Defining Design, part 2

Stephen Bayley, whose writing stoked my interest in product design in the late 80’s, writes:

“Presenting design as a self-dependent entity suggests that design is a transferable substance, inherent in some objects, but not in others. Instead of educating a public into an awareness that everything was designed, so therefore everything might as well be designed to please, the old-fashioned promoters of design suggested that only certain things were designed and that these were exclusive, precious, rare.

Of course, the truth of the matter is that anything which has been made has been designed: Whether it works well is a matter of engineering; whether it makes a profit is a result of strict financial controls. Whether it sells is a matter of comparative advantage and taste. All that really matters is the ability to make things, everything else is polite aesthetics.”

Everything was designed. Think about it: every aspect of the built environment you inhabit was shaped by another human being. So, when people talk about Design with a capital D, or if they attach adjectives to the d-word, such as “good”, “modern”, “low” or “high”, secure your wallet, engage your frontal lobes, and ask yourself, “what the hell are they talking about?”. Just because something was created by a designer doesn’t mean that its well-designed, even it is Good Design. If it works good, looks good, is a fit to nature and the environment, and adds to the sum of happiness on this blue planet, that’s good design. And if someone in a village in Thailand made it, that’s cool too.

Be wary of professional designers and their output. When it comes to aesthetics, creating an object or service or just a thang, is much like any other human endeavor; there are a few hideously talented individuals who make it look as easy as falling off a log, and then, well, there’s the rest of us. Eminent designers like Ettore Sottsass can just see and produce things better than the average schmo, which means that when a less talented individual tries really really hard to make something notable, you can smell the over exertion a mile away. This is why I’m so wary of the kind of “high” design that’s sold at museum shops and in expensive catalogs: it is generally so self-conscious, so determined to be beautiful and interesting, that it fails on all accounts.

Think of it this way: how many really interesting, timeless designs come out of the car industry in any given decade? I’m talking Porsche 911-quality designs here. One? Two? Then think about how cool the average race car or fighter airplane looks. Did a “designer” draw them? No! An engineer or some guy who just “knows” came up with their shapes. As Bayley says, it’s really about being able to make things. The other stuff is just “polite aesthetics”, fluff which is the realm of fashion.

Design is ultimately about the care and feeding of happiness. Designing something is not a self-dependent action, it’s an expression of interdependence.

Oh my goodness, I’m beginning to sound like the protagonist of an Italian architecture manifesto, so I’d best stop while I’m ahead. My apologies.