Is There A Place for Design in Trump’s America?

Design, society and the economy are intertwined. With Donald Trump – a man of vulgar tastes and backward thinking – we need to prepare for the impact his reactionary policies will have on business and culture, both in the United States and worldwide.

And this comes on top of our self-inflicted challenges: design has become a profession for lifestyle victims for whom the cool design studio is more important than work results, digital tools have made “copy-paste” an ever-bigger plague in business, and so-called Design Thinkers have dummified the creative process of converting advances in science and technology into cultural and practical products and solutions.

Within the globally connected economy, the United States still has the lead. Big part of this dominance – aside of a large domestic market and entrepreneurial spirit – is the global presence and paramount success of American corporations abroad. But the goodwill disappears in a backlash against Trump’s insults; lies and threats towards foreign countries and companies.

So, aside of fighting for our constitution, we designers need to deal with a government at war against free trade, technological and social progress as well against culture.

Source of data: IMF’s World Economic Outlook, & CIA World Factbook.

POWER SHIFT

After being a champion of free trade for about seventy years, the United States now isolate themselves economically and politically – a situation imposed by an angry, left-behind minority and exploited by a corrupt elite. Looking at the global triad of United States, Europe (led by Germany) and Far-East Asia (led over time by China – promoting free trade but in fact still quite protectionist), it is an illusion, that the United States will keep its leading position as an isolated economy. But the change already is under way: with East Asia and ASEAN, the United States are leaving the most dynamic economic zone, and “requesting better deals” with so far loyal allies such as Germany (part of European Union) is a schoolyard bully-tactic which won’t work. Anti-Americanism is reaching unseen heights in Europe (under Obama about 30%, now under Trump 80%) and in Asia.

America First? This slogan ignites very negative emotions abroad, because historically, no other country except Russia has a more ruthless and egotistical approach to extort an unfair advantage in dealing with other countries. This also includes the threat and use of military power.

American Classic: aluminum series, Charles & Ray Eames for Herman Miller

American Classic: aluminum series, Charles & Ray Eames for Herman Miller. Image by Vitra.

On the other side, accessible foreign markets and Goodwill are vital for American companies. Just imagine Chinese airlines cancelling their current 300+ plane orders with Boeing (would be a boon for European Airbus) and the European Union shutting down Google and Facebook for continued privacy infringements, plus requesting full taxes incl. Apple’s. Even as the communiqué after the first meeting between Trump and Xi Jinping tries to play down the conflict, it will be a losing affair for all, but especially for us American designers.

CREATIVE PEOPLE CREATE INDUSTRIES

So far immigrants founded half of US Billion Dollar Start-Ups – but they won’t come anymore. Read the article “Study: Immigrants Founded 51% of U.S. Billion-Dollar Startups” by YOREE KOH on blog.wsj.com.

With Trump and his billionaire clique in power just for a couple of weeks, our country already lost the privilege and honor as a beacon of hope for immigrants, and global trust has evaporated. In addition to economic and cultural isolationism, Trump has dragged white-supremacist racism into mainstream and the White House. This dark side (Klu Klux Klan and Alt-Right Nazis) always has been here, but now it is the de-facto government dogma: all people of color and non-Caucasian physique as well as Jews, are exposed to discrimination, threats and hate crimes. And the visa-process for qualified and needed foreign professionals has been turned into a Kafkaesque torture.

Ironically, the short-term effect of Trump’s multiple threats and announcements of tariffs for foreign goods, lower taxes and less ecological regulations for US-companies resulted in a boom in stocks and aspirations. But this “boom” already is crumbling and doesn’t support advanced design as a means of sustainable corporate strategies:

– Trump promotes old industries. These companies don’t build their mostly short-term business tactics on design and advanced customer experiences, and they aren’t globally competitive. The military industrial complex is another challenge with wasteful programs without any civilian productivity: like Russia we still may have a first world military, but soon also paired with a third world economy.

– New industries are being stifled. Nearly all “new industry” companies in new energy, mobility and Artificial Intelligence which promote and apply design, are cut down, also by loosening environmental standards to frivolously low levels. AI (despite Peter Thiel sucking up to Trump) and autonomous mobility also will be driven out: even as Toyota, Nissan, BMW, Volkswagen or Mercedes have factories here (Toyota invests US$1,3B in Kentucky – but no new jobs), Trump’s threats of high tariffs are driving both their R&D and mechatronic supply chain “back home”. High-flying Tesla may hang on, but Obama-type government support will vanish, and Google’s “Waymo” may create an open system mostly for German, Japanese and Chinese makers – with the latter already buying all the brain power they can get their hands on.

Trump’s talk about “high-tech jobs coming back” is both naïve and cynical. China – combined with East Asia – already produces 78% of global electronics, and as the internet is global, this share will expand with the “Internet of Things”. Companies such as Apple and Google – as well as retailers such as Amazon, WalMart or Target – also drive the trend: who wants to pay much more for an iPhone made in Iowa or Idaho by inferior workers? Bringing even basic high-tech manufacturing back, is close to impossible as Foxconn’s various efforts show. (5% of American job applicants don’t pass drug tests.) And: mechanizable jobs will be taken over by more reliable and precise robots.

CONCLUSION

After Designers in America (incl. immigrant designers of whom I am a proud member) have driven change and inspired our peers around the world, our country will become very small and even more “white”. Silicon Valley is losing its emotional magnetism as a center of global design for the World’s most dynamic designers – aside of the new immigration hurdles. And our great design schools, which depend heavily on well-paying students especially from Asia, also will face a downturn.

But the world won’t stand still: Europe, China and Japan also have some World-Class design schools, and where Trump is cutting education (incl. selling the job of secretary to naïve Betsy DeVos), they are expanding education budgets and creative programs as of age 10 (talented High School students are feeding design universities). I also may mention, that the German BAUHAUS (1919 – 1933) – the world’s first international-modern design school – was shut down by the Nazis. The following systematic persecution of scientists and creative people also contributed to Germany’s cultural decline into fascist barbarism – and America welcomed this elite with open arms. One big beneficiary being New York’s New School – which includes Parsons…

Money is like water and flows with opportunity. American investors and companies already invest heavily in China, as do European ones. After all, a Chinese AI company is a better opportunity than an American coal mine. In addition, Germany, Japan and China are redefining convergence, new energy & advanced mobility. With the Internet of Things wave (IoT) American companies so far are well-positioned, but due to lack of hardware innovation and global access as a result of Trump’s follies, their role will shrink– despite Google and Apple. Limited talent will result in limited results. The silver lining may be that strangled US-companies will move next door, especially Canada. So, American designers could work across the border (assuming the TSA allows them to re-enter the country in case of an “Un-American” name).

McKinsey Global Institute projected in April 2016, that China would surpass the U.S. economy by 2028. With Donald Trump’s policies, this will happen much earlier. The 20th Century was America’s century, the 21st won’t be – American designers must go global.

But we also need to re-invent and advance our profession beyond the Trump challenge.

Headerimage by realtor.com 

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