consumption circuit. That is the moment when it becomes Design and leaves aside the design of a product to devote itself instead to the construction of the project’s image above all. Research and teaching in Design are to help name the new tasks of the designer, understanding and critiquing them, in order to permit responsible choices, and not the mere reproduction of the status.


design, industrial design, information, project, programming


The importance of the activity of projecting—typical of the industrial designer both at the birth of the subject, in the nineteenth century, and today, when it has undergone a significant change—is a function of the large-scale production of merchandise in industrial capitalist society. That process started in the mid-eighteenth century in England.

The division of work is a fundamental characteristic of the new mode of production and occurs on two levels, according to the nature of work (either intellectual or manual), and the consecutive phases to add value to the object produced (technical division of work)2. Essentially, what happens is the separation between the producer (the artisan in the feudal system) and the means of production. This process happens as capital starts to finance the production for commerce, and manages to extract surplus value from the manufacturing work and multiply itself, constituting the initial equity (primitive or, according to Singer, originary accumulation3). That initial equity, when concentrated, progressively organizes the production, initially dominating commerce and later assuming the organization of the factory itself, which turns individual work into collective work as it divides it into phases and forms a heritage of necessary knowledge. In other words, it separates theory from practice4. In the end of this transformation in the nature of work, no single individual masters the totality of the production of a particular object and the planning activity pervades all production levels: the object is planned, then the machinery, the organization of the factory, and the management of work5.

In a process that encompasses the period since the invention of the printing press6 in the fifteenth century—which enables the spread of reading and the resulting abandonment of the primacy of orality in the spread of knowledge—the production of all-pervasive ideas, where knowledge is passed on through narration7, typical of communities, is replaced by the production of ideas that are systematized,recordable in writing or in codified drawings (project), now more democratically. This operation separates what used to be united in craft work, that is, form and conception, or as Braverman puts it, ideation and action. This separation, according to the author, distinguishes human work. As early as the nineteenth century, the industrial designer, as the substitute for the artisan, is called on to re-incorporate use-value to the object, whose exchange-value is ensured through large-scale production. The perception of a need for this new professional emerges in England, strongly industrialized at the time, where people witness the progressive disappearance of the connection between form and function in industrially manufactured objects.

The need to transform society as a whole and adjust it to new forms of production (industrial capitalist) at the same time, including in terms of urban concentration, fosters the rise, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of an ideology (of planning) that uses art and architecture and shows itself as “functionalism8.” This ideology is an agent of advancement insofar as it operates the implementation of a rationality (called instrumental9) that is useful and necessary to the depersonalization of the relationships among individuals. The latter, no longer organized in communities but in a society10, have access to the means of production only as part of collective work. That means they do not master the production processes individually, as mentioned above, and are subject to unfavorable work processes insofar as they are not allowed to use their full human capacity through intelligence, and are rewarded as mere instruments of work11. The planned nature of the new mode of production allows for the expansion of production forces, but the ideology that supports it is no longer consistent from the moment when the “planning” fails to stop the first world economy crisis (the crash of the New York stock market in 1929). At the same time, in the Soviet Union, the Five-Year Plan of 1931 marks the failure of the attempts to link spatial organization and State actions12.
Tafuri says that from that moment the ”planning” will no longer need ideologies to mediate its action on society, and will show its true, vicious nature. The New Deal, a state action to raise the employment level and overcome the crisis, fosters the production of goods whose strict use-value decreases, while their symbolic value rises. That inaugurates the era of serial production, peaks with the phenomenon of “styling,” in the 1930’s, and the “kitsch.” An object is reduced to its exchange-value, which diminishes or at least its use-value decreases. Planned obsolescence is created as a way to interfere in the cycle of consumption whose growth, after World War II, lies behind the increase of production forces. As a result of this change, project activity concerning the object loses its importance in favor of the creation of strategies of consumption13, more important in the new scenario of excess production capacity. This process determines the beginning of the supremacy of the shape of an object over the function it might perform, burying at once the progressive ideals of the Modern vanguard. The job of the industrial designer expands into other fields that are less directly related to the industry and the fulfilment of material needs. The term designer, currently used internationally, eliminates references to the industry, so that it does not limit the new range of activities performed by such a professional, which go beyond designing the product.

The re-evaluation of the ideals of the Modern architectonic movement, incorporating the problematic of industrial design as a subject, begun in the mid-1960’s, brings about numerous diverse points of view; some try to recover and value the aspects of the Modern ideals, whereas others try to overcome them completely14. But Industrial Design, by dealing with the design of “information circuits”15 and completely surpassing the idealization of a useful object, changes much faster than Architecture itself after the 1960s. This separates the subjects even more and demands a different comprehension for critiques of one or the other. This critique will end by demonstrating that Industrial Design, as a productive activity, starting in that decade, will be completely independent from the Architecture from which it sprung in the second half of the nineteenth century, that is, one hundred years earlier. Perhaps even more than that, Design will swallow Architecture, the city and, according to Argan, also “the territory, the conurbation, and ultimately the whole inhabited world.” 16
The Arganian idea that the plan is substituted by programming—which refers not only to the object’s design but also to commercial strategies of encouragement for compulsive, unnecessary consumption—is complemented by the concept of worlds of life created by Habermas. According to this concept, the critical spheres (Art, Science and Morality) have been invaded or contaminated by the instrumental logic inherent to the social system founded on the economy (money) and the State (power) 17.

This discussion is important insofar as it enables an understanding of the change in meaning in the project activity—from objects to the “information circuits”—as a consequence of the subordination of the critical spheres to the instrumental logics of the State and of corporations. This process becomes legitimate no longer through ideologies in the Marxist sense, but through the suppression (says Habermas) of all ideology. Thus, it is possible to include the change in nature of Design and its subordination to commercial strategies in the same context where the isolation of the critical spheres regarding the social system occurs, dispensing with justifications. In Habermas’s words, that happens by the absence of argumentative interaction.

The manual activity that belongs to the production of artistic objects is re-valued during the formation of the Modern movement in the nineteenth century. In this case, however, it happens only with an ideological effect of the real need to stimulate, with traditional knowledge, a new phase of division of work that will enable the industry to aesthetically remodel its production in light of an economic reality that has been changed, where old objects, in old shapes, no longer worked.

The migration to the urban environment of tasks that until the recent past were typical of the domestic environment—eating, washing clothes, raising children, having friends over for dinner—and the interiorization of typically collective-urban activities that depended on institutional physical structures—working, which is increasingly done at home, buying all kinds of goods for individual maintenance (food, clothing, books, etc), “going” to the bank—establish what has been called the “service-town.” There, not only does Design play a role of supplying the physical means (objects) for the new operations needed, but also (and more importantly) it takes part in the process of elaboration of knowledge that circulates, which has become the true nature of design. Definitely, from the mid-1960’s up to present, it no longer deals with what has become the “simple” and “secondary” (in a way) task of supplying the environment of the industrial capitalist society with useful objects, as already mentioned.

The small series, the personalized massification, the re-manufacturing, the selling of products replacing the selling of utensils, the understanding of a world based on the circulation of information, which has become the main merchandise, are the new jobs of the designer. Research and teaching in Design are to name these new jobs, understanding and critiquing them, pointing out new categorizations that make it clear that the initial phase in the history of Industrial Design has been left behind. In that phase, thoughts used to materialize in objects and the designer’s job consisted of the solution of those problems. In the present time we must admit that the information design is not a task only for the traditional means of information (the press, government institutions, the cinema, trade unions, political parties, etc.) but it consists of a “system” whose “design” implies more than mere materiality. Designers participate in that process, but now in a different way, not more a modern one. To accept or reject the new place of the designer is a matter of principle which those design courses that don’t aspire to be mere replicators of the status, must face.
1 The present paper is a modernization made in January, 2009, of the original published in the proceedings of the international seminar “Perspectivas do Ensino e da Pesquisa em Design na Pós-Graduação”, sponsored by the School of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of São Paulo, in September, 2001; [refer to: CLARO, Mauro. Desenho industrial e design – uma contribuição para a discussão sobre o ensino e a pesquisa em design na FAU. In: SANTOS, Maria Cecília Loschiavo dos (org.), PERRONE, Rafael Antônio Cunha (org.). Design: pesquisa e pós-graduação. Universidade de São Paulo, FAU, anais do Seminário Internacional Perspectivas do Ensino e da Pesquisa em Design na Pós-Graduação, 2002. (353 p.) p. 201-7.].
2 Karl Marx. O capital – crítica da economia política, (Rio de Janeiro: Bertrand, 1989). MAURO CLARO / on design and industrial design / page 2 of 5
3 Paul Singer, Uma utopia militante – repensando o socialismo, (Petrópolis: Vozes, 1998).
4 Karl Mannheim, O homem e a sociedade – estudos sobre a estrutura social moderna, (Zahar: Rio de Janeiro, 1962).
5 Harry Braverman, Trabalho e capital monopolista – a degradação do trabalho no século XX, (Rio de Janeiro: Guanabara, 1987).
6 Concepts in this paragraph were collected and then reworked from Aula Magna pronounced in March, 5th, 1999, by Professor Lucrécia D’Alessio Ferrara in the School of Architecture and Urban Planning of the University of São Paulo, discipline AUP-463 (Design – from the Mechanical Industrial Revolution to the Electrical/Electronic one).
7 Jean-François Lyotard, O pós-moderno, (Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1993).
8 Alan Colquhoun, Modernidad y tradición clásica, (Madrid: Júcar, 1991).
9 MANNHEIM, op. cit.
10 TÖNNIES, Ferdinand. Communauté et societé – caractères fondamentales de la sociologie pure, (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1944).
11 MARX, Karl. Estranged labour. In: MILLS, Wright C. (org.). Images of man, (New York: Braziller, 1962, p. 496-507).MAURO CLARO / on design and industrial design / page 3 of 5
12 TAFURI, Manfredo. Architecture and utopia – design and capitalist development, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
13 ARGAN, Giulio Carlo. História da arte como história da cidade, (São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1995).
14 IBELINGS, Hans. Supermodernismo – arquitectura en la era de la globalización, (Barcelona: Gustavo Gili, 1998).
15 ARGAN, op. cit.
16 ARGAN, op. cit., p. 264.
17 HABERMAS, Jürgen. O discurso filosófico da modernidade, (Lisboa: Dom Quixote, 1990). MAURO CLARO / on design and industrial design / page 4 of 5


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MAURO CLARO / on design and industrial design / page 5 of 5

BRAVERMAN, Harry. Trabalho e capital monopolista – a degradação do trabalho no século XX. Rio de Janeiro, Guanabara, 1987. 379 p.

HABERMAS, Jürgen. O discurso filosófico da modernidade. Lisboa, Dom Quixote, 1990. 350 p.

MANNHEIM, Karl. Ideologia e utopia – introdução à sociologia do conhecimento. Rio de Janeiro, Globo, 1954. 310 p.

MANNHEIM, Karl. O homem e a sociedade – estudos sobre a estrutura social moderna. Rio de Janeiro, Zahar, 1962. 389 p.

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TAFURI, Manfredo. Architecture and utopia – design and capitalist development. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1996. 184 p.

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