What is design today and how did we get here?


Design is something that even those of us doing it for a living have a difficult time defining. Perhaps this is true because design is always evolving, but even once we’ve crafted a definition that we are happy with, we find it even harder to come to a consensus with others in our field. One thing, however, that all designers can agree on is that the understanding of design being the act of “making things pretty” is a common misconception, caused by confusion between the worlds of styling and decorating with that of design.

Designers may make beautiful things, but that’s a byproduct of our goal. It is the same for great chefs, their role isn’t to make beautiful dishes, but all of their creations are beautiful. Buckminster Fuller, the great architect, inventor, engineer, and designer captured this concept perfectly decades ago, writing “When I’m working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it’s wrong.”

Like cooking and writing, design is a skill that we all possess and practice, albeit not to the same extent as a great chef, author, or designer. For the past 8 years, I’ve been wondering what design is, and I’ve come up with a definition that goes beyond the surface to reveal a deeper meaning. Design is care; it’s about making things better (in every sense of the word) for people. It’s care applied to the things we fabricate — ideas, experiences, products, environments, spaces, services, organizations, etc.

People, Technology, Culture
The human world is made up of people and in it’s broadest sense, technology, the things we fabricate. In turn, those things we make come together at the largest level as culture and represent us. The evidence for this is anthropology and history, where we find that each culture is defined by the technology that they produced.

All technologies are designed. Traditionally our ancestors personally made and designed their tools, iterating on previous versions. In the design world, we call this vernacular design — exemplified by things like the hammer, which has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. After the Agricultural Revolution, with the growth of society, we discovered that we could rely on other people to design things for us. That led to new specialized types of makers — artisans, philosophers, lawmakers, artists, farmers, bookmakers, etc. These designers could fabricate things faster, and through trade, benefit everyone.

The Origins of the Design Profession
The invention of the printing press led to a bookmaking boom. It no longer made sense for an individual to design, make, and write one book at a time, so new specialized makers worked together to craft better books. Writers would send manuscripts to printers, who would design and make machines to design and make books. This first step into mass-manufacturing would be the origin of design as we know it today. The printers had to either make or purchase letter blocks, ink, paper and then assemble them into a book that was both legible and cheap. Those who focused on making easier to read type blocks became type designers, in addition to being publishers, printers, and punch cutters.

The Industrial Revolution & Industrial Design
Like bookmaking, the Industrial Revolution made it possible to mass-manufacture technologies that until that point had been produced by individual artisans, one piece at a time. Early industrialists designed and manufactured the machines and the products. As the roles became ever more specialized, the people who focused on designing better products that were easier to use and manufacture became designers for industry — or industrial designers. The best industrial designers, would come to understand not only manufacturing and materials, but also the way that people interact with technology, and ultimately what drives behavior.

Post-Industrial Design
The driving question of the designer is how can I make it better? We apply this to everything, including our processes, which means that our tools are always expanding. In the early 60s, the tools of the designer broadened to include human factors and design research, spearheaded by design theorists at the Ulm School of Design, Imperial College London, and the Royal College of Art. Horst Rittel, a design methodology professor at the Ulm School of Design, and later at U.C. Berkeley, would declare that with these new tools designers could now tackle the world’s “wicked problems” (problems too large or ambiguous to be understood initially). These tools not only helped us design better products, but also better services and systems. In the 70s, Victor Papanek would popularize the importance of sustainable and inclusive design, as well as design operating outside of industry, through his book Design for the Real World.

Interaction Design
Interaction design, coined by Bill Moggridge, founder of IDEO, and computer scientist/designer Bill Verplank in the 80s, became the newest tool of the Industrial Designer in designing products that contained software. In his book Designing Interactions, Moggridge would define the practice, and it’s dimensions. Later expanded to include the 4th dimension, time, by Gillian Crampton Smith, founder of both the Computer-related Design program at the Royal College of Art (1990) and the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea (2001).

Design Thinking
After about 500 years of maturation, design had developed a unique way of interacting with the world. John Chris Jones, the catalyst of design research, described that difference as timing — unlike science and art, which operate in the present, or math which operates in abstract relationships independent of historical time. Design is it’s own unique discipline focused on solution-based problem solving and “bound to treat as real, imagined futures, while also having to specify ways in which the foreseen thing can be made”.

Since the early 90s, IDEO, along with Stanford, would be instrumental in democratizing the approach of designers into the fields of education, business, and government. By placing designers in these organizations or through training non-designers in design methodology, they gave legs to one of the newest design disciplines, service design. Design thinking and service design have now taken the world by storm, as more and more organizations integrate them so that they too can tackle their “wicked problems.”

Speculative Futures
John Chris Jones said that design is bound to imagined futures. In that sense all design is speculative, but not all speculative futures are alike. For the most part, today’s technology was designed for the probable and preferable futures of the past. Reaching beyond the traditional limits of industry, Critical Design*, Design Fiction**, and Adventuring*** are all operating in a similar space — creating fantastic visions of diverse, parallel, and new worlds through diegetic prototypes that hint at what might be possible. These futures become design research tools with which we can better understand the present, discuss the future that we want, and the ones that we don’t want. The applied care in critical design, design fiction, and adventuring isn’t about merely making our current technology better. It’s about questioning our future before it happens so that the most desirable futures can be aimed for, and the least desirable avoided.

*Dunne & Raby, RCA (mid-90s)
**Bruce Sterling (2005) and Julian Bleecker (2009)
***IDEO (2015).

Design Today
Design has entered the mainstream, thanks to the considerable efforts of Apple, Design Thinking, and the Digital Revolution. However, most companies, whether startups or large conglomerates, working with bits or atoms, are still not reaping the benefits of great design. Organizations that want to be the next Apple must understand that in design, there are no maps nor algorithmic processes that will lead you to the best solutions for the specific problems that you are facing, but there are compasses. What is imperative is that designers embrace the right toolset for the challenges they are facing as well as holistic care when designing. Today’s great designers also recognize the importance of tackling problems outside of “disciplinary silos” so that they can come up with the best solutions. Lastly, in the world of the sharing economy and open source everything, it is becoming increasingly important that design continues to dream its own dreams, free from the those of the industry and capitalism.