Is Design an Idealistic or Pragmatic Practice?

Several days ago, I met with one of the Anthropology lecturer of Padjajaran University regarding my final project research. Besides receiving some valuable and important insight for my project, she unexpectedly spoke her rather surprising idea to me, a student who studied an object creation discipline.

She said, in her capacity as someone who knew very well the actual condition of society, that as an object’s primary function is to fulfill the user’s need, than every aspect of its creation ranging from problem identification, design methodology to feature and attribute proposed by the designer must be based on factual need of the target user.

It slightly seems normal, but what really hesitate me is her pessimism in perceiving the design role as an instrument of cultural transformation of society. It was concluded from her explanation about the shifted meaning and condition of human culture in its contemporary context. As we lived in the time with a massive technology and information transfer, this has changed us both personally and collectively. Which is at the end has also shifted the meaning of our culture, as a value and identity system. as our value system was constantly affected by the actual life condition and environment. Today’s culture, had been too “slippery” to be defined to a certain point and constraint. And as designer had always used the cultural aspect of the user in the design process, either as a guidance and constraint or merely as a style (gimmick) for the design he proposed, this bring us to the important question. What kind of culture do we designer mean and refer to, if today’s culture had been too difficult do defined, even by an Anthropologist, in our process of object creation.

In the design process there is one step called Synthesis phase, in which the designer try to propose a creative solution for a certain problem by seeking an inspiration from multiple discipline by putting the problem context and character he seek to solve in one new context. This phase is so crucial, as it more or less define the output quality produced by the designer, so an open minded framework and a broad information is needed to decide a proper design decision. The culture itself had always been a rich design inspiration for designer in his design process. Even many of the design practices are attempted to change or intervene one cultural condition of a certain society. And if we refer back to the argument about the ambiguous definition of contemporary culture which we designers seeks inspiration from, we must be asking about the capabilities and realization of the design role in intervening the culture of a certain society.

Her pessimism in perceiving the design role is supported by her opinion about the culture analyst argument which she consider too idealistic that inclined to ignore the factual condition. In her capacity as an Anthropologist which always used the empirical method to study a certain society, I think it was quite relevant for her to said so, even if I have met one cultural analyst before.

Have her destroy my initial assumption, I then asked her if it so impossible for a design to be able to intervene one society culture, what could it be if we see it as a mere attempt to intervene a culture. Her answer is that probably the design we proposed can only be as a motive and other visual gimmick, an output which my design lecturer said as a “low” design process output.

Beside her perception to either be true or wrong, at least it was a valuable reflection for me in perceiving design as process of creation. Which then encourage us to think further in responding this perception. Cause when I asked her about the possibility of design in transforming the people behavior, she answered “ don’t even dream about it, haha.”

*picture source:,

Originally published at on October 17, 2015.