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Undesigning New Zealand; historicising the Design Taskforce report

Christopher Thompson is a kiwi PhD candidate at the University of Brighton. He submitted this paper for those interested in the history of New Zealand Design and to reflect on the current Design…


Christopher Thompson is a kiwi PhD candidate at the University of Brighton. He submitted this paper for those interested in the history of New Zealand Design and to reflect on the current Design Taskforce report.

In May 2003, fifteen years after the third Labour government abolished the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (NZIDC) €”a body that had been established by Act of Parliament in 1966 ...

Image: Frank Carpay - Royal Visit earthenware (detail) Crown Lynn 1953. Courtesy of Auckland Museum.Christopher Thompson is a kiwi PhD candidate at the University of Brighton. He submitted this paper for those interested in the history of New Zealand Design and to reflect on the current Design Taskforce report.

In May 2003, fifteen years after the third Labour government abolished the New Zealand Industrial Design Council (NZIDC) €”a body that had been established by Act of Parliament in 1966 ...

Image: Frank Carpay - Royal Visit earthenware (detail) Crown Lynn 1953. Courtesy of Auckland Museum....following intense lobbying by W B Sutch in his role as permanent secretary of the Department of Industries and Commerce €”a Labour party-dominated coalition government published, as part of its Growth and Innovation Framework (GIF), a 'new strategic vision for the economy' entitled Success by design: design makes first world economies. The document was the result of deliberations conducted by a Design Taskforce formed in May 2002 under the aegis of Industry New Zealand, the reformed bureaucratic successor to the long abolished Department of Industries and Commerce. The taskforce's principal term of reference was to suggest ways of 'raising an awareness of design as a key enabler for industry'. Among additional remits, it was instructed to develop: 'an understanding of what "partnership" means between government and industry, and the extent and nature of potential government involvement in the industry.' A revisiting of the role of design, its links with industry and business and its interaction with the state is no new thing as the British design historian Jonathan Woodham has recounted in an analysis of the parallels in the United Kingdom between the early years of the Council of Industrial Design (CoID) €”established in 1944 €”and the re-branding of design by its successor organisation the Design Council during the first years of the Blair Labour government €”'Design and the state: post-war horizons and per-millennial aspirations'. Yet, in its quest to be seen as treading new ground and seeking to raise fresh and relevant issues, the taskforce gave no hint of recognition that it was treading the same paths that had been mapped in New Zealand some forty years previously and that these in turn were a reworking of many of the beliefs and practices current in the United Kingdom some twenty years earlier.

In addressing its ministerial instructions, the taskforce defined its objectives as 'to achieve three things: more New Zealand businesses achieving sustainable export success; a more capable, business-savvy design profession; greater international recognition of New Zealand design.' Underlying these overt goals was the tacit assumption that the state has a role to play in the design process, if only as a 'driver' of the resulting strategy and as the primary funding source. In this and in a number of other respects, the taskforce revisited the same issues and proposed the same solutions that led to the establishment of the NZIDC, although the existence of an historical dimension to New Zealand design was not recognised either in the report or in those documents on which it was based. To the contrary, the existence of the NZIDC was ignored, a stance reinforced by a number of statements suggesting that New Zealand's design capability benefits from 'a fresh perspective unencumbered by tradition (remote yet internationally aware)' , 'there's a fresh "Pacific" perspective that helps define us' and that 'we tend to carry less "baggage" from the past than in some countries.'

Success by design drew its data substantially from two reports: one commissioned by Industry New Zealand from the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (Inc), Building a case for added value through design ; the other, commissioned by the taskforce, integrate (sic): a critical look at the interface between business and design was prepared by the consultancy firm Innovation & Systems in association with Noel Brown and Janice Burns. Neither report made reference to issues of design history or theory: the NZIER report, prepared by a statistician Mark Walton, based its understandings of design on guidelines provided by the taskforce and local design conditions on a glossy commercial publication, the Urbis Design Annual 2002. Its measures of design efficacy were based on the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report 2001-2002. The Innovation & Systems report evolved from 'a web-based survey [ - ] sent directly to 300 companies as well as to 14 "hub" organisations that had agreed to forward it to their members.' This was supplemented by 'one to one' interviews with twenty CEO/GMs from 'a range of different organisations [ - ] most could be described as "manufacturers".' However, there appeared to be some fundamental distortions in the data provided by the survey: there were problems identified with an understanding what 'design' meant and combined with a poor response to the questionnaire €”only 86 replies were received €”this resulted in a statement from Innovation & Systems that 'we cannot draw sound conclusions about how design is perceived and used [by business].' Adding to the distortion, while 47 per cent of the survey respondents were involved in manufacturing, a disproportionate response (18.6 per cent) was obtained from the 'creative sector', identified separately from the 'service' sector (21 per cent). Moreover, where 24 per cent of respondents were based in Wellington, a mere 15 per cent were based in Auckland, the country's principal manufacturing and services centre. Thus where the rhetoric of 'good design' as it was understood in the mid-twentieth century focussed on the benefits of industrialisation, so the rhetoric of 'good design', as understood by the taskforce, was predicated on distorted research and an over-reliance on economic theory. Even so, this focus on the economic benefits of design was a revisiting of old ground: the first issue of the NZIDC's journal Designscape carried an article by Geoff Datson 'Industrial design is good economics' arguing that 'Industrial design is wholly economic in nature, and is a matter of planning, since its essence is to use limited economic resources to give the maximum satisfaction, in short and long terms.'

By de-historicising its subject, the taskforce both proffered a vision of New Zealand design that had no past and asserted that this absence should be perceived as a positive attribute. This refutation of history and its associated discipline of theory €”equally ignored in the report €”had a specific purpose in that it served to disengage the taskforce from being seen to promote the idea of state intervention into the activities of the private sector while simultaneously enabling it to propose the opposite. This stance might be regarded in the light of the neo-liberal agenda identified by Anne Else as occurring in New Zealand from about 1984 to 1999 which she describes as 'a widespread and deliberate political attempt to reshape [ - ] 'the presence of the past' in this country, in order to serve contemporary political ends.'

Defining design
The inability of the target €”New Zealand business €”to understand the taskforce's 'disciplinary' definition of design or how it might affect production is neither a new thing nor is this incomprehension restricted to the business sector. Attempts to enshrine a definition of industrial design in New Zealand law occurred when an Industrial Design Bill was submitted to Parliament in 1966 at a time when the state was involved in developing a similar, export-driven design strategy. The definition €”plausibly extracted from a dictionary by legal draughtsmen €”posited it as meaning:
Features of shape, configuration, pattern or ornament intended to be applied to any article by any industrial process or means, being features which in the finished article appeal to the eye or assist in the function which the article has to perform.

This object-focussed definition was amended three months later by one that more accurately reflected the modernist agenda of the sponsors of the Bill: '"Industrial design" means the practice of planning the properties, or the presentation, of the products of industry with the object of improving their quality, utility and appearance.' Nearly forty years later the taskforce couched its definition of design in similarly general, production-focussed terms, while couching it within the aspirational rhetoric of contemporary business consultants, as being: 'a creative and integrative process. It is a methodology (a way of thinking) that guides the synthesis, technology, scientific and commercial disciplines to produce unique and superior products, services and communications.' As a corollary to this jingoistic argot, the taskforce provided a definition of 'aesthetics' as 'relating to issues of beauty and good taste. A product described as aesthetic is one that is considered a "handsome" design.' While both these definitions assume a priori that a primary function of design is to enhance things through process, neither addresses the issue of for whom the things are designed. More surprisingly, given the emergence over the last three decades of the discipline of design theory, the taskforce relied on definitions of design that excluded any significant role for the consumer and which failed to address in any significant manner issues of distribution. The consumer's role as articulated in Success by design was one of passive acceptance: 'Design capability is about employing vision, process, creativity and technical skill to develop products, services and brands that capture the imagination of customers throughout the world.' The consumer was identified as 'the end user' who exists to be 'excited'. Thus, for the taskforce, the consumer 'experience' is the end product of 'design enabled value generation.' This narrow, production driven definition of design reverberates with an unrecognised historical perception of the New Zealand market as reflexive consumers of commodities, supine participants in the trade of goods identified by a notionally relocated metropolitan elite of designers and 'design-enabled' businesses. Yet, on the basis of both this restricted view of the domestic market and the flawed results of its survey, the taskforce aspired to an internationalisation of a consumer base for its 'Questors: businesses with aspirations to succeed internationally as exporters.' It denied the social and political contexts of a more widely based definition of design in favour a myopic vision of product-making located in an undefined but internationalised 'new' business environment.

Positioning design and the state
The taskforce identified the government's primary role as funding the implementation of its proposed strategy. Government would 'provide funding to establish and implement the priority inform and enable initiatives during the first five years [and] support and fund the establishment of an independent executive design agency over the longer term.' In October 2003 it was reported that:
The Government had decided to meet each of the taskforce's recommendations. That meant spending $12.5 million over four years [ - ] The only difference between the Government's response to the taskforce and the wish-list itself is the money being spent €”the taskforce had asked for $18 million over five years.

As noted above, in terms both of the source of its funding and its institutional profile, the implementation of the taskforce's proposed strategy differed little from that expounded by the Department of Industries and Commerce for the NZIDC during the early to mid 1960s. But where the NZIDC relied predominantly on British CoID (Design Council) precedents in its attempts to articulate its mission, the taskforce asserts that its strategic references had been taken from a survey undertaken by the United Kingdom arm of the financial consultancy PriceWaterhouseCooper, along with un-sourced studies undertaken by two British design consultancies, Fitch and the Design Innovation Group. Without recognising any sense of the irony involved in this neo-colonial dependency, or any appreciation that the conditions under which design is viewed in the United Kingdom are significantly different from those obtaining in New Zealand, the taskforce observed approvingly that 'the UK Design Council adopted the Fitch approach and in 1999 applied it to six hypothetical funds comprised of British design-embracing firms.' Even so, the specifics of the taskforce's strategy echo those of the NZIDC: 'a communications programme pushing the virtues of good design to business' evokes the primary remits of both the CoID and the NZIDC; the 'holding [of] a conference of design and business leaders' was undertaken on a number of occasions in New Zealand from the 1960s up to the early 1980s; and the aim of 'starting an audit/mentoring programme to help businesses improve their design capability' was a key element in the work of the NZIDC with its field advisory, product evaluation and designer services. History too suggests that a New Zealand manufacturing industry has needed some form of protection or state support if it is to compete against comparable industries both domestically and overseas. But, even with its focus on production, the taskforce ignores any debate on the issue of location, presumably on the assumption that free trade is a given in the global market place: matters of trade policy seemingly have no part to play in the development of a design enhanced business. In the taskforce's opinion design in New Zealand is a local inflection of the dominant universal model of design development; as the Australian design theorist Tony Fry observes:
From such perspectives design fades as just style, and the appropriation of style trivialises the project out of which it was generated. Such decontextualisation reduces design simply to the management of appearances and diminishes the prospect of the rise of a local self aware and critical practice.

Design for export
The taskforce argued that: 'The primary focus of the design taskforce strategy is the integration of design into businesses with aspirations to succeed internationally as exporters ' and prefaced its findings with the observation that:
With this task we are up against some formidable competitors €”sophisticated global businesses with ingeniously designed products, compelling brands and cost efficiencies that are difficult to match. These businesses and the countries that breed them have not achieved their success by chance. Many of the higher performing countries have succeeded by design.

In its pairing of design and business, of what it perceived of as aesthetics and efficiency, in the face of overseas competition, the taskforce returned unwittingly to the ideas enunciated by the first chairman of the NZIDC, the industrialist Philip Proctor in a paper he presented at the 1963 Export Development Conference:
New Zealand industries must [ - ] expect to face strong competition from the older industrialised countries, in their attempt to break into the export markets. And no matter how generous the tax concessions the Government may offer to induce producers to export, success will not follow unless €”as we have seen €”the article is of good quality, and thus, well designed.

While the 1963 conference was based on a thorough investigation of a range of factors involved in the export of goods, design was just one of the parameters considered. Proctor recognised the reality that design was a relatively small part in a complex web of economic and political factors, a stance that the taskforce chose to ignore in favour of an imbalanced and ill-informed distortion of design as a factor in both industrial manufacture and trade. And the state-sponsored efforts of the 1960s to 1980s to build up and diversify a trade in 'well-designed' New Zealand manufactured exports failed. While the manufacturing sector did develop and goods were exported in increasing amounts, this growth was created in an artificial environment of direct and indirect subsidy; with the collapse of state support in the 1980s, the export market for manufactured goods shrunk: notable exceptions being in the niche whiteware and fashion industries. The taskforce identified these industries not as survivors of an earlier state strategy but as 'success stories where design has been central to the activities leading to success. ' In the absence of a substantial manufacturing industry, the taskforce turned its focus to design exports: New Zealand-based designers exporting intellectual rights to the production of furniture and architecture to overseas concerns. While comprising a miniscule stream in comparison with the flood of imported designs, the net benefits to the economy of exported design are questionable: to the contrary, it evokes the subject of a campaign undertaken by the British Design Council in the early years of the Thatcher government 'Designed in Britain, made abroad' which drew attention to a small number of commercially successful products which were not manufactured in Britain due to a lack of interest in design by manufacturers. As the British design commentator Paul Burall has observed, the resulting 'high level of interest was never really concerned with analyzing good or bad design in any practical way' further noting that this 'design bubble burst towards the end of the 1980s, and was almost obliterated by the 1990s depression.'

Scandinavia revisited
Underpinning the taskforce's strategic document were a series of case studies explained through the heading 'a business will become a global brand by taking the lead in design, not by following others'. The first case study pinpointed Finland generally and the mobile telephone manufacturers, Nokia, specifically: Finland 'has truly integrated design with business to become a global leader' while Nokia 'has become the industry benchmark for handset design, primarily due to its philosophy that handsets are a stylish fashion accessory.' Scandinavia has long been argued as an exemplar for New Zealand industry based on a perception that many Scandinavian countries have comparatively small populations, had predominantly agricultural economies and, in the case of Denmark and Finland, until comparatively recently, had low rates of industrialisation. In the 1950s and 1960s a view that 'design' was one of the key factors in Scandinavian industrial success was promoted vigorously by the reform-minded economist, historian and bureaucrat W B Sutch and subsequently adopted as a mantra by the Department of Industries and Commerce. This notwithstanding the fact that, in its purported execution, the model for design development that New Zealand ultimately pursued was one crudely modelled on the United Kingdom precedent rather than those of Scandinavia.

The taskforce likewise proposed a Scandinavian model for 'developing a design-focused strategy for [ - ] New Zealand industry in general' arguing that: 'We need look no further than Finland for evidence of this. A country with a population similar to New Zealand has produced world-beating products from companies such as Nokia.' While the product type evoked by the taskforce has €”over a period of forty years €”shifted from more traditional industrial manufactures such as ceramics and glass to portable electronics, it is a reductive and formal assessment of a product, based in part on a perception of global desirability of the product, rather than an understanding of the embedded elements of the design processes applicable in the Scandinavian countries at the time these products were developed. Thus, in the eyes of the taskforce, the complex design cultures that developed in Scandinavia following industrialisation are reduced to a commercial decision by Nokia to develop a particular product type €”the mobile telephone €”and the Finnish government's 2002 Industrial Design Technology programme which 'seeks to build on its already well-established cultural heritage of a strongly design-enabled nation.' Predictably, the taskforce chooses to ignore the point that there might be a connection between this unspecified 'well-established cultural heritage' and the quality of Nokia's design practice, rather than a recently formulated Finnish government policy.

Design and business
If it dismisses its own history and fails to convey an understanding of the theoretical processes underpinning design, then the taskforce equally fails to convey the nature of the relationship between design and business. In an unconscious resonance of the past it repeats the CoID's 1948 slogan 'Good design is good for business' but attributes it mistakenly to 'THOMAS WATSON JR, IBM CEO, LATE 1950S', additionally prefacing its report with a graphically tortuous equation '(COMMERCIAL) SUCCESS = BUSINESS + DESIGN: Design makes first world economics'. Like the design councils in both the United Kingdom and New Zealand before it, the taskforce was unable to quantify the benefits that might accrue from the use of design other than in the broadest sense. At a micro level, both explored the relationship on a case-by-case basis: Gloag's 1948 CoID text, Good design good business, used a series of case studies ranging from the production of gas heaters to the redesign of a department store catering 'for the more progressive elements in contemporary taste' in Lewis's Ltd in Liverpool. The latter instance, while attracting 'fresh customers and increased [ - ] turnover', was closed at the time of writing 'simply because of the supply position.' Success by design cited six case studies: the aforementioned Nokia and five New Zealand-based companies: a whiteware manufacturer, a design consultancy, an architectural firm and two garment manufacturers. The so-called 'case studies' cited by the taskforce comprised a series of statements extracted from informal interviews with 'key personnel' extolling the design base of their success.

But notwithstanding the upbeat tone of Success by design, the taskforce appeared to have failed to address the vital issue of convincing the private sector of the necessity of even the efficacy of design in industry. The New Zealand Herald reported soon after the launch of the report that 'fifty top business executives' were dismissive of the government's attempts to promote economic development through a design-led process 'as little better than a public relations stunt [that will] do nothing for the economy beyond supporting another raft of consultants.' By way of contrast €”and three years before the effective abolition of the NZIDC €”the then prime minister, Robert Muldoon, could opine in 1981 that 'there appears to be a very harmonious relationship between industry and the New Zealand Design Council.'

Ceramics as the ignored design exemplar
At the time that the taskforce was undertaking its report, provisional statistics suggested that New Zealand would import ceramics with a value of $168,685,000 in 2003, the thirty-eighth ranked category of imports. The same source indicated that exports of ceramics would amount to $4,236,000, or 0.015 per cent of the country's merchandise trade exports by value. New Zealand's sole manufacturer of tableware is now known as Temuka Homeware, the re-branded domestic pottery division of New Zealand Insulators Ltd €”established as a clay pipe manufacturer in 1916 €”and now a subsidiary company of Tiri Group Ltd, an investment company owning various businesses in the industrial and engineering sectors. Temuka's current product range includes traditional items, such as dinner and tea services, as well as items of more recent adoption to the New Zealand table such as sushi dishes €”first produced at Crown Lynn in the late 1960s for the Expo 70 international exhibition at Osaka €”pasta bowls and pizza plates. Crown Lynn was the brand name adopted in 1948 by the Auckland pottery concern Ambrico Ltd (Amalgamated Brick and Pipe Company). Between 1942 when it first began producing tableware €”ironically at the instigation of the first Labour government €”and 1989 when the company ceased production, citing conveniently the economic policies of the third Labour government, Crown Lynn was New Zealand's largest producer of ceramic tableware. During the 1960s and 1970s Crown Lynn captured over 50 per cent of the local market as well as a not insignificant percentage of the nascent export market for manufactured goods. The collapse of Crown Lynn in 1989 can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably a decision by the company's management in the early 1980s to diversify its activities into unrelated fields including a bus company, the importation of whitegoods, the production of underwear and involvement in the hospitality and catering industries.

Temuka promotes itself as being design conscious: its website provides a potted history of the company, emphasising that:

While the company [ - ] and our styles are moving with the times, our brand values €”quality, longevity and durability €”stay the same. We are taking a contemporary, modern approach to homeware design, but will continue to produce the popular lines to which we owe much of our success in the past.

History is likewise evoked, albeit ironically, in a recent advertisement for the company's new 'Platinum' line: 'Brown, overweight and made in the 70s: Platinum reflects the evolutions of contemporary dining; versatile, clean lines, sharp yet smooth. Wide-rimmed plates in three sizes, generous bowls in two, white is only the first colour.' The reference to Temuka's 1972 stoneware productions €”designed by the potter Jack Laird €” acts as a foil to the modern range; Laird's local variant of the type of brown-glazed pottery €”first popularised in New Zealand through imports of British manufactured Denby stoneware €”have now acquired iconic significance; they have become an indigenous tradition. In an ironic twist of fate, Temuka Homewares are popular selling lines in the Living and Giving chain of home style shops, a retail identity of the Pacific Retail Group Ltd, owners of the now liquidated Ceramco companies, the ultimate owners of the Crown Lynn pottery, arguably New Zealand's historically most successful design-conscious exporter.

Demonstrably, the connections that existed between the Crown Lynn pottery and the state were fundamental to the success of the company. The controlled economic policies prevailing from the 1940s to the early 1980s not only gave rise to the company but also provided a high level of protection during its protracted establishment period and funded its export development programme. But the state sponsored design programmes promoted by the NZIDC were, in practice, of minimal benefit to a company that had developed its own design agenda, albeit through a process of commercially precarious experimentation. In part, this irrelevance reflects the low status of the NZIDC as an under-resourced arm of government, subject to the variability of changing political circumstances and impotent in the face of indifference from the private sector. Crown Lynn's greatest export successes, in the late 1970s, came at a time when the company had abandoned effectively its commitment to the state-sponsored notion of 'good design' as a factor in its production strategies in favour of a return to a reinvented 'utility' range. But the changed conditions of domestic and international trade exposed the weakness of this reductive tactic and it would become a prominent factor in the eventual collapse of the company.

But if the manufacture of ceramics can be seen historically as one of the success stories of the state controlled Keynesian economy, it seemingly has no place in that export-driven, design-enhanced, neo-liberal global economy evoked by the Design Taskforce for New Zealand's current de-regulated economic climate. The industrial paradigms conjured up by the taskforce in its vision of design-led industry lie in the electronics, fashion and brand making industries: but is this where design lies? By denying the marginality of design in New Zealand through a disowning of its record, the taskforce has posited a vacuum in which it has hopes of shifting €”or creating €”a new site of design. But even as the taskforce advocated a reliance on the power of capital to realise its aims, it refused to recognise the condition of design irrelevance obtaining in New Zealand through its distance from the loci of power and from its systemic reliance on externally sourced capital. And in its essential denial of a tradition €”no matter how amorphous or spurious €”the taskforce failed to provide a ground against which the difference implied in the 'new' relationships it proposed could be judged.

Christopher Thompson

Christopher Thompson is a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton. He is a former curator of design at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and is currently editor at large of the Sydney-based World of Antiques & Art, a magazine of art, design and collecting history that is celebrating its fortieth year of publication.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

3 Aug 2005

The Big Idea Editor