There is no good definition of design. And yet, designers cannot resist the lure of that particular form of shop-talk: what is design?
In my last letter, which was really more about getting out of the way of a good solution, I happened to mentioned one definition that I’ve used and liked — that design is to form with intent. I like it because it gets at the making (to form) and the considered purpose of the making (with intent). It’s useful, especially in contexts where design is reduced to “making things pretty.” But, as several readers pointed out, defining design as “forming with intent” doesn’t really differentiate it from art, does it? Art could certainly be described with the same words, though I know that in doing so, I’d be courting controversy with many different schools of thought over the history of art, especially among those likely to get hung up on the intent part. Absent of art, perhaps forming with intent works, but along side it, one could certainly use a better definition of design.
I also wrote that “designers are problem solvers,” and though I did not intend to define design as problem solving, a fair reading would be that it is at least implied. Yes, design is problem solving, but so is plumbing and pest-control. So, like forming with intent, problem solving also fails to distinguish design from, well, just about everything else. Several readers wrote in to point this out. But more importantly, one of them — a longtime reader named Brad — supplied an alternative definition that, I think, has merit:
“Thanks for another provocative piece. Normally I don’t feel much need to reply, but here I do.
I know where you were headed, but I have a slightly negative reaction when designers are defined as problem solvers. Agreed, we are. But so are carpenters, pilots, chefs, and nurses. And yes, we have to bring organization and order to the chaos, but so does my office manager and my accountant.
Because I started out as a fine artist, one of the mind games that I have played for years is trying to understand the difference between fine art and design. They both use the same underlying fundamentals of art, and neither can be devoid of beauty. So how are they different? Here it comes: Design has to change behavior, fine art does not. Fine art can be revered, appreciated, awe inspiring, and even entertaining, but it does not have to alter behavior. Design does, or it fails. From a air dryer, to a washing machine, airport signage, an instruction manual, or an e-commerce website. A person’s interaction with something that has been designed, has to change their behavior. If successful, fingers will fall instinctively over the fan controls, you will choose the proper wash cycle, find your way to the baggage carousel, understand how to start your mower, or make the proper purchase.”
It’s a good point, and gets at a more specific intent to our forming. I wonder, though, whether one might be able to use that same idea to define art? After all, art is a form of cultural expression. It’s probably even harder to define than design, in that so many things can be described as art. Music, painting, dance, poetry, acting — among many other things — are all arts. But all art is a behavior, and all responses to art are behaviors, too. Is it possible to not react to art? I would have to say no, which means that art, too, must change behavior. It can’t not elicit a response. In fact, John Cage’s 4’33″, which I also mentioned last time, makes this point exactly: Art can also be that which does not exist, and in doing so, has just as much power to provoke as that which does.
Change, too, is an idea worth prodding. Brad suggests that design must change behavior. And that makes me wonder, in what way? So much of design is remaking things. Not invention, but improvement. Another toaster, but this one makes better toast. Another pen, but this one doesn’t clog and works in space. These things don’t change behavior so much as they change experiences. I still make toast, but I like the toast I make better. I still write, but I can do it in more places and for longer. Brad signed off his email to me with “Semantics? Maybe,” and he may be right. We may be quibbling over shades of meaning. But what of the pen that I just happen to like better? Nothing about this pen is mechanically different from any other pen. It has an ink cartridge within it. Holding it at an angle and applying pressure releases the ink through the its tip. I write with it. But this one is made of a material that feels good in my hand and I just like the way it looks better. Someone might say, “Aha, Chris, that’s precisely it! Because you like it better, it’s changing your behavior and making it more likely that you’ll write with it more.” But no, I’m going to write just the same amount. I just like this pen better. That is true of so much design. Industrial design, especially. The vast majority of things that are made are just additional versions of things that have already been made. Which were designed? The first versions or the copies?
I happened to run in to this problem again as I concluded the white paper I wrote last week on the auditing system I use to evaluate the interaction design of my agency clients. The entire purpose of the system is to provide accountability. The problem many organizations have — not just agencies — is that design processes tend to degrade under the influence of outside forces. Things that should not influence design do, and things that should influence design don’t. So I created a system that would help interaction design teams prevent that. And it is the accountability idea that, I think, is core to differentiating design from other things. And it gets me to another definition I’m going to run with for a bit.
As an art school graduate, I have participated in too many debates about the difference between art and design to count. And though I’ve heard plenty of interesting takes on the question and can be persuaded by many of them depending upon the context, the one I’ve settled on that best fits all cases in which the difference matters to me and my clients is pretty simple:
Design is art with rules.
Design requires accountability in order to be something other than the individual expression of the person doing the designing, which, in too many cases, is exactly the thing that gets in the way of design being successful. In some cases, simply recalling the purpose of a thing is enough to hold it accountable. A cup that doesn’t hold water is useless. A chair I can’t sit in is beside the point. But the purpose of a website isn’t as easy — especially not for everyone who must understand it — to perceive. Interaction design, as laden as it is with technical and psychological complexities, often obscures its own purpose. So, systems of accountability are needed.
I’m not sure a tighter definition of design can be had, because the rules must be unique to the application. Graphic design, for example, will have different rules than industrial design, or package design, or landscape design. The many narrower fields of design can enjoy their own, unique and more specific definitions because they present unique conditions to which solutions are accountable. But design, at large, can’t get much more specific than that. Art has no such limitations. Rules are the things we apply retrospectively upon art in order to organize it into a linear story. Romanticism is this, Impressionism is that. But then Dada comes along and breaks every “rule” and that’s exactly the point. Art progresses by rule-breaking. Design progresses by rule-making.
You probably have a better definition than that. So I’d love to hear what it is. Poke holes in my logic. Tell me where I’m bonkers. Hit reply!
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this video of a supposedly emotionless android critiquing art. The irony.
Heavy Rotation: On heaviest rotation this week was somewhat of an oddity. It’s a website called Permanent Bedtime and all it does is rotate BBC shipping forecast reports. But it does it over a lovely, foggy view of the sea. I’ve been casting it to my TV at home, which has been quite good. It’s basically the same thing as Music for Airports but with words spoken in British accent instead of synthesizers. I sent this to a friend of mine in an email with the subject line, “Proof God exists.” Vibe. Adjacent to that is Radiophrenia, a temporary art radio station broadcast out of Glasgow. So it’s got that Isles thing going for it. But it’s a pretty great sonic landscape of unexpected sounds. Great background for making things. If you’re looking for some tunes, check out Four Tet performing live at the Sydney Opera House.
On Screen: Look, everyone knows the best TV shows and movies to watch. What you need more of in your life are smaller, stranger bits of moving image. Right? So, here are a few recommendations:
New Thinking Allowed is my go-to source for long, slow, in-depth conversations about fringe-consciousness; things like extrasensory perception, anomalous cognition, remote viewing, psychokinesis, lucid dreaming, telepathy, and much more. My dog and I watch it early in the morning on Saturdays. If you’re up early tomorrow, join us.
I’m collecting interesting shorts in a list on YouTube. A few that I don’t think I’ve pushed on you lately are The Pixel Painter, a brief portrait of a very old man who made art using Microsoft Paint; David Lynch’s incredible entry in Lumière and Company, a collection of <1 minute shorts made using an original Lumière brothers hand-wound film camera; and lastly, Jerry’s Map, a story of another older gentleman who is basically doing SimCity with paint.
Finally, the trailer for Arrival, the upcoming film adaptation of Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang, looks pretty interesting. Let’s hope they don’t go Independence Day with this thing, because that is not at all what the original short story is. It’s basically the anti-Independence Day. It’s a story about how language — quite literally — shapes consciousness. If that sounds interesting to you, read the story before the film comes out in November.
Recent Tabs: It is no longer acceptable to feel entitled to free journalism while also feeling entitled to complain about advertising: “Conservatively, our prison story cost roughly $350,000. The banner ads that appeared in it brought in $5,000, give or take.” An open letter to managers of women. This handmade wooden clock writes the time and was created by a student whose professors didn’t even get what he was trying to achieve. Victorians wanted to contact aliens using giant mirrors. I want Christopher Nolan to make a spiritual sequel to The Prestige about this. I would also accept a movie about the neural spikes in your brain when your friends’ brains are stimulated. A Bronze Age ostrich egg somehow survived unbroken, underwater, in a shipwreck off the coast of Turkey, for well over three thousand years. A Rube Goldberg machine where nothing touches and only proximity matters. City Objects. This drawing machine is powered by a hamster. There is such a thing as bionic skin that can feel a tumor. Buried lede: even doctors can be replaced by robots. This is cool. So is this. I’m like.