22 June 2010

What is design?

A conversation sprung up on Twitter a couple of weeks ago on the topic of what is design. The conversation involved three other bloggers and those blogs are Dog Walk Blog, Modenus, Concrete Detail and me. We chose today to answer the question on our respective home turfs. Follow those links, I know I will. I'm curious to see what the other three came with as a definition of design.

So this leaves me. What is design precisely? Well, I don't know that I have a precise definition for it other than that involves bringing order from chaos. Though this order isn't always wrought by human hands, the perception of design is exclusively human. Obviously. I felt compelled to say that because my working definition of design hinges on it.

Here are some examples of a not uncommon design element, a spiral.

Andromeda via Flickr

via Flickr

via Flickr

via Flickr

The Vatican Museum via Flickr

office tower in Nagoya

via Flickr

sculpture by Peter Coffin at the Saatchi Gallery

Human brains are pattern recognition machines, I say it all the time. We evolved brains that are hard wired to find patterns, whether patterns exist or not. So for me, design is the art of manipulating patterns. There are all manner of rules and regulations that determine what good design is but all good design comes from an awareness of those rules. Good design follows the rules but just as importantly, good design can dispense with the rules all together. What's important is the awareness, not necessarily an adherence.

So to answer the question, design is imposing order on chaos. What do you think? What's design to you?

28 comments:

  1. Ahh, Yes. I agree with you here.
    I believe the human brain is hard wired to find comfort in certain proprtions and scale of their surrounding and objects. We are decended from cave dwellers (and we still are that really) and reqiure our suroundings to be of 'human scale'. Manipulating space to reflect these comfort requirments is, I think, what (capitol D) Designers are meant to do.
    Now I'll go check the other links to see if I agree with them too :0)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Just to poke a stick into this, I think design still works when it runs counter to those comfort requirements so long as it's done so willfully.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Design brings the ordinary to life, entices the standard to go beyond the limits and creates new dimensions without disturbing the basic required elements. In my field of work (luxury appliances), I immensley appreciate the professional Designer who combines form and function with beauty and style and who thinks outside the typical "design box".

    ReplyDelete
  4. Paul - You're the type of Designer who DOES ask one to at least TRY to get out of their comfort zone and consider new ideas! Just imagine what our world would look like if peeps like you DIDN'T push the limits?!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Paul, I think we both have realised that the answer to the question is a host of more questions. Design plays into aesthetics, function and on a more global level, planning. So maybe that is where the answer lies. You cannot judge aesthetics, you can't argue function (too much) but planning is either done well or it isn't.

    Cathy, completely agree. When we take fashion runways for instance, someone has to barge ahead and pave the way for something that will then have a place, albeit usually a toned down version of the original idea.

    Really great images to define your thoughts Paul.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cathy and V: Thanks for chiming in. I think that this is such a great question because it doesn't really have an answer, just more questions.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I agree you have to 'know' the rules before you can break them. ; ) Maybe as an offshoot I would add that design is problem-solving. So maybe you could say Mother Nature sees chaos as a problem to productivity and spirals, fractals, etc are solutions to that problem. Designers forever try to find the ultimate solution to whatever the inherent "problem" is they encounter - a space, a piece of furniture, a product. Don't know if they are ever as successful as Mother Nature but it's sure fun to try!

    ReplyDelete
  8. Good point Saucy; but just as designers sometimes screw up, so does the natural order of things.

    ReplyDelete
  9. To complicate matters - is design (crafted) with an 'end' result / objective in mind or is it more similar to 'art.'

    If it is 'art' then can it be considered as 'imposing'?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hmmmm. I lean toward a definition of art that says that art has no goal other than to be. Art's different from design in that design has a task to perform. The two intersect in a really fuzzy place.

    ReplyDelete
  11. The art question is a tough one. In my definition (that Design is supposed to DO something), art *is* design. At least the art I like, which is art that makes me think.

    Maybe design is an exercise in enhancing our own function.

    Here's my longer post:
    http://www.eco-modernism.com/2010/06/what-is-design-a-response-to-paul-anaters-question/

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks Becky, I enjoyed your post on the same topic. I love these kinds of unending and unanswerable questions.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I like your comment wherein you stated: "Good design follows the rules but just as importantly, good design can dispense with the rules all together". But I must ask, what rules are your referring: the standard technical rules or aesthetic rules (while subjective in nature, there are some unmentioned rules) or both.......

    I think a design success would have to be the end result in terms of creating a safe interior environment, which really boils down to the planning aspect of it all.

    Great thought provoking post.

    Have a fantastic day!

    ReplyDelete
  14. I mean both sets of rules. In asking which one though, now I want to know if there's a difference between the technical rules and the aesthetic rules? Is something like the rule of three aesthetic, technical or both?

    ReplyDelete
  15. Paul

    You have provoked the usual storm of comments with your inimitable style and panache. You are a hard act with which to maintain stride; your images are fantastic, as V. said. I think we are all landing on the same page - I would love to keep this discussion alive, whether ongoing posts, or a sporadic revisit - my little wheels are turning (and smoking) as the ideas come bubbling up - so many directions to explore. I am very intrigued with regard to your statement: "...just as designers sometimes screw up, so does the natural order of things."
    That is somewhat disturbing; I am curious as to what you are alluding and from what perspective?

    ReplyDelete
  16. Biological life is rife with redundancies and dead ends. One of the reasons I love optical illusions so much is that they point out the flaws in our brains' ability to process information. Mercifully, life's designs succeed more often than they fail or we wouldn't be here having this discussion.

    ReplyDelete
  17. In going through these blogs, design truly is and always will be abstract, thus whether or not it is successful is and always will be objective to the person answering it. I still say it depends on the end user and whether they are satisfied. We've done more than one frame that I disliked, but the client was in love with it. I guess that was still a successful design.

    ReplyDelete
  18. For me, another element to be added to your excellent design definition is the intangible feelings, emotions, reactions, etc that is evoked when order is or is not brought from chaos.

    I'm sure you can word what I am trying to say MUCH more eloquently than I can!

    ReplyDelete
  19. I would say that the dead ends, redundancies, contradictions, and anomalies in the natural world are an integral part of the design of the whole system. The flaws are a great deal of the reason we (as onlookers/partakers) derive such great pleasure from our experiences with the organic. It's why acid-stained concrete looks so much nicer than painted. It's why we prefer sunsets to streetlights. It's the imperfect that makes it perfect. It is beautiful and successful in its own right - but I guess we are mostly discussing human-generated design anyway....got distracted...

    ReplyDelete
  20. Amy: I think you're onto something. Design lives in that netherworld between subjective and objective.

    Sharon: I see what you're getting at and I agree so long as the negatives are just as important as the positives at the end of the day.

    Rich: I agree wholeheartedly. Good design is good when it embraces imperfection.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Man.... thought-provoking discussion during the day...... much happened in 12+ hours! I'd better update and TWEET on my phone.

    Design comes in many forms, as discussed earlier. I saw an usual example of solution-based DESIGN today in Longwood, Florida. It happened at Chik-Fil-A (yes, I'm guilty!) when a teenager couldn't find a hair tie. She simply took a straw from dispenser, tied it to create a ponytail and then joyfully accepted three random compliments from bystanders. Hmmmmm ....

    ReplyDelete
  22. A lively post that is both provocative and interesting. Thoughtful comments by all.

    Design really is solving a problem. Good design solves the problem; bad design does not. The essence of your statement about "bringing order from chaos" implies we agree on what design is since it helps us find order in this world where entropy rules.

    Design is a dance between form and function; but, first and foremost it must solve the problem. There are many possible answers; but,the best solution serves the need of the person or group asking the question and what they require.

    ReplyDelete
  23. A designer friend came up with this one a few years ago... Design=Soul

    I teased him about it at the time, but if we believe God is the Creator of the Universe...the ultimate designer, and our souls are eternal, then I see his rationale.

    ReplyDelete
  24. That is a very interesting question, and I think you came up with a good answer, bringing order from chaos. It’s the sort of thing I look for when I write. I believe a sentence has a certain rhythm that is right to it, but the proper rhythm is very much an intangible because every sentence is different. The same is true of design. Most of the time when I make drawers, I just size them to whatever they will hold, because I have such strong feelings about form following function. Every now and again, though, I am able to just make a stack of drawers that don’t have to be any particular size, so I can then use any of several methods of graduated sizing of the heights of the drawers. I find that sort of thing has a certain rightness about it, but what I find particularly interesting about that phenomenon is that it doesn’t seem to matter very much what sort of scheme is used to graduate the drawers, so long as there is one. The one thing I do look for in anything I might lay out, though, is symmetry, which again, to quote you, is simply bringing order from chaos.

    Paul, I will poke a stick in your concept of art having no goal but to be. A novel should tell a story, and this story should have structure: a beginning, middle, and end. A painting or sculpture should be of something, not just one of those abstract messes. I just read about an “art exhibit” called “Concerto in Black and Blue,” which consisted of a vacant, blackened, unlit room in a museum. Patrons entered it and shone flashlights that gave off a blue light. There wasn’t anything in there for them to see, and all they did was wander around the room! And this was supposed to be a work of art with profound meaning. It just is, to use your wording. But I cannot say what it “is” without using barnyard profanity.

    To get back to design, though, it really is an imponderable with no real right or wrong. I once framed two copies of a poster for a husband and wife. I believe something like that should be matted to a certain color scheme and so forth. They’re personal friends, so they know my work. The husband and I kicked it back and forth for a couple of minutes, then he said, “Just do whatever you think should be done.” The wife, though, had very firm views about what she wanted. I didn’t care for her ideas, but because she was so firm in what she wanted, I just took the order. Had she been waffling back and forth, I would have said, “Well, I think the better way is…” When the two posters were finally finished, they were as different as night and day, although they’d started as the exact same poster. In the end, both of them were absolutely delighted with the results. For my own self, I much prefer the one I did for the husband, but really, there is no absolute rule anywhere that says the one I did for the wife was incorrect. It just didn’t adhere to my sense of aesthetics.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Cathy, Bill, Mark and Joseph: Thanks!

    And Joseph, just to poke you back with that same stick, I'd say that the artist whose work you described was a success. His or her goal was to get a reaction and boy did he get a reaction!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Well, I guess some people would be happy with that kind of reaction. Personally, when I create something, the reaction I'm looking for, is "Wow, this is really good," not, "WTF?"

    ReplyDelete
  27. Wow I leave for a day and miss out on all of the fun. Very thought provoking. When designing a space for someone I start with the "feeling" they want to create. Warm and cozy, sleek and restful, exciting and edgy are a few examples. Then I tackle the function of the space. What are some of the tasks of living they need to accomplish in this space. So I guess I am agreeing with everyone else, it is equal parts form and function. But function without beauty and balance and soul is just function, without the emotional reaction. For example , most tract home kitchens, they work but you wouldn't walk in and go Ahhh! So for me Design excites and triggers the emotions. You can create order out of chaos, but does mean it is design? And I guess you can have a beautiful space that doesn't function well. I will take this over the other. I guess it is all subjective to the looker.

    ReplyDelete
  28. Whether design is good or not is entirely subjective, as is an emotional response to it. That's why the color psychology loons bother me so much. "Blue is unappetizing, so don't use blue in a kitchen." These utterances carry the weight of gospel but they're entirely dependent on someone's perception. Some people have a positive reaction to blue kitchens and some people have negative reactions to red dining rooms.

    So much of this is dependent on the beholder that I tried to steer clear of referring to "good" design being synonymous with "pleasing" design because they are very different things.

    Am I rambling?

    ReplyDelete

Talk to me!

Related Posts with Thumbnails