words Marcus Fairs
Now that “good” design is available to everyone, the definition of “design” is slipping away from the elite that has always controlled it and into the hands of the people buying it. In other words, it means a lot more than it used to.
The old definitions don’t seem to work any more. The volume of stuff that purports to warrant inclusion in this category has increased exponentially in recent years, as has the number of people who create, manufacture, sell and consume design – not to mention those employed to critique or champion it in the media, in institutions and in education. But our understanding of design is outdated, limited by definitions from the beginning of the last century, when concepts such as consumerism, lifestyle, popular culture and marketing were in their infancy. The landscape has changed and new maps are required to make sense of it.
The recent row at London’s Design Museum is a symptom of the mismatch between ideology and reality. To recap, chairman James Dyson – a maverick designer-engineer who made a fortune with his “cyclonic” vacuum cleaner – resigned over the museum’s change in direction under director Alice Rawsthorn, who, he believes, has betrayed the museum’s founding mission to “encourage serious design of the manufactured object.”
Dyson is a designer firmly rooted in the modernist tradition: his website defines design as “how something works, not how it looks – the design should evolve from the function.” His vacuum cleaners are ostensibly pure expressions of the mechanics of dust-sucking.
He claims Rawsthorn’s exhibition programme – which has showcased Manolo Blahnik shoes, typography from Harper’s Bazaar and the work of Fifties flower arranger Constance Spry – presents design as “shallow style” and pursues a populist agenda at the expense of one that encourages an appreciation of the processes that lead to manufactured objects that perform better than their predecessors.
Rawsthorn, reluctant to reignite the row, would not give us her definition, but did say she was seeking “a modern definition of diverse and inclusive design.”
The acres of press coverage dedicated to the row showed that it touched a nerve, with “design guru” Stephen Bayley pointing out in the Independent on Sunday that “it exposes the fugitive meaning of ‘design’” while Deyan Sudjic, the Observer’s design critic, said the row marked a “generational shift” away from the “somewhat strait-laced” Dysonian view.
But having identified that the meaning of the word has changed, nobody then went on to explain what it now meant.
When asked, most people who are professionally involved in design say it is a verb: something you do; a problem-solving process. To Ron Arad, it is “the act of one imposing one’s will on materials to perform a function.”
To America’s International Technology Education Association, it is “An iterative decision-making process that produces plans by which resources are converted into products or systems that meet human needs and wants or solve problems.” To Guy Julier, author of the Thames & Hudson Dictionary of 20th Century Design and Designers, it is “the creative invention of objects destined for serial reproduction.”
To professionals, design stops the moment the object is manufactured – and existing definitions are all based on the point of view of those involved in the business of design.
But the rise of the sophisticated consumer has seen the emergence of an alternative meaning. When most people talk about design these days, they are referring to stuff, not method. Sentences such as “I’m interested in design” and “that’s a beautiful piece of design” are now widely understood to be referring to the outcome of the process rather than the process itself. To consumers, design is something they experience in the finished object.
Design is unique among the creative disciplines in that the word refers solely to what practitioners do, rather than what they produce. Literature, art, music and architecture are all the result of the creative process – and hence things that can be experienced by end users. Quite distinct verbs (writing, making, creating and so on) are used to describe the act of creation.
This perhaps reflects design’s roots as a practical, rather than a creative, discipline. Design, like engineering and planning, was an ingredient and the end result was products, infrastructure, buildings, street patterns, software and so on. Designers used logic to solve problems.
But with design now firmly established as a creative undertaking, it deserves a collective term of its own to define the outcome. In common usage, the word “design” has taken on that role.
Phrases such as “good design”, “Dutch design”, “contemporary design” or just plain “design” are, when used by consumers or the non-specialist press, referring to objects rather processes. Design is used colloquially to describe a category of object, things that are consumed; stuff that has been subjected to the design process and has come out the other side.
Dictionary compilers seem curiously blind to this definition. In the Chambers dictionary, you have to read through a whole stack of verb definitions to get to one that describes something you can see or experience: “an arrangement of form or appearance.”
But this definition is too indiscriminate to be of much use as it refers to everything that exists. When we talk about design, we are consciously or subconsciously referring to certain “stuff” and rejecting the rest. There is an implicit element of discernment: there is good stuff and bad stuff, and it is a given that we are talking about the former.
Hence “design hotels” are a certain type of hotel that appeal to a certain type of discerning consumer; “design shops” sell a range of objects selected according to a certain set of criteria; “design shows” like 100% Design showcase edited selections of products. Design implies the existence of certain intrinsic qualities or characteristics that distinguish the “design” object from everything else.
Interestingly, this adjectival use of the word design seems to be gaining ground at the expense of the term “designer,” which became common currency in the Eighties – the “designer decade”. This adjective signified the fact that an artefact had been designed by a famous or celebrated individual and therefore was a guarantee of provenance – and hence quality – to the consumer. Lately, however, it has been tainted by ironic usage – “designer toilet paper” – and debased by over-use as an advertising slogan at the lower end of the market, where it now means nothing more than “designed by someone”.
Authorship has always been a key factor in establishing what is and what isn’t design and the rise of the “star” designer gave consumers (and critics) an easy way of making the distinction. This, for example, explains why Japanese consumer electronics are not considered “design” objects for, despite their breathtaking innovation and revolutionary impact, they were the product of faceless corporations and not named individuals.
A “designer” Philippe Starck lemon squeezer established a connection between the consumer and the creator, and hence the design process. The more inclusive notion of design bypasses individual authorship and focuses on the inherent qualities of the finished artefact.
So a valid definition of design needs to allow for an element of discrimination that is not based on provenance or other pre-determined factors.
Again, it is difficult to find a precedent for this. Of the 40-odd definitions of design thrown up by Google’s “define” command (type “define:design” into the search bar), only two describe qualities that an object might possess – the rest mostly refer to process.
The first comes from Princeton University’s Wordnet lexical database: ‘an arrangement scheme; “the awkward design of the keyboard made operation difficult”; “it was an excellent design for living”; “a plan for seating guests”.’
The second comes from NASA Science Files, an educational website run by NASA: “Features of shape, configuration, pattern, or ornamentation that can be judged by the eye in finished products.”
The first definition refers to an object’s functional qualities – the Dysonian view – while the second is concerned with formal qualities. The first allows for rational judgment (“this design works better than that one”) but the second only allows for a subjective interpretation (“I like that one more than that one”).
While “design” objects nearly always have an underlying functional purpose – design is not the same as art, although it is increasingly encroaching on art’s aesthetic and provocative territory – the latter definition is more interesting because it implies that the judgment of the observer is the sole arbiter of the object’s non-functional value.
In fact, in the eyes of consumers, design often has nothing to do with function at all (when buying a car or a stereo, the way it works tends to be valued according to a set of criteria called “performance”). Design is something distinct from function.
“Although people are constantly making pronouncements about what is good and bad design, what they are really talking about is taste (fickle and nebulous subjective opinions largely determined by conditioning rather than original insight),” says writer and curator Lesley Jackson. “Design itself has no inherent moral code. Super-decorative design (à la Tord Boontje) has just as much validity as ultra-functional design (à la Dyson). Both are manifestations of creativity, and both have their place in the modern world. Yes, I want my carpets cleaned properly, but I also want to be thrilled by an exquisite lamp.”
Design retailers agree. “Design is anything and everything that surrounds us,” says Thorsten van Elten, who runs a design shop in central London. “The stuff in my shop is my taste, so my definition of design reflects my taste.” Van Elten stocks a selection of largely contemporary European homewares but also quirky handicrafts and traditional folk objects.
This is anathema to the purists. Since modernism was codified early in the 20th century the design establishment – designers, critics and writers, historians, quangos and museums – has enjoyed a monopoly on the identification of “good” design. With the bauhaus credo of “form follows function” as their yardstick, the exemplars they held up ostensibly derive their merit from the purity of intention and the rigour of execution.
Hence design history books are invariably full of a predictable roll-call of “classics” such as Mies van der Rohe chairs and Dieter Rams alarm clocks. To these elite taste-brokers, anything that did not display functional rigour, or which dangerously flirted with bourgeois decoration, could safely be relegated to the subordinate categories of “decorative arts” or, worse, “style”.
But the opinions of this elite suddenly look dated, as the Design Museum row revealed, and stuff that would previously have been dismissed as frivolous or decadent is now being celebrated in exhibitions and the media. Function is no longer the benchmark of good design and the opinions of the old elite no longer hold such sway.
In many ways, design has been feminised. Most of the celebrated designers and critics of the last century were men and there is a hard-edged masculinity to much 20th-century design. Today’s more pluralistic design landscape has seen a renewed appreciation of decoration, colour and form for their own sakes. Dyson has a masculine taste for machinery; Rawsthorn is a woman who appreciates flower arranging.
On top of this, the nature of designers’ problem-solving role has changed profoundly in recent years. These days, most of the real work in this field is done by unsung programmers, software engineers and material scientists whose functional breakthroughs are all but formless. Modernism’s “machine aesthetic” is a meaningless slogan if the machinery is invisible: the main job of many industrial designers today is to help consumers form emotive bonds with dull circuitry.
Design is now considered to be a condition that certain objects are deemed to possess. And this condition is most definitely to do with how an object looks, as well as numerous intangible qualities the object confers on the consumer – status, fashionability, a sense of belonging and so on. People are as likely to buy “design” objects as an act of self-expression as to meet a functional requirement.
This is not a new phenomenon: people have always expressed themselves through their possessions. Christopher Dresser (now viewed as the first industrial designer) did it for the Victorian middle classes. The difference is that design has gone from being a minority interest to a mass-market phenomenon. And as the public’s interest in design has grown, so the number of people who feel qualified to act as brokers has expanded. A raft of new magazines, TV shows, websites, shops and exhibitions has sprung up to help consumers make decisions.
“Design is the taste of the elite,” says Sheridan Coakley, who runs east London design shop SCP – but there is now a new, and much larger, elite. People like Coakley and van Elten – and no doubt a high percentage of icon readers – probably have fairly similar taste, preferring things that are contemporary (that attempt to solve contemporary problems or address contemporary life); that are innovative rather than derivative; that tend to be mass-produced or batch-produced rather than crafted; that are usually the work of a named individual or team and/or produced by a reputed manufacturer; that are considered enduring (i.e. distinguishing them from faddish and trendy goods). They also tend to be rather expensive.
But a flick through one of the numerous interiors magazines, or a browse in any of the numerous “design” shops or fairs that have sprung up recently, shows that there are now multiple interpretations of what “good” design is.
Thus recent radio adverts for Linda Barker sofas claim that buying one will suddenly trigger an interest in good design, while Ikea’s hilarious new campaign features a spoof celebrity designer looking down his nose at the firm’s well-designed but cheap products. The elite may scoff, but to a certain type of consumer, these products most certainly are “design”. And with the advent of mass-market design, the consumer’s definition of “design” has become all-important.
Design schools are reflecting the shift of emphasis towards the consumer experience. “There’s a simplistic view of design which is that it’s a procedure with clearly defined stages,” says Simon Bolton, product design course director at London’s University of the Arts (formerly Central St Martins). “But the drivers and influences have changed radically in the last ten years. Previously it was about form, function and manufacture but now it’s about a whole range of softer issues: emotion, culture, politics and so on. It’s all about connecting with consumers in new ways.”
This puts the consumer in direct emotional contact with the object without the need for a taste-setting middleman. It’s like music: you hear a particular song on the radio and it does something to you. Likewise, design is the difference between an artefact (or an environment, a space, a website or anything “created”) that has meaning to you and one that doesn’t. And it is entirely subjective.
Dyson’s rationalist argument perhaps represents a desperate counter-attack by a school of thought that knows its days are numbered. “The old guard feel marginalised, they feel threatened,” says Tyler Brûlé, founder and former editor of Wallpaper. “There’s been a wholesale democratisation of design, not just in terms of price, but in terms of access. There are now more stakeholders; borders have been broadened. I think design is anything that improves the way you live. And if the consumer thinks an object that has no function but is a thing of beauty achieves that, then they have every right to declare that a piece of design.” We used to call this stuff objets d’art, but design has subsumed the decorative arts.
Naturally, as a former magazine editor, Brûlé argues that the media has been instrumental in widening the definition. Wallpaper was hugely influential in shifting the balance of power away from the designer and towards the consumer. In many ways it was dictatorial and elitist – it relentlessly pushed Scandinavian retro-modernism and insisted you flew to Stockholm personally to buy it – but it did at least put the emphasis on the act of consumption, rather than glorifying the process that led to the object’s creation. It also healthily broadened the definition of “good” design to include shipping container graphics and the seats on Russian passenger planes.
Wallpaper was also unashamedly about style and many people have never forgiven it for that. “Style” has long been a bogey word to those of a modernist persuasion, since it is considered something that is applied like icing on top of design to make it more palatable, or to mask an inherent weakness in the underlying design.
To the modernists, design was a noble undertaking with a clear, left-leaning social agenda: to harness mass production to provide ordinary folk (they weren’t called “consumers” in those days) with affordable, functional objects that would enable them to live better lives.
The aesthetic of functionalist modernism reflected a faith in the idea of technological progress. In retrospect, it is clear that modernism was an elitist aesthetic imposed from above. And however much modernists derided “style” as form without justification – as bourgeois and decadent – they were among the most dogmatic stylists in design history.
But style is still frowned upon. The following paragraph appears in a rambling 1,000-word discourse titled “what is design?” on the Design Council’s website (www.designcouncil.org.uk): “There are many misconceptions about design. Sunday supplements and glossy magazines often use ‘design’ as a buzzword denoting style and fashion. While the toaster or corkscrew being featured may be well designed, the result is to feed the belief of would-be design clients that design is restricted to the surface of things and how they look, and that it’s best employed at the end of the product development process.”
The paragraph is revealing because it identifies the fact that the media is championing the new, consumer-centric view of design as an outcome – and then dismisses it. It is typical of the arrogance of the design establishment.
So to sum up this attempt to set out a nascent definition that fits the contemporary landscape: in general terms, design is the outcome of the creative process called designing. More specifically, it is a status conferred upon selected examples of this output by a discerning (but increasingly diverse) elite, according to their taste. And finally, it is a term used by consumers to denote objects that have emotional or sensual appeal beyond their usefulness.
It’s clumsy, but it’s a start.