My Problem with Design

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I was reminded today of the things I find troubling about our modern notions of “design” and “designing.” Hundreds of years ago, if one wanted to become a designer, one would first have become a master craftsperson. We learned how to construct distinctive artifacts (and worlds of artifacts) and then we began to innovate in that tradition. To say one was a “designer” without that background would have been Harry Potteresque: ridiculous.

Neil Gershenfeld shows us how, starting a long time ago, we began to separate the “manual” work of craftsmanship and the “intellectual” work of design into two threads, and we began, moreover, to ascribe classist differences to the “types” of work. This distinction, I think, is a poor one, and today gives us no end of messes in our world. The following is a reflection I started writing several years ago, about why that is the case.

When someone says they have designed something, what do we understand? In the world at large, after all, “design” is something pretty simple and universal. To design is an activity – to devise, contrive, intend, indicate, plan, arrange, strategize, scheme, sketch, or the like. Further, we understand designing as relevant in an enormous range of life’s events, usually in combination with two other activities: actions to implement “the design,” and results or effects produced by the implemented design. Put in its simplest form, ideas are translated into actions that in turn produce results. When our actions lead us awry – or don’t give the results we want – we have the option of concluding that the flaw was in “the design.”

So why do I say I have a problem here? I have a problem because this way of understanding design decomposes an important unity into arrangements of trivial components. Imagine that we are observing a competent chef preparing a meal. We have our standard understanding of the activities of cooking, mixing ingredients, and tasting. If we attempt to understand the chef’s design of a meal as a collection of activities, we will miss the essence of the chef and the meal.
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