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Broadening the scope
A few days ago I was asked about the meaning of the word passion. History is filled with passionate men who obsessed over a subject, an objective, a practice, and turned their worlds upside down to achieve it. LinkedIn is also filled with passionate people. For so many years I felt I was missing something because I couldn’t find my passion. Today, I am slowly reorienting myself to embrace feelings such as care and desire.
So, rather than passionately, I am approaching design with care, by choosing to dedicate time to think about what—but also when—design is, when design becomes.
Design has traditionally been concerned with the object, and its creators cultivated this sort of artistic aura: big designers, big studios, the subjects. These objects are regularly portrayed in beautiful coffee-table books and elevated to cult images. It always fascinated me how both architecture and Design books show no people using, let alone enjoying, those spaces and objects. I find myself influenced by this mantra when I take pictures of places, trying to avoid catching any person within my frame, so as to preserve the purity of the image. I’m affected by this hardwired fetishisation of the object, however much I want to let go of it.
Nicholas de Monchaux, Head of Architecture at MIT, recently called for a definition of design that goes beyond its traditional one:
From the continuous reuse of materials in a “circular” economy, through a shift in architecture’s focus to adaptive reuse, to the redesign of food away from an unsustainable focus on meat, we must reshape not just objects but also the culture and institutions that create them. Not incidentally, such work recaptures dē-signo in its original sense: not just the search for a more beautiful shape, but the shaping of a more beautiful and sustainable world.
Monchaux is certainly capturing and building on something many others have been saying for a long time. Design has a particular way of knowing through practice. As a discipline deeply linked to practice, it’s inevitable to consider its implications in the real world, in people, and society.
Let's take this one step at a time, though.
Let’s pick up those Design books and magazines again; they’re usually big and eye-catching. They’re heavy and bold. Desirable, they have become objects themselves. In most bookshops, the available Design books are all about physical objects. Object is a complicated word. Some differentiate it from thing and argue Design’s object is the object: objects have meaning. Many speak about the artefact. I’ll try to dedicate a post to this issue later on. What may become poblematic when thinking about the object is to lose sight of those around it: who designs, who for—but also what/who with (how?), and what for?
Design is indeed a discipline rooted in practice, in doing. There’s much literature about the designer’s particular ways of knowing through practice. In general, there’s an assumption that this practice is gestural, manual, almost craftsy, although most authors don’t focus on the object to define what designers do. Nigel Cross says that designers face different types of problems—which don’t seem to have a single correct solution—and approach those problems by focusing on possible solutions, by constructing to be situations, that may not be optimum, but rather relevant. Donald Schön describes the design process as a conversation where the shaped situation talks back at the designer—unintended consequences unfold—and the designer responds by reshaping it, in an iterative process. Richard Buchanan proposes the concept of design thinking (no, not that design thinking) to widen the scope of design beyond its traditional categories of practice, such as industrial and graphic design, still rooted in industrial production. Design can be applied to mostly anything, as it is a “discipline of practical reasoning and argumentation”, which Buchanan divided in four orders: Graphic Design, Industrial Design, Interaction Design, and Environmental Design. These thinkers are very much concerned with the how.
Papanek was more worried about the effects of design. He has his own definition of design:
Design is the conscious and intuitive effort to impose meaningful order.
Let’s not delve into the idea of imposing order just now. Consciousness and intuition come together, much as Schön’s account of this conversation between practice and reflection, between doing and thinking. What’s interesting about Papanek’s definition is the word meaningful. Designers help provide meaning. This can be great. It can be dangerous. I’ll probably come back to this later on in this publication.
Designers shape objects, create visions and plans of objects-to-be. They are concerned with their shape, their form. They define how they will be presented to others, propose a use for them, a function. They "solve problems” of various kinds, by crafting meaningful objects. This is as interesting as reductionist. I believe—as do many others—that design can (should?) be a bit (much?) more than that. It should, at least, be much more nuanced and complex that that.
Academics are not alone proposing new ways of thinking about design. Alice Rawsthorn, former director of the Design Museum in London, proposes Design as an Attitude in her namesake book, inspired by Moholy-Nagy. She proposes a broadened understanding of design:
One was to interpret design as an "attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness," rather than as a formal process. Another was the conviction that design should be applied to major issues of the time: to the daunting social, political, environmental, and economic challenges that The Economist calls the "Big Problems." Moholy-Nagy also believed that attitudinal designers should be bold enough to identify the causes they wished to embrace, while being sufficiently open-minded to draw on the expertise of people in other fields, and to empower them to immerse themselves in design.
However striking and inspiring, this approach has the power to create arrogant designers who adopt a “white saviour” role and believe they can change the world by themselves, by design alone. We don’t want that. Let us then surf this wave towards a less dangerous zone.
Let’s swim away from design for a bit, to allow ourselves to get back to it. We can start with Bruno Latour:
From a surface feature in the hands of a not-so-serious-profession that added features in the purview of much-more-serious-professionals (engineers, scientists, accountants), design has been spreading continuously so that it increasingly matters to the very substance of production.
Latour argues that design has been expanding its scope for its ethos. He captures this idea that everything is being designed. He continues:
“[…] the typically modernist divide between materiality on the one hand and design on the other is slowly being dissolved away. The more objects are turned into things – that is, the more matters of facts are turned into matters of concern – the more they are rendered into objects of design through and through.
What does this mean? My interpretation is that designers are not creating objects, but rather proposing new interactions between humans and things. He talks about design made with modesty and care. For him, desginers act as mediators, providing meaning to material objects, turning them into complex things charged with meaning—and history. To mediate involves understanding two parts and finding a common ground, some times finding ways of communication that are manageable on both sides. Approaching two sides so they understand each other, so they can feel comfortable.
Familiarity is what is, as it were, given, and which in being given "gives" the body the capacity to be orientated in this way or in that. The question of orientation becomes, then, a question not only about how we "find our way" but how we come to "feel at home."
Maybe this is what design is doing, to help us feel at home with that which can be(come). To help us understand future situations—us using an object, for example; us living in a space—, to mediate between our now and our then. I like to think of this design work as helping transform a beautiful chimera—something we can dream of—into a realistic project—something we can handle and experience.
The interesting thing about understading design as mediating is that it becomes a verb, and most importantly, it becomes collective. In this sense, the designer is developing platforms to allow others to do, to allow others to be. This work is a lot more invisible than traditional design work. The designer is not a star, but an actor amongst many others. He’s also not creating something that is objectified in itself, but rather building on something that already exists, harnessing already existing infrastructures. Work is never original, bur rather continuing. As Virginia Woolf would say about books:
For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately. And I must also consider her—this unknown woman—as the descendant of all those other women whose circumstances I have been glancing at and see what she inherits of their characteristics and restrictions.
This turns many people into co-designers of the designed things and renders the designer an ongoing facilitator. In this understanding, design is never completely done, but rather an ever emerging activity. It exists before the designers come onto the scene and keeps developing after they leave.
After all this, maybe I’m ready to propose my (temporary) definition:
Designing is the collective quest of making a “future that can become” familiar.
This perspective on design is still very much compatible with working with material stuff, but broadens the scope immensely. It’s as overwhelming as necessary. More than passion, it requires patience, generosity, and care.
Monchaux, N. (2023). Why the definition of design might need a change. MIT Technology Review. https://www.technologyreview.com/2023/02/22/1068297/design-definition-needs-change/
Cross, N. (1982). Designerly ways of knowing. Design Studies, 3(4), 221–227.
Schön, D. A. (1982). The Reflective Practitioner. Basic Books.
Cross, N. (2023). Design thinking: What just happened? Design Studies, 86, 101187. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.DESTUD.2023.101187
Buchanan, R. (1992). Wicked Problems in Design Thinking. Design Issues, 8(2), 5–21.
Buchanan, R. (2001). Design Research and the New Learning. Design Issues, 17(4), 3–23.
Papanek, V. (2019). Design for the Real World. Human Ecology and Social Change (Third Edition). Thames and Hudson Ltd.
This idea is probably on the basis of how (UX) designers tend to want to create an app as a solution to virtually anything. That’s what they do, right? That’s what design does.
Rawsthorn, A. (2018). Design as an Attitude. JRP | Ringier.
Latour, B. (2008). A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design (with Special Attention to Peter Sloterdijk). In Fiona Hackne, Jonathn Glynne, & Viv Minto (Eds.), Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society (pp. 2–10). Universal Publishers.
Ahmed, S. (2006). Queer Phenomenology. Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.
Woolf, V. (2002). A Room of One’s Own. Penguin Classic.