is increasingly recognized as a key element of the contemporary focus on the need for greater ecological and societal sustainability. Part I
examines the various potential roles for design in this context, by first considering ‘what is design?’
Design is traditionally discussed in terms of design disciplines and professions, and the industries they serve. Design thinking looks beyond these confines to suggest a wider role for design in addressing our biggest societal challenges. Design activism goes even further in suggesting more radical ways in which design can transform our society and the way we live, both now and for the future.
At first glance, the title of this chapter might not seem to make very much sense. Yet it uses the word ‘design’ in four very different, but useful, ways. First, design is a field or discipline. Second, design is an action or process. Third, a design is a concept, proposal or plan. Finally, the outcome of a design process is also called a ‘design’. This chapter examines all these uses of the word ‘design’. It then asks if design is in fact an attitude, rather than a profession, available to all of us? Case studies of two value-driven design consultancies help us to address this question. The chapter ends by considering the link between design and innovation and the extent to which design itself is changing.
Here, ‘design’ refers to a grouping of professional and commercial activities that contribute to a national economy. The design sector is now often located within the broader categorization of the ‘creative industries’, which are seen as key to the competitiveness of national economies.
Design is a field or discipline. Design in this sense is aligned to our material and visual culture, it relates directly to the artefacts and products of our human-made cultures. The field of design can be explored in a number of ways.
Design history is the broad academic discipline investigating the function, form and materials of artefacts of the pre-industrial and industrial periods, up to and including the present day. It focuses on artefacts’ production, dissemination and consumption as well as their cultural, economic and social meanings.
The emerging field of design studies examines design and its role in society from a broad range of critical perspectives. It considers design from the perspective of disciplines such as history, philosophy and sociology. Design studies focuses on contemporary design practice and culture, and explores the ‘what?’ and ‘why?’, as well as the ‘how?’, of design and designing.
The design industry
Design can also be used in this sense to indicate an industry or set of professions, as in ‘the design industry’, or ‘the design professions’. You’ve used the word in this way if you’ve ever said ‘I want to work in design’. Government also talks about design in this way when it discusses the importance of design to the economy. Here, design is a grouping of professional and commercial activities. A business also talks about design in this way when it describes itself as being ‘design-led’.
The discipline and profession of design management is concerned with the management of design strategies, processes and projects. We might also say that design management focuses on the effective strategic exploitation of design for commercial gain, as design is increasingly seen as a primary strategic asset for any organization.
Design and art
Design is often considered in relation to art, and the two fields certainly overlap. Art puts a primary emphasis on self-expression; it is a creative activity whose origin and motivation is personal to the individual. Design is based not on self-expression but on discovering a problem shared by many people and trying to solve it. Design is inherently constrained by the demands of a client, a brief or a market. Design, therefore, represents a different type of creative activity to art. Design has in fact been known as ‘applied art’ and ‘commercial art’ at different points in its history.
Design and craft
Design can also be considered in relation to craft. Craft production is usually based on traditional, skilled manual labour and produces artefacts in small numbers. Design is generally aligned with mass manufacture, however designer-makers design and make their products to bring together their creative ideas and making skills in individual or batch productions of their designs. This approach is attractive to those designers seeking an alternative to mass-production orthodoxies.
The field of design is often sub-divided into further categories. We might talk of broad areas in which design is explored by professional designers and also by non-designers. These design areas are defined in terms of the nature of the design outcome, the type of thing that is designed. Ways of categorizing design outcomes
Categories of design
1Symbolic and visual communications.
3Activities and organized services.
Complex systems or environments for living, working, playing, and learning.3
Design is also a verb describing an action or process. We use ‘design’ in this way when we talk about ‘designing’. Designers have fought hard to gain recognition for what they do as being more than mere styling or decoration.
Historically, design was at the end of the business or product development process. Product designers, for example, have often been confined to providing a shell for a new piece of technology developed by engineers. Design is increasingly seen as a more fundamental process concerned with the creative conceptualization of our communications, products, systems and societal structures.
We’re all designers?
It is sometimes said that everyone is a designer. The planning and patterning of our actions towards a desired result constitutes designing. In this sense, everyone who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones can be said to be designing.
Three design process models
The act of designing is sometimes formalized in a design process model. There are many representations of the design process, reflecting the many ways there are of designing. These models of design process often appear to have little in common with each other. Rather than thinking of design as a single process that we all follow in the same way, we might think that every designer has their own process that is personal to them. Models are abstractions of reality; how accurate can a design process model actually be in depicting designing?
So we are designing when we follow a recipe, when we compose a piece of music, even when we decide what to wear in the morning (we’re designing our ‘look’ for the day). This universal sense of designing, in which we are all designers, is sometimes thought of as one of the fundamental characteristics that make us human.
What are the limits of this broad idea of designing? So...