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Design – An Open Code Discourse

Photo: The cover of State of Things catalogue
Category: Design and Education

A visit to any exhibition introduces us to the range of objects on display, which we examine in the context of a specific time and place. The encounter with the exhibition as a whole presents us with the following questions: “What is the meaning of all this?” “What is the meaning of each exhibit, each category and the exhibition in its entirety? What is its meaning in the context in which it is displayed, and in relation to the discourse that frames it?” Our answers to these complex questions are shaped by our world view, opinions and knowledge. We may wonder to what degree they are relevant, and whether they are coherent in relation to both the exhibition and our opinions. Could we come up with better, more precise, truer answers? Should we reexamine our own opinions? Are there additional things to which we should pay attention? What must we examine in order to decipher the meaning of what is before us?

Some would describe an exhibition as a presentation of objects, while others would argue that it imposes questions whose answers give it meaning. Meaning, in this context, emerges out of the dialogue between us viewers and the exhibition. The exhibition thus functions as a Socratic catalyst, urging us to raise questions that challenge accepted opinions, and demanding that we reexamine them. If we think of the exhibition as suggesting a range of optional dialogues between us and the objects on display, the organizing categories, and the statements made by curators, designers and cultural critics, we will become part of the discourse on design. This discourse may prove meaningful to the theory and practice of design, as well as to our relationship with the outcomes of design; most importantly, it may prove meaningful for our own lives.

What follows is intended to facilitate the process of understanding the essence of design and of related concepts and terms. It is meant to function as a toolbox of sorts, whose contents we may use in order to arrive at a more comprehensive and in-depth interpretation of the exhibition. As we become more skilled at using this tool box, we will be able to offer a deeper and more comprehensive interpretation of the exhibition, and its relevant and coherent meanings will emerge more easily. The reader is invited to agree, disagree, or respond, and to thus define his own approach to design. Each of us, in our own way, shapes the “State of Things.”

Design – The State of Things

Design theory and practice are both undergoing meaningful changes that are transforming the face of design, its degree of social involvement and its very meaning. There is no doubt that design in the 21st century is different than design in the 20th century, yet it is difficult to provide a decisive definition of what it is. The numerous uses of the word “design” are themselves telling: The fact that uses as different as “policy design” and “nail design” exist one alongside another may lead to the banalization of this term, if we do not take the time to examine it more carefully. Similarly telling is the proliferation of design subgenres, which is given expression in the thriving of design departments and their division into various areas of specialization.

If we turn to the Design Dictionary, published in 2008 in conjunction with the Board of International Research in Design, we will be sorely disappointed. “Design,” the key term in this dictionary, receives no clear-cut definition: “At the risk of disappointing you, dear reader,” the entry reads, “it is impossible to offer a single and authoritative definition of the central term of this dictionary-design. Design’s historical beginnings are com­plex and the nature of design, what it is and what it isn’t, is the subject of diverse and ongoing arguments.” The rest of the entry is nothing but an overview of the manners in which design was interpreted during different historical periods – leaving us to wonder about its current meanings.

A survey of the various forums concerned with the theory of design reveals that a frequently asked question is whether the end of design is near. Yet will it be reborn? And what will its future meaning be? The terms Design 2.0 and Design 3.0 create an implicit parallel with new versions of the Web or of a computer program.
At the same time, much is being said today about “design thinking” as an alternative to conventional forms of analytic and intuitive thinking. The directors of international business schools, for instance, hope that in the future, “design thinking” will provide the innovative creative intelligence necessary in the business world, and not only there. Yet even in this context, there is no consensus on the meaning of this term.

The emerging picture is one of a seemingly chaotic state of evolution – a state in which various mutations struggle for a place in our life until they are taken over by the appearance of the next bifurcation, the emergence of a new order, the forming of a renewed path, the transformation of meanings.

Design Meanings
In 1982, Stephen Bayley, who would later became the first director of the Design Museum in London, curated an exhibition of contemporary design at the Victoria and Albert Museum titled “Art and Industry: A Century of Design in the Products We Use.” Bayley defined design as situated at the intersection of art and industry, in the context of shaping the appearance of mass-produced objects.

Analyzing this statement, the design historian John Walker notes in his book Design History and the History of Design that it calls attention to the centrality of the visual and stylistic dimensions of design, while ignoring concerns such as use and functionality. Some 25 years later, in 2007, Stephen Bailey and Terence Conran’s book Design: Intelligence Made Visible, put the emphasis on the visual and aesthetic aspects of design, while relating it to the faculties of reason and intelligence. At the same time, it minimizes the importance of the ethical and cultural aspects of design.
The book is centered on an alphabetical presentation of designers’ biographies, alongside images of the objects they designed. This approach, which glorifies the designer as the key to understanding the meaning of design, is prevalent today. There is thus no doubt that the intelligence mentioned in the title is that of the designer alone.

This model raises difficult epistemological, methodological and methodic questions. It remains unclear what guidelines shape the authors’ choices, who decides what is good design or who is a good designer, how this is done, which objects are included in this definition and why. Is the quality of a given object determined by its aesthetic value, commercial success or its degree of uniqueness? Do objects have a cultural importance, and if so, what cultural context are they placed in? Who are the consumers of these objects, and why do they consume them? Do the chosen objects reflect the “spirit of the time,” the designer’s creativity, functional needs or universal truths? It seems that there is no one answer to this set of questions.

If historians of design would focus, for instance, on defining design activities as ones centered on “problem solving,” which is an accepted definition of design, then the choice of key design figures throughout history would be different than that made by design historian Penny Sparke in her book A Century of Design: Design Pioneers of the 20th Century. The fact that there is no agreement concerning definitions of design – neither among designers nor among scholars of design, has led to the rise of practices, theories and histories that are increasingly detached from any common denominator. Interdisciplinary and holistic approaches further this process, creating additional barriers rather than breaking down existing disciplinary boundaries.

This is evidenced by John Heskett’s statement, in Design: A Very Short Introduction, that “One of the most curious features of the modern world is the manner in which design has been widely transformed into some­thing banal and inconsequential…in the absence of widespread agreement about its significance and value, much confusion surrounds design practice…[Design] is full of incongruities, has innumerable manifestations, and lacks boundaries that give clari­ty and definition.”

The Essence of the Design Discipline

Much has been said recently about the shift from a concern with the design of objects to design centered upon human experience. This shift involves a preoccupation with ontology-that is, the question of whether design is inherent to the object or whether it is shaped by its environmental, social and cultural context. The answer to this question may undermine the structure and meaning of books such as the book by Bailey mentioned above, and of numerous other design books and magazines, as well as the very meaning of design. Can the question “What is good design?” be answered absolutely, accompanied by images of objects that seemingly embody good design? Or is there no such thing as absolutely good design, since it is always dependent upon a specific context? The image of a decontextualized product against a white ground conveys nothing; the only judgment possible in this case is whether the object is aesthetic or not. No value judgment can be made.

These fundamental questions become problematic when the definition of design as the creation of objects is projected onto human objects, raising serious ethical problems. In his most recent book, Woman As Design: Before, Behind, Between, Above, Below, 2009, Bailey relates to women as objects, and breaks down their appearance based on different female body parts-breasts, buttocks, vagina. Woman, in this book, is examined as an aesthetic object functionally designed to serve the white heterosexual male.

The feminist critique of this book was quick to come; yet it is worth elaborating on the problematic nature of this approach, which far exceeds feminist concerns.

Such an approach perceives the world as composed of objects that each fulfills a defined role, and that disappear once they have accomplished it. This is how we relate to the environment, which is seen as an object that must be exploited in full. Animals are similarly seen as commodities traded worldwide according to their use value. This colonialist approach is most crudely expressed when it is applied to the evaluation and exploitation of human beings as objects with defined roles, who are fired, excluded or exterminated when their existence contradicts a certain ideology.

The situation we are faced with as we attempt to define design is extremely complex, and cannot be discussed within a restricted disciplinary framework. The very existence of such a framework raises various questions concerning its foundations. It is thus important to discuss design from the widest perspective possible – one that takes into consideration the design of personal, social and cultural worlds and which may influence the manner in which we view their various interrelationships.

One example of such change is the recent rise of “green” thought – which influences both the manner in which we perceive design objects and our everyday conduct. Despite its limitations and problematic aspects, this shift points to an attempt to find alternatives to the existing reality. Such alternatives may stem from fear concerning what awaits us if we do not change our ways. Other alternatives may be based on empathy for the other; on a nostalgia for the past or on hopes for a future dominated by technology that will put an end to the chaotic character of our lives, or alternately for a different future, one of cooperation and harmony between man and world.

The exhibition “The State of Things” is organized into a series of eight categories, each one focuses on a different aspect of the current discourse on design. In the followings, I will briefly touch upon each of these categories, examining them in relation to different world views. This is a discussion of design that attempts to question all of its accepted aspects: An open code discourse.

Category: Design Lab
Design Form 
Design is always oriented towards the future, since it attempts to offer an alternative to what already exists. Underlying every design object is an idea concerning a better, more beautiful and truer future. Design is thus in essence a lab suggesting which direction we should be heading in. One may well argue that this is, in fact, the role of philosophy; yet design, in contrast to philosophy, is not concerned only with ideas, but rather strives to realize them and integrate them into life, reshaping the world in concrete terms.

Although design encompasses a wide range of human skills, its underlying thrust is the desire to give concrete form to an idea and to make it manifest. The concern with form – its conception, development and realization – is the essence of design as it is understood today; this is also the goal pursued by the design laboratory and at design schools, as well as society’s expectation of design.

Yet What is Form? As strange as it may sound, form is not a self-explanatory concept, even though we perceive the world by means of forms. The theories and practices of design may be associated with three philosophical traditions concerning forms-the Platonic, the Aristotelian and the Nominal approaches. The Platonic approach regards forms as the expression of universal ideas, as laws of nature. The Aristotelian approach argues that there are no external laws, and sees all forms as emanating from the vital force inherent to the things themselves. The Nominal approach, meanwhile, argues that Forms do not exist in the world, and are all a figment of our imagination. These three philosophical approaches may be associated with three design theories and practices. Modernist design, which is Platonic in essence, bespeaks a belief in objective reason, which is made manifest in concrete objects. Ecological design sees our world as a vital organism, and is holistic in essence. Postmodern design sees man’s inner world as the only truth available to us, and thus understands forms as a human creation.

Is what we see actually is? Or is it our interpretation of what is? Or maybe all there is, is our interpretation? And if it is so, why do we nevertheless feel we share much in common? We may perceive the answers to these questions as “design outcomes.”

Category: New Essentialism
“New Essentialism”?

The “New” Essentialism was preceded by modernist essentialism, and by the International Style. Essentialism is a philosophical approach that sees the world as composed of objects whose identities are a product of their essential qualities. This is a reductionist approach, which strips objects of all those qualities that are not absolutely essential to their existence in order to reach their core or ideal form.

The International Style gives expression to the modernist ideology of progress and of detachment from the terrestrial realm. Design, according to this approach, must concern itself with the essential functions of the product, and embody the vision of progress. Yet more than they reveal something about the functional essence of the object, the geometrical forms and proportions, minimalist color schemes and rejection of ornament characteristic of modernist buildings and objects are telling of the essence of modernism, and of its expression as a universal style.

The Style of New Essentialism – If the International Style builds on the paradigm of man as a rational creature, and seeks to give these rational qualities expression, the New Essentialism exists in a reality that no longer believes in the illusion of reason, but may still long for it. Whereas the International Style was non-conformist and offered a new life style that rejected the past, today’s New Essentialism is conformist and perhaps also nostalgic. The International Style appeared to exist beyond the realms of narrative and temporality; the New Essentialism, by contrast, is both narrative and temporal. The discourse it engenders is techno-aesthetic. It ignores the local and the ephemeral, even though it is itself characterized by these qualities.

Once considered to embody a universal syntax, today the elements of the International Style are merely a stylistic expression. The rational style has lost its universal character and has become one of many design styles, one of many possible manifestations of reason.

Category: Social Anxiety
Design out of fear

At first glance, this category may appear strange and esoteric. Why, one may wonder, is the fear of the unfamiliar and strange featured as such a central theme in contemporary design? After all, there are many other social phenomena that have captured the attention of designers. At the same time, it may be possible to detect the underlying fear that has taken control of design, while leading to various attempts to subdue it.

The modernists detested Victorian culture, its contrived passion and the bourgeois mentality which they perceived as responsible for the irrational disasters visited upon humanity. The modernist vision of life is that of an efficient industrial factory, in which every individual may lead a functional and respectable life. This utopian vision was born of a desire to flee horror and chaos and to create, ex nihilo, a new world severed from the past. The modernists hoped that the sense of emptiness created by war and disaster, following the loss of religious faith, would be replaced by a belief in science and technological progress. Design, as they envisioned it, was based on a fear of everything that could not be controlled, and of passionate and irrational urges. This model of design was detached from subjective emotions, devoid of passion and love; it did not stem from a love of humanity and of the world, but rather from a desire to subjugate them to a technological, technocratic vision of perfect order and reason.

And so, while we continue to mire in the muddy legacy we inherited from modernist design, fear-based design overtakes us once again. Has the time not come to develop an ethical discourse on design? To promote design that is based on a full-fledged encounter with life and all of its complexities, beliefs, desires and changes without elimination, and – most importantly – to act out of empathy rather than fear?

Category: Craft Economy
The Renewal of Design as Local and Temporal
In traditional societies, crafts fulfilled local needs. Craftsmen created objects whose value is not only functional or aesthetic, but also social and cultural, and imbued with various material and spiritual meanings that tied community members to their environment, to one another, to their ancestors and to their Gods. This was poetic design in the full sense of the term, and the life philosophy embedded in the final product was made present to both the creator and the user.

Today, the traditional values of various cultures have become compatible with changes in scientific thought and in Western society’s perception of reality. This is a shift from reductionist to holistic thought, from disciplinary, hierarchical and linear models, to non-linear, dynamic systems; from an objective research process undertaken by an impartial researcher to the understanding that the research process and its conclusions cannot be detached from the researcher’s underlying assumptions. This is not a world of cause and effect, but rather one of open-ended ecological systems whose components are not fully known or defined. Facts thus give way to evaluations and opinions, and clearly defined objects give way to fields of dynamic interactions.

These values change have a decisive effect on the world of design, on design education and on design products. Design no longer takes place in the studio, and no longer attempts to control the process and the final product. Rather, it calls for the collaboration of the community. The designer thus becomes the designer of narratives that are given form thanks to the means he provides. This is a state in which the gap between the designer, the producer and the consumer is reduced, and the lines are blurred to the point where it is no longer clear who is who. Based on this world view, designers must imagine and form – by means of collaboration, mutual respect and empathy, and based on local, traditional values – not only what is beautiful, but also what is good and true for us as human beings, for society and for the world as a whole.

Category: Super Beauty
Human Values as Poetic Design
“Poetry is finer and more philosophical than history; for poetry expresses the universal, and history only the particular.” - Aristotle, Rhetoric

Based on Aristotle’s comparison between the poetic and the historical, one may conclude that poetic design, which exceeds the realm of the practical, is more philosophical and expresses the meaning of things – in contrast with practical design, which is simply concerned with facts; one elevates the soul, while the other appeals to reason.

Designers who in the past searched for the essence of design in absolute, analytical thought, understand today that the analytic approach is limited, yet its horizons may be expanded by means of creative involvement and intuition, which are an inseparable part of “design thinking”. Designers are thus liberating themselves from their self-imposed shackles, and giving expression to the richness of their world. The reduction of design to a purely rational activity excluded a rich range of heterogeneous values and lifestyles. The result was one-dimensional products detached from any social or cultural discourse.

Design must depart from the monolithic world view espoused by modernism. It must recognize and give expression to the existence of different and changing world views. In a world based on mutual respect and empathy, every style has a right to exist. Why should we be condemned to a life of reason devoid of poetry? Why make do with the functional and the aesthetic when the experiential, ethical and spiritual are essential to our life?

Category: Of the Body
The Design of Human Transformation
Online, I am 24, tall and blond, ready to devour life. At home I am a 67-year-old retiree, short and limited due to a disability. – An Internet surfer.

It is possible to argue that transformation is the essence of our life. We grow up, mature and grow old, are educated, form opinions, acquire physical, social and cultural skills and fulfill various roles. Change is imposed upon us at every moment in our lives; at the same time, we initiate change and impose it on others. Every one of our life experiences somewhat changes the meaning of our lives in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. Our relations with the environment, with culture and society also change accordingly. Is it possible to separate physical from mental change? Isn’t physical change an expression of an attempt to endow our bodies, ourselves and our world with new meaning? Aren’t all transformations related to one another?

Man in the modern metropolis is anonymous. He appears in the streets, in commercial centers and at work as stripped of an identity, surrounded by masses of similarly anonymous men. In the absence of individual traits, his existence does not register, and he appears to have no form. When we acquire a distinct form, we endow our existence with meaning, which may change as we take on ever new forms. These forms distinguish us from one another, while also placing us in the context of a given society and culture. We notice this dynamic process as we study the rise and fall of different fashion trends.

Is it possible that fashion and various other trends contain layers of meaning that may reveal something about ourselves, and about society at large? Is the belief that we are motivated by rational thought simply an illusion? A study of this dynamic of transformation may enable us to understand the nature of these changes, and our ability to remain together as a community and a society. Such transformations are not superficial, but rather give expression to an underlying essence.

Category: Beyond the Designer
Where is the meaning of design to be found?
The central theme in this category is the location of meaning within the act of design. It focuses on the shift in our understanding of design products, whose meaning is now formed in their encounter with the user. This change, which is given expression through technological developments, points to a larger change in our world view.

Cognitive scientists explain that what appear to us simply as logical reactions are the product of thought patterns anchored in the arrangement of neural pathways over the course of our lives, based on our experiences. The repetition of a given experience further fixes its inscription in our mind. Many of what appear to us as objective reactions are recurrent patterns, which may be the product of our education or beliefs – such as the belief in the existence of God and in the Earth’s revolution around the sun, as well as other beliefs that order reality beyond our personal and communal experience.

These result is the renunciation of the understanding of truth as an external and objective essence, and its perception as a dynamic revelation, aletheia in Greek, which is formed within one’s body and soul in the context of a particular environment, society and culture. This is a reciprocal process, in which we are both formed by the context in which we live and influence it in turn. The boundaries between internal and external reality are blurred, as are those between body and soul. Moreover, the world of ideas, God and natural laws no longer exists a priori, but rather appears as a series of meanings projected by man onto his interactions.

Are a table, a glass or a book the embodiment of the idea of the table, cup or book? Is the act of design means giving visual form to a preexisting idea, or does its meaning arise from our experience and interaction with things in the world? Existence as a table, a glass, a book or, alternately, the existence as a house in a child’s eyes, a container for pencils or a weight on a model’s head. There are endless meanings that things take in the course of life.

Meaning does not exist autonomously either in the object or in the subject. Rather, it arises out of the interaction between them, which may undergo various transformations with the passage of time and the advent of environmental, cultural and social changes.

Category: Mutant Remix
Imagine a Grotesque World
The “grotesque” is a vague concept whose definition is dependent on our definition of “reality.” It disrupts reality and gives rise to a different world order, composed of seemingly incongruent parts. The grotesque is characterized by distortion, exaggeration and “strange” combinations. Its appearance clashes with the existing order, and threatens its meaning. Previously distinct concepts lose their clarity, and their meaning becomes blurred. Rational order and grotesque chaos seem to merge together, giving rise to a new order. In biological terms, the grotesque may be thought of as the mutation of species struggling for their place in nature.

The grotesque has always existed alongside rational worldviews that attempt to detect an ideal, metaphysical order. Such an order is always perfect, in contrast to the surrounding world in which everything is “distorted” and imperfect. Rational, modernist design, with its thrust towards perfection, is thus defined by a clear-cut, absolute language, by means of which the designer attempts to attain an ideal of perfection. Metaphysical reality is seen as the objective site of pure truths and ideals, while the phenomenological world is subjective, imperfect and grotesque.

Yet it is also possible to see things differently – to perceive the surrounding world, which has not been subjected to rational processes, as the only world that is. We may argue that this is, in fact, the objective world, while any other world we may conjure up is a subjective figment of our imagination, as are its laws and images – which are themselves manifestations of the grotesque. From this point of view, the world of science does not reveal an objective world but rather shapes a subjective world that exists solely in our minds, and as such is grotesque.

The world today is no longer monochromatic. It is a pluralistic world in which everything is possible, and our imagination is the limit. Designers may choose from among countless forms, styles and traditions. They weave nets composed of desires, passions, dreams, functions, materials, technologies, cultures and ways of life, engaging in a symbiotic process that is relevant and coherent in the context of the reality they imagine. Their importance lies in enabling people to imagine an entire world.
The code is open.

-Victor Frostig (Ph.D), Holon Institute of technology, specializes in design, education, entrepreneurship and design philosophy.