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What is Design?

Updated: 3 days ago

What is Design?

Aristotle in his book Metaphysics was the first to point out that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. This idea leads to the foundations of what centuries later would become the General Systems Theory. This theory suggests that to understand the complexity of our reality, we must first observe it in its entirety, in terms of its elements and the relationships between them.

Very contrary to the positions that had prevailed in the sciences up to that point, which was, and in many cases still is, reductionist and mechanistic. Science due to its evolution towards specialization lost the capacity for an holistic observation, closing down into countless niches where it can only see a segmented perspective of reality. This is what Niklas Luhmann defined as one of the most characteristic features of today's societies. He called this phenomena Functional Differentiation. You know allot of one issue, and very little of allot of things.

Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (chilean biologists) stated that, realities are built based on our observations and what we are capable of doing. What this means, is that only designers are be able to construct what we know as design and this is why we are capable of perceiving it as a discipline, a unit. Social groups internally produce the elements  and  relationships that constitute them. 

So why are we unable to give a common definition to what design is? 

Let’s do some History.

Design as a discipline has been around for 100 years if you consider the Bauhaus, or if you go back 200+ years to the Industrial Revolution. It is quite a young discipline if you compare it to other “older” ones.

But is it really this way? Does it really appear a couple of centuries ago? I don’t think so…

If you visit the Pre Columbian Art Museum in Chile, you will find thousands of objects that where once utilitarian. The word Art appears as the denial of their real value and a colonialist perception of reality. They where not created under the European conception of art, and they actually represented a far more complex understanding of their reality, their cosmovision. If you go to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, or the British Museum in London or any other mayor museum, you will probably see the same. What is alien, is barbaric, what comes from overseas can be diminished and categorized as minor art, or as a myth and not a religion, it is a practice or a barbaric costume, actually they are usually categorized as handcrafts… I could go on and on. Do you really think design started in the 19th century in Europe? Really?

Design was classified for a long time (couple of centuries) as a “minor art”. This has been discussed for a long, long time… since the old debate between Paleoteric knowledge or the old knowledge, what is classical, the practice, traditions, and the neoteric knowledge or the new one, science, theory.  This was reflected by Jonathan Swift during the 17th century, in his book “The battle of the books”. Yes, the same one who wrote “The adventures of Gulliver”.

But recently (last century) it has been agreed that Design has a presence in both worlds (practice and theory). But you could say the same for every discipline, so what makes design special or different?

Kirstine  Riis, in 2013 presented us with a solution to this dilemma. Theory and practice have usually been seen as exclusionary, she pointed out that there is a situation that would allow the coexistence of these realities. She argues that the incorporation of an internal observer would serve as a relationship  between them, saving the delimitation of each of the identities and their operational closure. In other word, designers are responsible of making design what it is, making practice and theory work together. And on the same run, becoming part of the system or discipline we call design.

Edward Willatt in 2010, points out that there are two ways to define a discipline. The first one, would be by defining its method and the second according to its object of study. Design’s object of study, and methodology change project to project. Defining only the method or object of study could lead to erroneous disciplinary definitions regarding to this discipline. Design in particular is a composite discipline, often involving methodologies extrapolated from other disciplines, and incursions into other areas shared with other disciplines. 

Subsequently, other authors appear and state that Design has a third variable, and that this new variable could be placed in the field of exploration (Fallman 2008). Others point out, that before and since the appearance of the Bauhaus we can see the first attempts to explore through the joint work between crafts and art (Bayasit 2004). Undoubtedly the ways in which we can define a discipline and especially Design are innumerable.

It is clear that the theoretical and practical model assumed so far is not working, and a paradigm shift is needed. It is not enough to continue with the way we understand Design as we have been doing. However, it is necessary to ask how can a paradigm change be made, without making Design no longer be Design?

Because we agree we have to change the paradigm? Don’t we?

Francis Bacon as early as the sixteenth century wanted to establish a greater field of knowledge that would allow us to make "artificial creations" in order to mold and modify nature for the benefit of human beings.  This is of a paramount importance. Bacon on one side had this multidisciplinary idea, but on the other hand did not regard the actions of the human being as part of a larger system (nature) and how these would impact him. From this moment on, human beings neglect the environment. 

It´s not until the Brundtland report in 1987, that we as a society present a new relation for humans and the environment. The United Nations defines sustainable development as:

"He who meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations"   (Brundtland,  p.57,  1987)

The only difference is that through this definition, we recognize the fact that we are living in a finite world. There is no mention of the environment in this definition. The idea behind it, is that we can keep on consuming, but let’s not consume all, otherwise we (they) won’t have anything left to sell to the future generations. It actually just promotes a way to sell the products we design. Sounds very familiar to what Francis Bacon argued.

It also remembers me of Bernard London, who in order to stop with the great depression between wars, proposed a law that would force users to return the products after a few years. This way they would buy new ones. The law was called Programed Obsolescence. Sounds familiar? Shouldn’t products last a lifetime, or even more? Shouldn’t we as designers, find ways to stop creating unnecessary needs?

That is why, today Design as a discipline must assume it’s large share of responsibility. In 2009 Nathan Shedroff published a book called; "Design Is the Problem: The Future of Design Must Be Sustainable". There, he stated that designers had created incredible things for human benefit, but at the same time had been the cause in many ways of our environmental disaster. Poorly designed objects, processes, buildings, messages, had lead to the increasing deterioration of our surroundings. But way before Shedroff,  Buckminster Fuller had published Spaceship Earth and other texts which evolved around the same idea, and we can’t forget Victor Papaneck with "Design for the real world".

These authors and many others, lay the foundations for what we now know as eco-design or sustainable design. However, its scope has been almost imperceptible in the industrial development of the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the 21st century. I recommend you to read “The story of things” by Annie Leonard. Link of this and the other books below on the description.

Design as we now it, is obsolete, definitions that rise from tradition are useless in our context. Just take a look around, look at the Covid 19 issues, look at the social revolts all around the world and specially look at the environmental catastrophe we have created, as designers. The model is not working and Buckminster Fuller stated that:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

So by the time being we must still find a definition for design, and here in the meantime we like thinking that Design is:

Design is a self-creating discipline, that has the potential to regenerate itself and its ecosystem. We must understand that design is a political act and every decision we make will change the future for the new generations to come.

Here at SDA we believe design is a complex systemic discipline where designers, good designers, do the right questions. And if you pay deep attention, you will find the answers to these questions embedded in them. 

Design is a shared compromise where petitioners and designers work on a one-to-one basis, putting emphasis in the relations between all components and the ecological niche in which the project will evolve. Research from an autopoietic perspective - which is the main tool to achieve a conscious decision making process will enable us to achieve Symbiotic Design. 

Symbiosis is the only possible and feasible way to integrate design into a biotic environment. If this relation doesn’t exist, we will always be producing asymbiotic entities that will continue collapsing our ecosystems.

If you can embrace this, then you will be doing Good Design, Symbiotic Design!

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