NYT: Can Anybody Be a Designer?

This is an old article I had read in New York Times long before I got into Design Thinking and UBQT. A great look at the question “Can Anybody Be a Designer?”

Read on.

By ALICE RAWSTHORNOCT. 2, 2011

LONDON — What do the following have in common? A bucket made out of a basketball? The programming code for a computer virus? An inexpensive prosthetic leg? The logistical plan for a political protest in Cairo? A barcode illustrating a gorilla’s DNA? A cramped metal cage converted into a makeshift home?

The answer is that they are all identified as unsung examples of design in “Unnamed,” an exhibition running through Oct. 23 at the Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea. Curated in absentia by the Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei, who was imprisoned during the final phase of research and banned from leaving China to participate in the installation, “Unnamed” explores the role of design in projects with which it would not traditionally have been associated. The show argues that design is not solely the preserve of professional designers but can also be the work of scientists, activists, computer programmers, hackers and anyone else who applies ingenuity, originality, strategic thinking and other qualities that are indispensable to good design.

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A brain computer interface, developed by Emotive, Australia, featured in “Unnamed” at the Gwangju Design Biennale. Credit Gwangju Design Biennale

The concept of design as a fluid, instinctive process, open to everyone, is increasingly popular. Some of the projects in “Unnamed” also feature in other current design shows, including “Talk to Me” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and “Power of Making” at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. The thinking behind “open design” sounds sensible, as well as being generous and inclusive, but what are its implications? Is there anything to be gained by redefining things that have long been described, seemingly successfully, as scientific, political, technological or just plain resourceful as design? And could anything be lost by doing so?

Historically, design was wholly fluid, instinctive and usually anonymous. The word “design” comes from the Latin verb “designare,” which meant to trace, describe and plan. But the process we now recognize as design was practiced long before, whenever prehistoric men and women sought to improve their surroundings: say by making a clay bowl to drink from, rather than cupping their hands.

The first definition of “design” in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1548, as a verb meaning to “indicate” or “designate.” Nearly a century later, “design” was identified in a professional context as “a preliminary sketch for a work of art: the plan of a building, or part of it.” Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1700s, design’s professional role has expanded incessantly and numerous disciplines have surfaced: graphics, product, software, transport, multimedia and so on. The word “design” has remained both a noun and a verb, and retained its original instinctive meaning, but has been used primarily in a commercial context.

Over the years, a growing number of designers have objected to the commercial dominance of design. They argue that although commercialization has made design appear more important by giving it a particular status, it has also constrained it by limiting designers to designated roles. The same restrictions, or so they claim, prevent society from recognizing design’s potential to tackle substantial social, political and environmental challenges.

03iht-design03A-popupA DNA barcode Gorilla visualization in The International Barcode of Life Project, featured in “Unnamed.” Credit Gwangju Design Biennale

 

The maverick American designer-inventor-architect-engineer R. Buckminster Fuller mounted this argument as long ago as the 1920s. Later he proposed the creation of a new genre of “comprehensive designer” charged with anticipating future needs and organizing resources for everyone’s benefit. Fuller also called for the years from 1965 to 1975 to be designated the “World Design Science Decade.”

His plans didn’t quite come off (nor did his proposals for a floating city and flying car) but Fuller’s vision of a more meaningful role for design has endured. His influence is evident in “Massive Change,” a series of publications, exhibitions and debates begun by the Canadian designer Bruce Mau in 2004. Similar themes have since been explored elsewhere. The argument in favor of expanding the definition of design beyond its professional application is now broadly accepted (despite the efforts of a grumpy bunch of old-school design “professionals” to rebuff it) but to what end?

One benefit is that the once anonymous designers of ingenious devices like the basketball-cum-bucket can finally be celebrated. It would seem churlish to ignore them, though I wonder how scientists and computer programmers feel about being hailed as “designers.” Possibly like a physicist friend who, after being congratulated by a sculptor on “really being an artist,” said: “Thank you, but I’m happy being a scientist.”

Another benefit, at least for designers, is that they should be able to work more widely, say, by addressing social problems or being integrated into scientific research programs. The old-school grumps complain that this will de-professionalize design, but “open” designers are willing to risk that for the chance to tackle challenging issues. They also argue that society as a whole stands to gain from more extensive use of design. As social design groups, like Participle and Project H, have demonstrated, applying elements of the design process can help to find more effective ways of caring for the elderly and motivating young people.

A possible problem with accepting an open-ended definition of design is deciding where to draw the line. Otherwise just about anything with a whiff of creativity, lateral thinking, innovation or any other characteristics of design can be deemed to be “designed.” If you follow a recipe when cooking, you cannot claim to be “designing the food,” but you could if you improvise. The critical question is whether the food will taste better? Will design’s inclusion in the development process make a positive difference?

If not, “open design” risks seeming pointless. But the successful social design projects have proved that design can be useful in that field. And when it comes to scientific research, specialist knowledge is undoubtedly the most important factor, but the involvement of designers can help to identify constructive applications for the results. As for the food, will it be tastier if the cook is bolder and more imaginative? Not necessarily, but maybe.

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