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Wednesday 03|21|01
Thinking About Philosophy of Design

I have been thinking about what it means to be a "designer" lately. All this discussion about IA vs. Interaction design vs. graphic design vs. usability has stimulated a lot of good conversation and has prompted me to think about what is means to design in the first place. What is design?

It is defined as both a noun and a verb. The dictionary says:
de•sign (d-zn)
1.a. To conceive or fashion in the mind; invent
b. To formulate a plan for; devise
2. To plan out in systematic, usually graphic form
3. To create or contrive for a particular purpose or effect
4. To have as a goal or purpose; intend
5. To create or execute in an artistic or highly skilled manner

1.a. A drawing or sketch.
b. A graphic representation, especially a detailed plan for construction or manufacture.
2. The purposeful or inventive arrangement of parts or details

While the definition talks about the activity of design as a practice, it doesn't speak to the meaning of design - both culturally and professionally. How is what we do meaningful in the culture? What is our responsibility with our society as designers, as creators, as consumers?

I recently finished reading a small book called The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design by Vilem Flusser. Flusser was a Czech-born media critic and philosopher who approached the philosophy of design as a subject foretymological analysis. He is an outsider, not a designer and approaches his opinions from an observational stance. This book consists of a series of short essays that I found quite interesting. A different perspective to say the least. The first essay breaks down the word design into its root form from the Greek. Flusser draws parallels in context between the word design: associated with cunning and deceit, and other significant words: mechanics and machine. He eventually ends up at the word technology and goes on to discuss the context of art and technology in culture and the discovery of the design behind them. It is an interesting approach to study the break down and meaning of the words and apply context to their use.

Flusser died in 1991, but many of the essays in his book foresees the future of the Internet - one of the reasons I found this book so fascinating. In his essay "The Factory", he talks about the development of the machine through time - from early stone age rocks and tools to the industrial revolution. He then goes on to discuss the evolution of mechanized machines and robots and eventually sees a future where, "A new method of manufacturing - i.e. of functioning - is coming into being: The human being is a functionary of robots that function as a function of him. This new human being, the functionary, is linked to robots by thousands of partly invisible threads: Wherever he goes, stands or lies, he carries the robots around with him (or is carried around by them) and whatever he does or suffers can be interpreted as a function of the robot." Sounds a lot like the web and the personal computer. That extension of technology and the machine to human and the human need to create through this technology is a fundamental shift from the industrial nature of creation. We create in the ether with no tangible artifacts of our time and thinking. We design.

Flusser goes on to say, "This provides a hint as to what factories of the future will look like: like schools in fact. They will have to be places where human beings can learn how robots function so that these robots can relieve human beings of the task of turning nature into culture. In fact, the human beings of the future in the factories of the future will learn to do this by, with and from robots. Thus in the case of the factory of the future, we will have to think more in terms of scientific laboratories, art academies and libraries and collections of recordings than in terms of present-day factories. And we shall have to look upon the robot-man of the future more as an academic than an as artisan, worker or engineer." I believe we are already seeing this as the world becomes driven by the knowledge worker, the computer-Internet jockey. We make information, we design information, we design experiences through and within this information.

The rest of this book is filled with other essays discussing Form, Ways of Seeing, Objects and Obstacles, Ethics of Industrial Design, Design as Theology, Architecture and things like Carpets and Pots. Many of the other essays talk about and expose the designer's task of inventing and deceiving to change the perception of the end user/viewer. These processes and skills as broken down by Flusser are worth reflecting on every now and then and thinking about how what we do affects ourselves our fellow humans and the cultures we send our work into. Thinking about the nature of design - the big design rather than the little design - is always a bit humbling. Design affects how we do everything. And how we see the world. We are inundated with it - whether it is ethereal - the Internet, television, music, etc. or tangible - our cars, highways, signage, airplanes, etc. We can't get away from it.

Posted by erin at 03:39 PM | in Theory

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