Let's put some design back into American-made products

IN pushing to make the United States competitive again in world trade, President Reagan wants to retrain the unemployed, better educate the disadvantaged, and give our patents and inventions greater protection. That's fine, but he has ignored a major reason for America's dismal showing in the export market: our almost total neglect of how poorly we design our products. Everyone knows that Japan, once the source of shoddy novelties, now leads the world in producing superior consumer goods. Less well known is that in 1986, when the US posted its greatest trade deficit, more than $140 billion, a 19.5 percent jump over 1985, Europe achieved its first-ever surplus, about $6 billion.

In a shocking turn of events, the Japanese now suspect the quality of our products - and they aren't the only ones who harbor such beliefs: We Americans now import 99 percent of our VCRs, 54 percent of our shoes, 25 percent of our cars, and 20 percent of our computers. These goods may not be cheaper, but Americans definitely believe they're made better and work better.

``Made in America'' used to mean quality. Early in the 20th century, the ranks of the world's innovative designers included Raymond Loewy, Norman Bel Geddes, Walter Dorwin Teague Jr., Russel and Mary Wright, and Henry Dreyfuss. Entrepreneurial executives who cared about their products eagerly tapped these creative minds to help produce superior locomotives, automobiles, airplanes, cookware, cameras, furniture, bath fixtures, and appliances. It was the machine age, and industry, employing a style that was uniquely American, helped pull the nation out of the Great Depression.

After World War II, as veterans returned home hungry for new products to furnish their suburban dream homes, design entered a brief golden age.

Between the 1950s and 1980s, however, a prosperous United States fell into the trap of complacency. Designers and engineers, once part of corporate America's elite, now were relegated to lower rungs on the executive ladder. Design degenerated into ``styling,'' a cosmetic process. No longer was design an integral part of a product's form.

Today, corporate managers seem to be more concerned about placating stockholders and fighting takeovers than about focusing on the contributions of designers in manufacturing products that satisfy consumers. To get a hearing before these preoccupied corporate leaders, designers must adopt euphemisms like ``problem solving'' and ``product effectiveness'' to describe their mission.

Yet, corporate executives should not be chastised too harshly for their ignorance about design.

Of the nation's 200 schools offering MBA degrees, not one - not even Harvard or Stanford University - offers a single course in industrial design. Even in our art and technical schools, design education has fallen on tough times: America has only three or four first-rate institutions turning out our next generation of designers.

Fortunately, we've seen a few glimmers of hope in recent months. The efforts of such companies as Ford to become more competitive in design have been received favorably by consumers and the news media.

But much more needs to be done. Forty nations have government design centers, and Britain even has a minister of design with a $60 million budget. Yet America's only official government program in all fields of design, the Design Arts Program of the National Endowment for the Arts, has a modest budget of about $4 million.

A recent Arts Endowment conference, focusing on business and design, produced some crucial findings:

Industrial design needs wider public recognition and support.

Industrial and other designers must have more sway in corporate board rooms, as they do in many successful Japanese companies, including Sony.

The US needs more world-class schools of industrial design, with radically new curricula.

It has often been said that US managers favor good design as long as business is good. In fact, they should recognize that, in the long run, good design is good business: It results in more satisfied customers and increased sales. Better design also helps to eliminate corporate costs caused by consumer dissatisfaction, accidents, legal problems, warranty costs, and lower productivity.

One thing is certain: Our corporate leaders must get back in touch with their designers and the workers who forget the product. If President Reagan really wants to make the US competitive again, he needs to support innovative programs that educate design professionals and that recognize their efforts. Americans have always taken pride in making things that not only work well but also are better than anyone else's. If we don't start soon to design superior products, we'll never get back in the game.

Bill N. Lacy, an architect, is president of the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science & Art in New York City. He is former director of the Architecture and Environmental Arts Program at the National Endowment for the Arts.

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