What is design?

The word design has such scattered applications – as a verb, a noun and an adjective – that it’s meaning has become muddled. To some, it refers to the development process of a something, primarily that something’s functionality, and to others it refers to the gloss on the finished product. Between these two very different concepts, there is an almighty battle going on within what might be called the design establishment.

In an extensive and enlightening article, Marcus Fairs of Icon Magazine attempts to answer the question “What is design?” by focusing on its usage today. He finds that it’s not what it used to be, but indeed it means much more. A term that used to be owned and defined by an elite has been commandeered and democratized by the proletariat and their self-feeding media machine.

That elite gives us definitions such as this:

“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.”. International Technology Education Association. That idea of design is backed up in dictionaries. My Compact Oxford English Dictionary tells me that design is a noun meaning “1 a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of something before it is built or made. 2 the art or action of producing such a plan or drawing. 3 underlying purpose or planning: the appearance of design in the universe. 4 a decorative pattern.” or a verb meaning “1 conceive and produce a design for. 2 plan or intend for a purpose.”

In this idea of design, other than “a decorative pattern” there is little mention of aesthetics. That is because, as traditionalists would hold, if the functional design is good then the form will naturally be aesthetically pleasing. Hence the mantra “form follows function.” This is fundamentally the notion that was held and fomented by modernists and, in particular, the Bauhaus movement, that so influenced the design world throughout the twentieth century and continues to be valid and valued today. No school of design will waver from this concept.

During the 1980s however a new trend appeared. The best of industrial design applied to household objects began to become accessible to the masses, not just to the elite. With that trend came the appearance of celebrity designers. These were not just heroes for students of design, but were designers that became household names. Their name applied to any product instantly became a “designer” object. During the 1980s the term “designer” as an adjective was so overused that it became a victim of irony and has since been ditched in favour of “design”. A designer store, marketing all kinds of aesthetically pleasing consumer products and affordable is now a “design” store. There, you might hope to find something cute from a celebrity designer such as Philippe Starck.

The advent of stores like Ikea has not only put design in front of consumers as never before, but has also made it very cheap. With that came the democratization of the word. Consumers when referring to good or bad design are generally talking about objects rather than the processes undergone to create them. They are referring to things that have undergone the design process. Electronic consumer goods have taken this trend further. The “machine aesthetic” of the Modernists is lost when the machine consists only of circuit boards, silicon chips and cables. In this area the design process centers on packaging rather than mechanics and as therefore much more to do with aesthetics.

Thus in today’s press, design refers most often to style or fashion, to the superficial, to those elements that are usually employed at the end of the design process. While such usage causes much grinding of teeth in the design establishment, it is too widespread and too well understood for it to be ignored.

So what is design? To fuse various notions, design is firstly the iterative decision-making process employed in the creation of a product or system, or the output of such a process where held to be so by an informed elite, and secondly it is an object with a sensory or emotional appeal beyond its usefulness. Any other suggestions?