Monday, January 12, 2009

what is a designer?

I got a note the other day from a person representing a "designer". This designer has published a book and makes some appearances etc. But, as best as I can tell, very little of the work is really hers.

For the purpose of our discussion today, let's call the designer Ms. Great PR. When you look at the small print in her pattern leaflets, there is a disclaimer. It's says "Model knitted by Another Person" and "Pattern written by Another Person".

So Ms. Great PR is not writing patterns. I guess what she is doing is the conceptual work. And it raises some questions. In our little corner of the world, do you have to actually do the nuts and bolts work to call yourself a designer? Or is it OK to put your name on it if the idea behind it was yours?

I am by no means a designer. Sure, I fiddle around with some very basic things, but if you asked me to design a real sweater, with real features in several different sizes that would actually fit a human being, you'd be out of luck.

Sure, I can come up with ideas of things I'd like to knit, like this drawing, but it's nothing more than a indication. I could more readily walk on water than write a pattern for it. And could I knit it without one? Not a chance. But since I came up with the idea, can I commission someone to write the pattern and knit a model and call myself the designer?

I know my initial reaction was that Ms. Great PR doesn't have much substance. She's got a fantastic PR machine and that's about all. I want her to do the work. At the very least, I want her to be capable of doing the work and I'm not convinced that she is.

But, here's another way to look at it. When Tom Ford/Donatella Versace/Calvin Klein puts together runway show every season, how much of the work do they actually do? Make sketches? Pick fabric? Cut fabric? When was the last time one of them touched a needle and thread? And let's not even go into all the derivitive products like handbags, home decor and frangrances.

My guess is that designers of that class are doing the conceptual work and that's about all. They have staff members doing the rest.

In the needlearts world, I think most of us picture designers as people who sit with needles and yarn making swatches and doing the math neccessary to write an accurate and knittable pattern. But is that the only way? Is the person with the idea just as legitimately a designer? Can you start your career with your needles, do a bunch of great work, earn your chops and then move on to just doing the conceptual stuff?

I had a very particular point of view on this and sparked a "lively discussion" the other night over dinner with friends. There were some points made on the other side that I had to admit have some merit.

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Drawing a concept for a garment is one thing. Making it into a whole garment is another. Guess I believe that one should actually be able to do the thing one talks about (e.g.a knitwear designer should knit). The only time a drawing of a clothing item worked for me was when I was playing with paper dolls.

Jeanne said...

I think the term designer is a loose one. I would agree that conceptualizing is what separates a designer from a craftsman or artisan. The idea is the thing.

There are many designers who can visualize and sketch up a fantastic idea, but do not have the necessary skills to translate it into a finished garment or product. Yes, I believe these ARE designers.

However, I would feel more authentic if I could also do the craft. If I were designing knitwear patterns, I'd think I should be able to knit and read a pattern. It does help to understand garment construction before designing one.

But plenty of designers can't sew, and plenty of seamstresses can't design. That's why a design TEAM needs more than one member sometimes. One to conceptualize, one to sew or knit, one to draw up the pattern... and so on.

If I'm a designer who wants to run my own business, but I don't have a business background, am I any less of a future business woman if I hire someone to handle the parts in which I'm deficient than if I were to go out and learn to do them myself?

I think the question isn't, "is Ms. Great PR a designer". It's "is Ms. Great PR authentically conceiving the ideas she's making money off of, or is she plagiarizing the work of others and attaching her name to it?"

If she sketched it, and asked someone to help her figure out how to write the pattern and had a test-knitter do the garment, that's fair. If she's just sticking her name on a book of patterns someone else thought up, it's not.

Anonymous said...

I see these as three different tasks - the designer designs, the test knitter/model knitter constructs, and the pattern writer is a technical writer. Either of the last two may give constructive feedback on how the garment is working (and in the case of the test knitter, she's expected to) but the designer is the person who envisioned the work, who selected the yarn and the gauge, who probably did knit up at least a swatch (and don't denigrate the humble swatch, they can be quite complicated) and without whom the garment would not exist.

An excellent example of this is the Morrigan sweater from No Sheep for You. Jenna Wilson designed it, but did not knit it herself - and yet I can't imagine anyone wanting to take the design credit away from her for such a gorgeously complex sweater.

Kristen said...

I feel as though the construction and where each stitch falls in a sweater is equally part of the "design" as the outline and color. So, I can't really call someone who sketches and chooses yarn the complete designer of a handknitted sweater.

All those aspects of the sweater are of such vital importance in sweater design, that to leave out the direction and placement of increases, decreases, etc… is to leave out half (if not more) of the designing process… thus leaving that up to whoever writes the pattern.

Also, I think that the pattern-writing style can be very stylized for each pattern writer. If the so-called "designer" doesn't use the same pattern writer for every design, the knitters won't really develop a feel for the pattern style. As a knitter, I look for patterns that I understand and can identify with. If this isn't consistent in a designers patterns, I'll avoid using future patterns by this designer. I feel that having the designer actually be involved, indepthly, with the writing of the pattern, and the construction of the garment is absolutely necessary. Otherwise, I just really don't take that handknitting "designer" very seriously.

IF a designer does decide to use a pattern writer, I certainly think that partial credit should be given to the pattern writer, as SO much can go into the creation of a pattern. I think both the designer and pattern writer should be mentioned as the creator of the design. At least if I see that I can respect the designer for not taking the credit of the pattern creation as well as the design.

Just my 2 cents.

Anonymous said...

And then...throw people like me into the mix..."re-designers". I like to take a sock pattern and turn it tow-up. Or a sweater pattern (or two or three) and put together the collar of one, the bodice of another and the sleeves of another. In fact, each of us who makes those kind of modifications could be re-designers.

Amy said...

I think the important distinction is CAN the designer do all the work themself, not whether she actually does. There's certainly nothing wrong with having a staff (I wish!) but it's essential to have the understanding of garment construction as well, not just the ideas (how can you be sure your ideas will be flattering? Fit well? Even be possible?) Big name designers may not do the work, but I'm sure the vast majority of them know how to sew and draft patterns.

Suna Kendall said...

I wrote a comment but it didn't show up. Wah. Oh well, the rest of you are brilliant.

Teri said...

I used to knit sample garments for Cascade Yarns back in the 80s. I've knit patterns from these non-knitting designers. They were a mess. Frankly, if you can't bother to learn the medium you are working in, you're not much of an artist. Why waste your time working with a pattern and design that are likely to be poorly written and full of mistakes, when you can buy a design from someone that knows knitting?

Anonymous said...

I think that a designer should be capable of doing most of the work (knitting, sewing, drafting, writing, etc.) that their staff does even if they do not do it themselves. If all they can do is the concept/sketch, then they are misrepresenting themselves and taking credit away from the skilled people who actually make their ideas happen.

Maureen said...

Makes me wonder if this designer is the one that I recently quit working as a test knitter for when she sent the cable detail for the front of the sweater and said make a turtle neck!!!!