Paul Epp

Paul Epp

The designer’s place in capitalism

If we were to lay out, in a linear and simplistic way, all of the organizational components and factors that exist in order for goods to be produced and sold, the line would consist of the brand identity, finance, the marketing vision and intentions, the design, the actual manufacturing, the physical distribution, the wholesaling, promotion and eventually the retailing.

Now, if we were to elevate or depress these elements along that line according to their share of the overall revenue that gets allocated, the line would start to sag in the middle. The front end would do pretty well as it is the proper capitalistic model. And the other end would do OK, too. The closer we are to the actual exchange of money, the better the chances of some of it sticking with us is. We could describe this representation as a drooping line or, alternatively, as a smile. Which we choose would reflect where we were represented on the sequence. To put that another way, the further you get from the actual physical production of a product, the better off you will likely be, at least financially.

The decision makers

This seems like a fairly accurate, although superficial, description of how things are. I wonder to what use we can put this information. The obvious answer would be to occupy territory as far from the centre as possible. Or at least to occupy some of it, some of the time. The better we can dominate the decisions that get made, the better off we will be (as long as we make good decisions) since we can steer them towards our own interests. And the closer we are to where the biggest amount of money changes hands, the more of it we can divert into our own pockets.

This is a lesson that I have had staring me in the face for a long time. My first insight, long ago, was when I would look at the cars parked in front of the cooperative art gallery that I was a member of. The prized guests were the commercial gallery owners, looking for talent. And they showed up in their Mercedes Benzes, as opposed to the few sad beaters the artists drove. It was obvious were the money was and it wasn’t in being an artist.

A more recent illustration is available by visiting one of Apple’s stores. They are busy. And Apple is doing exceptionally well by them. They allow for Apple to keep the biggest share of whatever money is exchanged and it can be considerable, especially with the fat margins that Apple starts out with. A measure of success is the decline in civility among the store clerks, although I’m sure that they are not called that there. Geniuses perhaps?  They have gotten a lot ruder as Apple as gotten fatter. I guess that is just how things go.


Both rude behavior and expensive cars signal power, and usually power comes in the form of money, one way or another. This makes things good for some of us and less good for others. If the obvious answer is to flee to the corners of the smile, why don’t we all do that?

I think part of it is destiny, in both individual and social forms. We are all better at some things than others. We end up both doing what we are good at and what we can. And this is generally a good thing, from a social perspective. Design can, and often does, occupy a less advantaged spot along the progression of actions and benefits, much like manufacturing does. We are closer to being primary producers than many others in society.

But one of the great strengths of design is that it can put out tentacles towards the marketing positions and even the business strategies behind them. As well, design is very important to promotion and retailing. There are design activities that look less like the core of what we as designers have traditionally done and a lot more like what gets done by the people in the good suits. We don’t need to stay in one place.

This sounds like quite a strength for designers. It’s enough to make us smile.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

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