“What is Design?” Written on May 8, 2013
Yesterday I spoke at the Atlantic IDEAS conference with Paola Antonelli of MoMA on the nature of design in the age of technology. I always find it helpful to be in front of folks that are unfamiliar to design to force myself to try and figure out “What is Design?” as there‘s nothing like pressure from a live audience.
There’s growing interest in design, I think, because there is such interest in the younger generation to do good for the world — what I refer to in my diagram above of a “gooding for prosperity” axis. In our capitalistic society, there’s always been the pressure to make a buck, euro, yuan, etc so the “earning for profit” axis is a classic measure of worth.
Then there’s a dimension that is inherent to art and design — which is to get one’s hands dirty and make things. Making things is something we do a lot less of nowadays in the world, and we hear cries for more conversations around advanced manufacturing and the likes. But when push come to shove, our society has tended to look down at those who use their hands to make, versus those who use their head to think. Think of the only recent phenomenon of our love for cooks, and Martha’s other making and crafting. And the Maker Faire folks are upping the making game right now …
Art and design tends towards the allure and integrity of “making” as an end to a means — often ignoring the earning and gooding axes in pursuit of printing the perfect red cover, setting type with .001 point accuracy, and other examples of striving for perfection in an imperfect world. I call this the “making for perfection” axis — it is the fundamental carrier frequency for where artists and designers tend to settle — that is sort of like “comfort food” for creatives. I have been guilty of this on more than one occasion. Way more.
So in answer to the question of “What is Design?” I realize now that it is predominantly sitting on the making axis which speaks of incredible skill and mastery. You don’t have to go far to experience or look at perfect objects if you visit a local museum or high-end store or a master craftsman’s studio. Quality in making is usually bought at a higher price because it’s harder to come by. Feeling the finely milled surface of an Apple product or the soft leather seating in a Mercedes speaks of intense care to detail.
But now, designers are increasingly exploring the gooding axes with all the opportunities we have now to change the world. The social good dimension is extremely popular to creatives today because they get to keep their vital sense of intellectual integrity within a context that transcends just making. The late Victor Papanek and more recently Design That Matters show us this approach.
Lastly, the earning axis has traditionally been the bane of creatives that wish to prove their integrity by eschewing commercial success, but earning is being transformed by crowdfunding and direct-to-consumer models that are increasing popular. When combining making with earning a la Kickstarter or Square or the likes, there’s a sense that integrity is preserved better than a purely commercial enterprise.
Hmmm, I forgot the processing axis that is grounded in digital technology. It has to do with the three keys I referenced in Laws of Simplicity. I’ll come back to this post later, hopefully. -JM