Class & Design

Like it or not, design has class. And no, I don’t mean it’s classy as in elegant or fashionable, although design is a very trendy business world accessory. And I don’t mean design has class as in groups that share common attributes. I mean design has class as in an artificial social hierarchy — much of it self inflicted.

This more subtle definition of class creates a division where one group is perceived as “better” or “higher” or “more refined” than the other. This trend is nothing new. Art, architecture, literature, culture, music, etc. all have created similar class systems. And we as designers are somewhat guilty for creating artificial divisions in design. Let me explain.

I recently listened to a talk given by Malcom Gladwell, well known author of the Tipping Point and Blink. He tells the story of how in the early ’70’s Grey Poupon Dijon mustard broke into a field dominated by two plain yellow mustards. How? First, they created a different type of mustard that was spicy and brown. Then through design and advertising they created an artificial mustard social class, where plain yellow mustards should be perceived as “common” and Grey Poupon as “upper class” mustard. Grey Poupon became a mustard to aspire to, not merely consume. Soon, many in advertising and design were following their lead, creating products and services that were based on aspiration and social hierarchy where there had been none before. Think computers: Mac (creative class) vs PC (corporate working class). Think cars: Ford (working class) vs BMW (upper crust).

There used to be only two manufacturers of spaghetti sauce on the national scene: Ragu and Prego. Ragu dominated the market. Their sauces were based on what was considered at the time to be the perfect, authentic Italian pasta sauce: thin and watery with one basic flavor. Spaghetti sauce makers aspired to a single perfect sauce in the mold of Grey Poupon. Ragu hired a fellow to help them revive their struggling product in the face of the dominant Ragu sauce. What he discovered was that there is no perfect sauce to aspire to. There are perfect sauces. In other words, there is no class system (social or aspirational) in spaghetti sauce. There are many classes (i.e. different kinds) of spaghetti sauce that would appeal to many different folks. Interestingly, he found that one third Americans actually like chunky sauce versus the authentic Italian thin, watery sauce. Prego created a chunky sauce plus 20 other variations and began to dominate the sauce market. So, what does this have to do with design again?

Think back to the last time you presented several design concepts to a client. And of course there was one concept you thought was the perfect solution. We’ll call it the Poupon concept. The others were not as “good” for whatever reason. And of course, the client chose one of the “weaker” concepts. Or maybe you just presented a single, Pouponesque concept and the client rejected it. We all know how that feels. You argue your point and still the client wants some “lower class” concept. Maybe they even pull out something that their friend did for them as an example. You hold your head (and nose) high and try not to look too offended by the assumption that this concept could be in the same design “class” as yours.

Like it or not, we’re creating an unnecessary class system in design. One design is not in a higher social class than another any more than Dijion is in a higher social status than yellow mustard. They are just designs with different strengths and weaknesses. The sooner we recognize that design should be devoid of social hierarchy, the more creative both designer and the designed will become.