(July 28, 2003) — For an industry constantly wringing its hands about how to raise its profile and advance its cause among influential thought-shapers, the plastics industry pays remarkably little attention to the industrial design community.
Designers are not just creative, offbeat idea people. Many are that and much more. They frequently recommend the materials and processes used to make your customers' next generation of products. Common sense suggests one would want to cozy up to such individuals or, at least, strive to better understand their right-brain thought processes. Yet, with a few exceptions, there is a distinct lack of such interaction.
Bemis Manufacturing Co. and Phillips Plastics Corp. stand out as exceptions among processors, as do Eastman Chemical Co. and GE Plastics among resin suppliers. Certainly others have targeted designers with their products and services, and a handful no doubt are fully engaged with that community in their own quiet way. But such instances are few and far between, and meaningful collaboration requires much deeper involvement. Designers tend to be wary of plastics firms, due to the distinct lack of such commitment in the past.
When the 3,300-member Industrial Designers Society of America held its annual conference last August in Monterey, Calif., in a large ballroom crammed full of table-top and pop-up exhibits of cool, award-winning (and largely plastic) products, you could count on one hand the plastics firms represented. Two IDSA patrons — GE and Eastman — were the most prominent plastics exhibitors.
There were precious few other plastics people among the 600 or so attendees. And this at a meeting where the person next to you in the buffet line easily could be the design director of a Maytag, Honda, Herman Miller, Motorola or Black & Decker. You'd be lucky to get a 15-minute appointment with many of these busy officials if you approached them for a formal meeting.
When it comes to industrial design, practicing professionals aren't the only desirable demographic. Students matter. By sponsoring projects at top design universities, plastics companies can help educate the bright, environmentally conscious minds that in a year or two will be helping to create products at leading original equipment manufacturers.
Eastman Specialty Plastics conducted a survey of design-school educators at an IDSA event last year. Of 24 teacher responses, none said “excellent” when asked how they would rate their graduates' knowledge of plastics manufacturing processes. Nearly 60 percent said “satisfactory” or worse. And fewer than two-thirds of those responsible for teaching tomorrow's designers consider their own knowledge of plastics to be good or excellent.
Is it really that surprising, then, that plastics may not be the first option for many young designers when they ponder how to make the next hot product? Plastics is losing the battle for mind share among this key constituency. It is not only up to materials suppliers to reverse this trend, but to processors, toolmakers and others.
Robert Grace is editor/associate publisher and resident design evangelist at Plastics News.