Expanding the Definitions of Design
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Every so often a word comes into intellectual fashion. Among them is the use of “expanded” to describe the evolution of a cultural discipline into unorthodox forms, as in “expanded cinema,” “expanded architecture,” “expanded poetry” and last, but by no means least, “expanded design.”
Like any other fashion, the intellectual variety often fades, but expanded design may well be an exception. The idea that the design process can be usefully applied outside its conventional context has triggered an explosion of activity that ranges from using design as a medium of intellectual inquiry to devising ingenious solutions to acute social problems like homelessness and unemployment.
Yet some people claim that design has expanded too far. However liberally the concept of expanded cinema is interpreted, it will always involve the screening of some form of film, whereas design, or so they argue, can be interpreted so loosely that it can be applied to almost any situation in which someone sets out to change something. Does this make design seem so vague that it risks becoming meaningless?
Let’s start by explaining what I mean by design, which is not an easy task, as its meaning has changed dramatically over the centuries, and often been muddled and trivialized along the way. Even when used correctly, the word can seem confusing because there are so many interpretations of it. The design historian John Heskett summed up the confusion in the seemingly nonsensical, but grammatically accurate sentence: “Design is to design a design to produce a design.”
Even so, design has had one constant role throughout history as an agent of change that helps us to interpret changes of any type — scientific, technological, political, cultural or whatever — to our advantage. What we now call design fulfilled this function long before the word was invented: starting with prehistoric scavengers molding lumps of clay into makeshift drinking vessels.
Yet since the Industrial Revolution, design has typically been seen as a formal process applied by specially trained professionals, usually to produce something tangible, like an object or image. Not that this was — or is — an inaccurate description, but design has also continued to be practiced intuitively just as it was in prehistoric times.
Some of my favorite episodes of design history are early examples of expanded design, which were conceived and executed instinctively, and not necessarily by professional designers. Take Nicholas Owen, an unusually ingenious carpenter in 16th-century England, who saved the lives of dozens of fellow Roman Catholics by building cunningly disguised “Priest’s Holes” inside the walls of houses where they could hide, safe from religious persecution. Or take the London Poverty Maps published by the philanthropist Charles Booth during the late 1800s in which the socioeconomic status of each street was signified by a particular color, an inspired design decision that made the maps instantly legible, and gave them greater political impact.
Nor has expanded design been neglected by design theorists, even if they did not use that term. In his 1947 book “Vision in Motion,” the Hungarian designer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy wrote an essay titled “Designing is not a profession but an attitude” in which he argued that design should “be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness.”
Such beliefs are increasingly popular. One reason is that young designers, like their peers in other fields, have wanted to address their political and humanitarian concerns in their work, and have sought new ways of doing so. Traditionally, a designer’s role in tackling social issues was to communicate what social scientists and economists had decided to do. The new genre of social designers are contributing to the decisions by applying the design process of research, analysis, visualization and communication to, say, improving the quality of social services, often working in collaboration with other specialists to do so.
Similarly, commercial designers have had to adapt to the demands of a post-industrial economy, when their clients expect them to fulfill their traditional role as agents of change by modifying people’s behavior, as well as by developing products in the traditional way. Variously called “service design,” “system design” and “design thinking,” this practice is another form of expanded design, albeit with commercial objectives.
The problem, or so the critics of expanded design claim, is that the proliferation of new approaches has made design seem even fuzzier and less coherent. They have a point. If the concept of expanded design is taken to its natural conclusion, just about any form of planned change can be described as having been designed, and design will not only become fuzzier still, but indistinguishable from common sense.
Does this matter? I’d argue not, at least not if identifying something as a design project will improve the outcome. An example is cooking a meal. Pretentious though it sounds, you could claim to have designed it, if you had improvised, though not if you had followed a recipe, but would a “designed” meal be healthier and more enjoyable? Possibly, if you had invested more time and energy in its design: by planning its preparation carefully, selecting the best materials, and presenting it enticingly. You might also have given more thought to the environmental consequences. Put like that, it is hard to think of an activity, which wouldn’t benefit from being designed: from planning a journey to wrapping a present to caring for an elderly relative.
One designer, Emily Pilloton, is so convinced of design’s value in daily life that she has co-founded Studio H, a design course for American high school students, and Studio G, a design summer camp for young girls. Most of her students have no intention of becoming professional designers, but regard design as a skill that can make them more resourceful and inventive, just as Moholy-Nagy wished. “Design, for a student, is permission to stand up and say: ‘Wait a minute, that’s not great,”’ Ms. Pilloton said. “And more importantly, ‘I’m going to figure out how to improve it.”’