The Designer and the Commissioner (article one)

to come

A commissioner is one that grants a project to be realized, often the initiator as well of such project. Naturally, he/she is often the first social interaction a designer is confronted with. Both share the responsibility of keeping this delicate relationship in balance. Like a slow dance, each need to know his and her steps, with one taking the lead. The same can be stated about the designer-commissioner relationship, over where a clear hierarchy is constructive in realizing a project successfully. If all individuals involved in the project have the power of decision, the project can often result in a lack of direction. What is profitable to the project is for the commissioner act as a leader guiding a process that fosters free and open exchange of ideas and knowledge. In response, the designer is to be the attentive visual aide, carefully analyzing the problem in search for the appropriate solution.

However, the terms of the relationship between designer and commissioner are not universally alike. Despite the fact that our world is increasingly global, with advances in technologies that threaten to diminish our cultural differences. Certain elements remain irreplaceable, such as our social identities. With globalization we can learn to speak the same language, dress alike, live in similar architecture, consume the same products; however, to think and act alike demand investigation beyond the surface. Our sense of social identity of who we are is deeply rooted. Every society has its own set of unwritten rules and codes of conducts, which defines partly the designer-commissioner relationship. The office I’m a part of is a melting pot of three cultures, Asian, American and European. The social knowledge of these three cultures is an aid to our interactions with commissioners of different cultural backgrounds.

The Asian designer-commissioner relationship, a generalization:
In Asia, the commissioner is often the ultimate authority. A designer can be seen as an “employee” hired to carry out the task. The designer – as a good Asian – follows the order, mostly prefers not question “why” and to utter “No” is an unnatural act. I had once witnessed an event over where a commissioner had drastically changed the design, to a point where it was no longer recognizable by the maker herself. The commissioner’s “redesigned” version was to be executed, that was the order. The designer sat in her chair, with tears and sympathy from her fellow colleagues; she collected the strength to execute the commissioner’s order. She did not put up a fight for her design, nor did she say “No” to the commissioner.

The American designer-commissioner relationship, a generalization:
The marketing department plays often an important role in the shaping of design. With their charts, graphs filled with digits on profit and statistic studies; the commissioners are often timid in taking bold gestures in the communicational means. Due of the large size of the economy, stakes are higher in America; books don’t get printed in some thousands but in such quantities that fill up pallets and containers. The higher the economic stake, the safer the design approach becomes. American designers do, nevertheless, receive more artistic space and freedom in exercising their skills than their Asian colleagues. However, partly due to the design firms’ own charts filled with digits on their profits, challenging the commissioner’s decision is not a common act.

The European designer-commissioner relationship, a generalization:
Europe, to be more precisely the Netherlands, over where a clear top to down hierarchy on the work floor is often absent thus challenging the decision of the authority is not unusual. Designers are at times treated as equals by the commissioners. Dutch society, in comparison to many other societies, has high regards for the cultural arts. Apart from commissions in the business sectors there is, in comparison to other parts of the world, a large quantity of governmental subsidized projects. Designers are sometimes encouraged, by means of subsidy, to explore and to be experimental. This helps explain the Netherlands’ current highly praised status on the global design scene. There is however a downside to this, Dutch design at times can drift away to objects of art rather than design, especially projects realized by subsidy funding. Such designs often fail to communicate and cannot find a function within the society apart from posing in magazines of similar nature. When such occurs, the commissioner and the designer are both responsible for the result.

Chin-Lien Chen