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Design Observer: Teaching in a Time of Uncertainty


This problem of doubt in design arises mostly from a general misunderstanding of the role of design in society. All too often design is promoted as the solution to all problems, particularly by designers.

All too often design is given the credit for the manner in which things have been created. The faulty reasoning goes something like: the thing exists and therefore must have been been created, it has form and is configured in a distinct manner and therefore the thing must have been designed. And further, therefore it is a designed thing, regardless of whether or not a designer was involved. This reasoning stands for a view of not only designed things but also for all created things and has been adopted at the absurd end of the scale by movements such as the 'Intelligent Design' division of Creationism.

Most of the material generated for created things does not require design, nor does it need to be designed in order to exist in a particular form or arranged in a distinct manner. It is only when issues of form and configuration of elements is specifically required that design has a role to play. And then, to add a more refined semantic view of design it only really makes sense to talk of design when a designer has been actively involved, with a further contextual emphasis on a particular commercial arrangement ie. when a designer has been specifically employed to add value to a product. Jonathan Ive and Dieter Rams are good examples of designers in such a design-oriented relationship to commercial products.

It is also useful to think of design as concerning two types of activity, as follows:

1. As literal and physical form-giving design has the most value. This is the case when literal form-giving is required to add value to material. Material that does not require specialist technical knowledge of the materials or processes involved, and where 'softer' human requirements of ergonomics and usability are brought to bear on a solution, particularly when aesthetic or artistic values are important.

2. Design as an activity concerned with how things are configured is of secondary relevance. This is a weaker version of what people normally hold as design. It is with this interpretation that boundaries of design blur even further. This version refers to how the material of a thing has been arranged, where no literal or physical form-giving is required. This is particularly the case in the absence of aesthetic considerations. In such a situation even non-designers talk of designing 'things' such as oil refineries, microscopes or aircraft but this is a weak description of design. Engineers may talk of designing things but when pressed the objects have been 'engineered' and this is normally as a result of specialist technical knowledge in service of a particular problem. Architects may talk of designing buildings but they do not call themselves designers.

So, it should come as no surprise that people have become weary of what design can deliver. Or, that designers appear uncertain in the face of so many creative possibilities, and when specialist knowledge is increasingly a basic requirement to make a product commercially viable.

Design has been useful as a general creative term in recent history. Design is now seen to have very particular limitations. Design is not the saviour of the world, contrary to popular belief among designers. Were we to press even harder with this kind of reasoning we may find that design is not even as valuable as I've indicated above but it seems to me that design has sufficient value in the world not to cause it to fail completely.

We do not live in a time of uncertainty but we have moved into an age that understands that all certainty is reflexively false and that paradox has a far bigger role to play in how we understand the world, particularly a world that is made up of things that appear to have been designed.


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