My design rant at B&A

Christina Wodke published some editorial comments at Boxes & Arrows the other day, and it set off a pretty large thread. I did so much writing in response to various other comments in the thread, I figured why not compile them here? So here goes…

I’ve been defining design this way: the creation of a thing for use toward a purpose beyond itself.

I confess, I didn’t even look this up. But it works for me insofar as defining “design” over-against “art.”

That said, I still suffer from the name problem:
I hesitate to call myself a designer, or what I do “design,” because so much of what has passed for design over the last century or so is crap. My “designer” clock radio (one of those Michael Graves objects from Target) is kinda cool to look at, and crap to use.

I’m not sure, but I suspect it was an unlucky confluence of advertising and academic aesthetic instruction that conspired to turn “design” into a pejorative misnomer. It shouldn’t be, because we’re lacking other words for what it was.

Saul Bass was a great designer, we hear. He came up with some fabulous logos. But this was graphic, corporate identity design, a very rarified and subjective form of design that’s more linguistic and aesthetic than functional.
For me, some famous “designers” that did stuff that seems more like what I do would be the Eameses, Buckminster Fuller, Mies van der Rohe, or Raymond Loewy. But even these had their gaffes and misfires, their moments of aesthete’s narcissism.

Now I’m finding out that famous architects have been up to the same malpractice for years. Architecture schools are often found as part of a College of Fine Arts (e.g. Carnegie-Mellon). But, I’m wary of any architect who thinks what they’re building is a “fine art” — if it’s fine art, it’s sculpture. If it’s something I’m supposed to use as shelter, it’s architecture. But hell, maybe I’m just stupid?

On the other hand, I don’t like ugly stuff either. And to paraphrase a supreme court justice of long ago, I know what ugly is when I see it. :-)

(After another query on the comments, I added this additional response)

But to answer your questions more directly:

[Excerpt of question directed at me: “Are you saying that if I am too concerned with form than it isn’t design? That design has to include function and that it has to be included at a certain level in order to be considered design? What gets me here is that it sounds like you are confusing bad design with whether or not it is design at all. “]

If you’re making something for someone else to use for a purpose beyond appreciation of the object itself, then yeah, you’re designing.

Are you intentionally designing? i.e. do you even know you’re engaging in an act of design? Only you know that. If you’re not doing it consciously (with rationale) then chances are greatly reduced that you are designing *well*.

Gray areas? Yeah, sure. It’s as messy as anything else.

If I create a toaster that works pretty badly as a toaster but that looks freakin’ cool and I put it in a gallery, it’s art. But if I mass produce them and put them in Target, it’s bad design. Same object, different contexts.

If I created a toaster that is both freakin’ cool AND extremely great to use, then it could be fine in either context. In one it’s art, the other it’s design. Context is everything.

If the toaster is designed to be bought in Target not to be a good toaster but to get people to think you’re cool because you have one, then it might be a good design. Not as a toaster for toasting, but as a toaster for being cool.

Sometimes, the beauty of a thing comes from its function, or its innovation, or its uniqueness, or its cultural baggage. Sometimes its usefulness comes from those things too.

Form vs. function is a false dichotomy. A hammer is nothing but form. It’s a stick with a hard thing on the end. But I’ve used some crummy hammers (and have bruised thumbnails to prove it). Anything that functions has form (even calculus). Anything that’s form for form’s sake is art. Not design.

This is how I have personally sorted out the world, so that when I use these words they have some kind of definite meaning. Nobody else is required to agree… but it works nicely for me, so I figure why not share? :-)

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  • andrew

    blah blah