I don't believe we need to either define design or justify its value — which is convenient because I don't think it's possible to do either, any more than it's possible to define poetry and justify its value. We make a fundamental mistake as soon as we assume there is a single thing signified by this word "design", and that if we were to find it, it would illuminate something about what we do. I think it's far more informative to think about the role we inhabit in society, rather than relying on an abstract ideal that inevitably fails us.
We designers are, by virtue of our professional role (NOT our particular expertise), often the mediators between human activity and its impact on the world. I am happy to grant that this puts us in positions of power and gives us certain moral responsibilities.
Design as intention
One thread I noticed in your notes is the observation that design seems to involve an ‘agenda’ or ‘purposefulness’, or in other words, some intentional effort to achieve an objective. It’s not just blind rule-following or mechanical operations.
That is more or less agreeable me. But I want to call attention to the fact that we’ve abandoned the notion of function here. There is a key difference between something “serving a purpose” and “acting purposefully”. Design in many cases involves acting purposefully, which is nothing more than organizing yourself to achieve something. The “something” achieved doesn’t have to be a solution to a problem. It could be something entirely superfluous. Moreover we sometimes make good designs that don’t actually achieve the “something” that we set out to achieve; so it seems the only important part here is the intention.
That said, I think this ‘purposefulness’ you’ve identified gets at the broader philosophical usage of ‘design’. For the materialist Daniel Dennett, the “design stance” towards nature is precisely the idea of describing it in terms of purposes and objectives — it’s a human layer of description for a process that is on a physical level completely blind and mechanical.
Moreover that enables him to talk about “post-intelligent” design — the idea that blind mechanical processes (AI, deep learning, but also evolution itself) are getting really good at solving problems, in fact better and cleverer at solving problems than humans. For me this is a strong challenge to the claim that the value of design is grounded in its impact; the fundamental human capacity for design is never going to beat blind brute force in the end.
What is the alternative?
Another point you made was that I’m offering a critique of design as problem-solving without offering a better alternative.
What I should have made clearer when I said problem-solving can’t defend design is that I don’t think there is a good way of defending design, and I don’t think it needs defending. Pushing pixels around happens to have a place in our economy, and it happens to be something we enjoy and are proficient at — what else matters? I just want us to come to terms with the fact that we are designers out of self-indulgence, and we don’t serve a grand purpose to society.
That said, I personally find design “valuable” but only in the sense of cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual value. In this respect I think it is extremely similar to poetry and fine art. Design is about as useful to the world at large as poetry — take that as you will.
You also mentioned (and I know you’re generally engaged with) the idea that as designers we have a responsibility to do right by not only other people, but by our surrounding environment and planet.
Supposing I’m right about design serving no vital purpose to society, I don’t think that contradicts this moral duty. Designers are, by virtue of their professional role (NOT their particular expertise), often the mediators between human activity and its impact on the world. People need houses, and so long as an architect is designing a house, they might as well reduce the negative environmental impact of its construction and maintenance, by drawing on the research and technology developed by professionals in scientific fields.
The problem with universality
The scientists and engineers in my prior example have ownership over the methodologies that make sustainable design possible. On the other hand, the designer is just there, morally obligated to reduce harm purely because of their position to make decisions. To be a designer in these cases, it seems, consists only in caring and being well informed.
I remain convinced that looking at design as a universal human thing makes it loses its usefulness to designers. That sort of definition is not guaranteed to be any more applicable to an employed “designer” than in any other profession. The societal role of a designer is, as you’ve previously pointed out, only weakly associated with this conception of design.
It might be speculatively interesting to think about design's relation to intention. But seeing as we all inhabit the societal role of design, I think it’s more useful for us to look at what we do through the lens of culture rather than relying on an abstract ideal that inevitably fails us.
(actually: “Design is the method of putting form and content together. Design, just as art, has multiple definitions, there is no single definition. Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that’s why it is so complicated (Maeda, 1997).”)
My response to @nico-chilla 's block https://www.are.na/block/13817473
My complaint is that problem-solving is not a good defense of the value of design
Problem solving is bullshit. Okay, let's just say we're all in agreement on this... do what else are we saying is design? Maybe more importantly, do we need to define this?
So, problem solving isn't necessarily the thing (I mean whose problems? from what perspective? what context? is this a problem that even needs to be solved??? so many questions with that angle...) but... there is still some sort of agenda or ideology brought to a design task. And I think that's sort of an important aspect of what "design" is — its the most human impetus, seeing that something is missing or not working, and trying to do something about it. Everyone is a designer some of the time? Every job involves "designing" some of the time? Sometimes plumbing is just plumbing, but sometimes plumbing //is// designing. Sometimes graphic designing //is// designing; but sometimes its just working on a dematerialized adobe powered assembly line.
So, yes, everyone and every profession is sometimes a designer/design. But, I don't think this makes it meaningless. It is something worthwhile to learn and embrace. That you don't have to "be a graphic designer" just because you're majoring in graphic design; the "skills" can be transferable if you're willing to see the concepts, the processes at work.
And no, I don't mean design thinking and how might we questions; I mean the how do you translate your interests and desires and intentions into things — these things can be posters, websites, apps, books, zines, dances, songs, flags, chairs, gardens, whatever.
My complaint is that problem-solving is not a good defense of the value of design
Sure, but then what is? is is problem finding? question answering? speculating? narrative making? And I think that you're right, problem solving alone isn't the defense — that you come up with a new sort of thing is also important — and I embrace the idea that "new sort of thing" might also be an old thing, but brought to a new time/space/context/mixture with other old things..
"the intentional solution of a problem, by the creation of plans for a new sort of thing"
An intentional solution? A contextual creation?
Christopher Alexander's //Notes on the Synthesis of Form// starts out with “These notes are about the process of design: the process of inventing things which display new physical order, organization, form, in response to function.” And so there is this idea that some kind of form and some kind of function are brought together; not necessarily clearly for the goal of problem solving but that you've outlined some network of forces at work due to a given context, and that interplay reveals //something// to you…
I don’t think “design” in any meaningful sense exists beyond a historical and cultural zeitgeist, intimately connected with industry and technology. The right response to someone using their education as a stepping-stone to a job is not to show them how design is valuable to the world, but to encourage them to forge their own personal connection with the vibrant community and discourse around design.
Your last line is really the crux of all this here. Whatever your experiences are; design should be a way for you to better understand them and better secure the place you want to inhabit in the world based on those experiences (or in spite of those experiences I guess, so no one else has to experience them if they are justifiably terrible!?).
Perhaps in thinking about our experiences, and the experiences of others; not in a "user" perspective; but as people, we can also better grasp what a designer can do to take on wider responsibility in their work. This gets even more important if we take a "welfare of ALL life" lens, not just people, but the whole planets systems...
The other thing at play here? "problem solving" is something a single designer can do when you're focused on the form of something with a fairly specific societal fit; say modernism in Europe, it specifically fit its societal constructs, but this notion that new, "universal," intentionally simplistic forms could radically reshape culture doesn't really do it anymore … so we can't have a designer or two be the only people in the room "problem identifying" and then "problem solving" — any new "wicked problem" needs a lot of people; those actually affected; which might be different kinds of people, situated in different parts of the planet, affected in different ways!
But even just deciding "what am I going to have for lunch today" could be an opportunity for design; and is one that's totally different based on contexts, and would be best answered by a group brought together for the task of doing something about this question...
I mean, this can lead to discussions of various design vernaculars across time and place…
oh! so really, if we are bringing this back to a teaching/educational perspective; okay, so how does one learn about different ways design may or may not be defined? does design need to help others? Are we learning processes for engaging with the world based on our experiences? or are we teaching/learning some clever tools for form making? I feel that much of my "work" as a designer gets stereotyped as window dressing or that the asks even of the themselves are to make something look like something else regardless of where or when or who its from/for... Is taking design classes about learning short cuts to forms that are known to be "good forms" — in which case, yeah, what problems are you solving anyway (even if we don't like that definition), that's not design if its not new or isn't about making it repeatable or useful beyond a one off? That's just copying, that's just production line; that's making the car, not designing the car.
A lot of designing is making/designing as a hybrid, you think on your feet and iterate and change and adapt as things come together and the diagram of your forces continues to evolve... But when you just get to blindly making, well, you aren't really designing anymore; that's when designing //is// production... not "creation" … but now is this just another poorly defined and explained alley to navigate?
I think academic design communities can sometimes produce a lot of navel gazing and self-aggrandizement in regard to “The Power of Design”. Of course our practice and approach can be valuable to other disciplines and broad social issues. But “design thinking” isn’t some magical wand, and designers aren’t really the primary drivers on an issue such as climate change; things like activism posters on social media, fancy eco-friendly products, CPU-light or solar-powered websites, and so on are not really radical forces of change.
A response to Kristian Bjørnard's comment on this block:
I think I’m basically aligned with your viewpoint on students coming into the classrooms looking for jobs, and that was part of my spirit in bringing up creative writing / relating a design education to a liberal arts education.
But I have a fundamental difficulty with the formulation of design as producing solutions to problems. I think this notion (1): Fails to capture many things we commonly categorize as design, and (2): is such a broad definition that the word ‘design’ loses its utility altogether.
Let’s first think about what ‘problem’ and ‘solution’ entail, because the core of the problem (haha) is in this language. A problem is an impasse, not an absence or inconvenience. The L train being down is a problem, because it is an obstacle for the achievement of an objective, i.e. me getting to class. Me getting to class is itself instrumental for many other goals: learning, connecting with my peers, etc. On the other hand, let’s say the train is running, and I want to listen to music during the ride, but I forgot my headphones. Do I now have a “problem”? There’s certainly a loss, because I enjoy listening to music on the train, and now I can’t. But not being able to listen to music isn’t bad because it stands in the way of further objectives; one might say music on the train is good in itself. With problem-solving you can say there is some sort of need being addressed, where need really means something beyond the value of the designed experience.
So now in regard to (1), I think we can come up with counterexamples of things we couldn’t easily call “problem-solving”, but which we (or I, at least) would like to say are clearly examples of design, and good design at that. Take Tracy Ma’s work for The New York Times, e.g.  . These pieces don’t have to exist, or they could at least be done in a more boring way while serving the same purpose to their readers. Yes, you could construe these articles as solving a “problem” for the New York Times of creating the brand/product differentiation needed to dominate the industry. But that only gives you the financial justification. In that way, the problem-solution framework is a capitalist framework. I’d argue this framework shouldn’t ground their validity as “good design”; these articles are delightful, worthwhile, valuable in themselves. In lots of design, particularly the work designers produce for academic and cultural institutions, as well as self-published and experimental work, the instrumental aim (e.g. “we need someone to design a nice book for this collection of essays”) is little more than an excuse to make something that is formally or conceptually interesting.
But there is another problem with this framework, and you hinted at it in your comment. Namely, this broad definition of design beyond the industry as “solving problems” easily applies to artists, chefs, scientists, but also plumbers, social workers, customer service representatives, etc. It’s all well and good to say design in this sense is valuable, but all that really suggests is design stops being a useful word altogether. Forget design as an industry, “design thinking” as a methodology loses all importance, because when it comes to problem-solving, engineers and scientists consistently and independently show far more impressive results than say, the folks at IDEO.
All this is not to say design can’t solve problems, because it certainly can situationally. My complaint is that problem-solving is not a good defense of the value of design — if we try to ground it that way, we’re better off telling students to go study engineering. There are ways to go even more abstract than Parsons — my personal favorite is Papanek's definition of design as “the conscious effort to impose meaningful order”, at which point it disintegrates into a label for “all human activity”. My point is the abstraction isn't helping anyone. I don’t think “design” in any meaningful sense exists beyond a historical and cultural zeitgeist, intimately connected with industry and technology. The right response to someone using their education as a stepping-stone to a job is not to show them how design is valuable to the world, but to encourage them to forge their own personal connection with the vibrant community and discourse around design.
Design as a personal, ideological, or political action is important and useful; design as an industry is not. Why train students to be part of an industry? Why not train them to be active parts of the world?