Is design all about making things better?

I’ve just bought my first issue of Design Week (DW 30 September) since 1996. Up to that point I’d been a regular reader since 1987 and, depressingly, it appears little has changed in the way designers discuss, design and articulate their thoughts – something that has always bothered me as a designer, since, unlike many of my peers, I was acutely aware of my deficiencies and would not let feelings of personal pride stop me from admitting that fact.

The letter in that issue, relating to design being about making things better, and the later thoughts regarding a simpler future seem to sum up the point quite nicely. These contributors are designers or managers of designers presenting their cases on the basis of anecdotal experience and are subjective, offering little in the way of evidence to back their argument, other than that happens to be what they think, with no reference to any source. This surely means that nothing of substantive value is on offer here.

My subjective belief is that this use of design language was and is the way we, as designers and as peddlers of design, maintain our self-esteem, while sitting at the top table with marketing executives and chief executives with their management degrees. Information asymmetry with regard to design, and our manifest artistically creative abilities, made more compelling by the benefit of technology, provide us with the illusion – or delusion – that our insights and knowledge are meaningful and relevant. I find this particularly disturbing since I would have hoped that in the years that I have been away from the industry, intellectual rigour might have infiltrated the language and discussion of design, especially graphic design (my own discipline) where the strategic demands of communication through the medium of design are essential.

Design is wonderful and complex, and we do ourselves a disservice when we pontificate without thorough understanding of all the issues. Nowhere is this more important than when we sit at that top table seemingly sure in the knowledge that our contributions are regarded seriously when, in fact, it is more likely that we expose our ignorance (’marketing mix’ and ’added value’ are two examples that I’ve witnessed) and are thus ’found out’, and our bargaining power reduced.

When clients know this they don’t tell us, they just ask for a free pitch.

As for what design is, I leave it for others to discuss. I have my own thoughts and I like the idea of abstract thought bent to specific need, but until I find a study or conduct one that deals with that hypothesis I’ll keep my subjective thoughts to myself.

Rob Edwards, Director, Stirling Business Solutions, by e-mail

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