Objects of Desire: The First Industrial Designers

Objects of Desire: The First Industrial Designers

August 21, 2019 0 By JR

An architect and game-scholar friend of mine recommended a few books and articles related to the origin and identity of architects and designers. Having been surrounded by designers in my formative years as an instructional designer, I often felt like a bit of an outsider. I’m sure I’ve mentioned in another post about attending a Creative Mornings event where after the lecture someone asked me if I was a designer, and before I could utter a syllable another mutual friend of ours jumped in and said, “Oh, JR? No, he’s in education.” Having completed the Ed Tech and Design program, which focused on some designers and designer authors outside of teaching and learning, as well as years of experience as an instructional designer by that point, I was pretty confused. I come back to this moment often (more on that at a later time).

This week I’ve been looking through Forty’s Objects of Desire. Of particular interest was chapter 2: The First Industrial Designers. It’s particularly interesting because when I speak with designers they will often reference architecture as a sort of grandfather of design, and often industrial design as the other “old” design discipline. Outside of design circles different design discipline’s come to mind. Sometimes people jump to graphic or visual communication design. Others jump to web design. Others jump to fashion. It goes on and on. In fact, here in central Canada, I’m often impressed if someone knows what industrial design (even just as a term) is without further explanation.

This chapter by Forty dives into potteries in the 18th century, Wedgwood’s developments in particular, and notes that at this time a distinction arose from craftsman who made items end to end, to one who designed items (e.g. pots) and manufactured them. This was driven by a few factors including a shift from selling wares in bulk to stores by individual craftsmen, to selling wares from samples and catalogues (which required uniformity). Orders could be taken based on what was represented to customers and then production organized to meet the purchase orders. The rest of the chapter goes through steps that Wedgwood took to delineate roles, responsibilities, production, and to get as close to exacting replicas of the work as possible. One such change was moving from greenware to creamware with enamel patterns. The processes of the former were far too inconsistent due to inconsistency in those applying finishes, the processes of finishing, and even differences in kilns during firing.

On the roles and responsibility side, dividing roles in the process was done, design and production broken down and separated. In potting the designing was known as a “modelling”, and by the 1750s “modellers” were a separate role from production entirely. Their, “sole task was to make prototypes for the other craftsmen to work from.” (p34). Modellers were required to create the prototypes, and take into consideration the requirements from their employer, as well as materials and manufacturing processes (in fact, these elements of the role of an industrial designer are still present today). In addition to the prototype, modellers also created instructions for the producers/craftsmen to follow. These instructions varied from modeller to modeller, and often influenced how well the pot was reproduced.

At one point, Wedgwood went about employing artists, but that was problematic due to their sense of “artistic independence”, so Wedgwood bought designs from the artists instead.  The employed modeller was still quite useful from the business perspective compared to the artist. One of the affordances provided by purchased designs, however, was if the modellers were incapable of creating pots of particular styles (such as neo-classical).

Wedgwood expressed continued displeasure with variability in the production line, and breaking down the roles and introducing instructions were meant to address this, “…the introduction of designing as a specialist activity has been general to the development of manufactures, going hand in hand with the division of labour. Otherwise, without a set of instructions to guide the craftsman, the manufacture of any article would have all the unpredictability of a game of consequences as one man after another added his labour to it.” (p36) This particular role of the modeller was both creative and constrained. As demonstrated by the complaints Wedgwood has about employing artists to be modellers, untamed creativity alone was not enough; “though the professional designer might have been able to conceive a very much more stylish and marketable product, the fact that there was work for him to do was the result not of his inventive genius, but the division of labour in the factory.” (p36)

Reflecting on my experience and conversations with other instructional designers I noticed quite a few parallels in how the roles of the modeller and craftsmen were described in the potteries. I think it was Christie Tucker who had an activity on her website titled something like “do you need an instructional designer or an instructional developer”, the latter being similar to the craftsperson who would build the final product. Looking at many instructional design contexts there are prototype developments (I currently do this type of work) as well as instructions that clarify how the final product will be made (often in the forms of storyboards or elearning specs etc). The idea of being able to replicate a design is still seen in many freelance requests I see where the client is asking for templates for all of their learning and development elearning courses. Even in higher ed, the use of course templates is pretty universal, and in the case of the construction of LXPs, LMSs, and MOOC platforms the template is often baked into the tool itself. Instructional design is not unfettered creativity either, there are always limitations and constraints placed on what can be produced either by materials, tools, processes, and even politics. One instructional designer I know once said, “if we [IDs] had our way, none of the courses that have come out of our shop would look quite like they do now” suggesting how many compromises to their ‘inventive genius’ had to be made in order for the project to come to a close. That being said, looking across job posting, there has been a collapse of roles in many contexts as well. Look at many instructional design postings and note how many of them ask for end to end development and knowledge in a number of technical programming languages. This I feel is like the modeller and the craftsperson coming back into a single role again. It’s not universal, but certainly present. It’s an interesting contrast because I feel like the reasoning for this collapse would be to maintain increased productivity for less cost, but that is precisely one explicitly reason that Wedgwood divided the roles in the potteries to modellers and craftsmen.

Quite like instructional design, there is a murky origin to industrial design. Although Industrial Design appears to have emerged in the 20th century, “…the nature of their work, fusing ideas with manufacturing techniques, was identical to that of Wedgwood’s humble modellers in the potteries.” (p41). Likewise, although instructional design appears to have emerged in the mid 20th century, the nature of their work draws on what was there before.


Forty, A. (1986). OBJECTS OF DESIRE: DESIGN AND SOCIETY 1750-1980.

“File:Wedgwood 1668.JPG” by Gryffindor is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0