Beware the ‘D’ word

It seems everybody’s in the design business now, says Adrian Shaughnessy, although many of those who use the word have little to do with creativity

Don’t be surprised if some time soon Gordon Brown starts calling himself the ‘designer of the nation’. ‘Design’ is the latest buzzword in business and sociopolitical circles. Among smart commentators and theorists, it has become a fashionable term. Yet somehow I don’t think it’s being used in the sense of having three different ideas for a new logo, or website, or kettle, ready by Monday morning, with full costing proposals and a schedule of delivery.

Most people noticed a shift in the definition of the ‘D’ word when Hilary Cottam was voted Designer of the Year in 2005. As many commentators pointed out, Cottam wasn’t a designer. In an interview on the Design Museum’s website, she states, ‘I use design to tackle some of the more intractable social issues of our day. I see myself as a facilitator, problem-solver and inventor.’

Bruce Nussbaum’s blog on the Business Week website is called ‘Nussbaum on Design’. We are told that the site takes us ‘deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the centre of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking’.

The D.school, a new design school at Stanford University in California, announces itself as a ‘place for Stanford students and faculty in engineering, medicine, business, the humanities and education to learn design thinking and work together to solve big problems in a human-centred way’.

You can tell a word has acquired a new status when it turns up at the World Economic Forum in Davos. In a televised debate called ‘Twenty20: Creating a Future by Design’, the TV channel CNBC Europe and the tech company Infosys offered to help ‘some of the world’s leading minds to articulate their visions for the future’.

So what are we talking about here? Is the widespread use of the word ‘design’ – and its near neighbour ‘innovation’ – nothing more than a linguistic fad, similar to the way in which the word ‘community’ is sometimes used to describe a group of people when naming them directly might risk an accusation of discrimination? Or is there something that theorists, futurists and social planners have seen in designers’ thinking that they regard as more valuable, effective and insightful than the normal sort of research-based, pragmatic thinking business people do?

Of course, the word ‘design’ has always been used in a non-professional sense. We can design an itinerary, we can design a plan, and we can even design the future. But the word is commonly used to describe the making of something tangible – a garden, a city, a logo – and it’s hard to think of the word without including the notion of creativity.

Ironically, the use of the ‘D’ word by Cottam and various sharp-brained business gurus harks back to the way it was used more than 100 years ago by William Morris and later by the Modernists, who viewed design as a force for social good, and not as the mute servant of capitalism that it has become.

Ironic, too, that as big design groups drop the word ‘design’ from their list of services in an attempt to appeal to business (‘branding consultant’ sounds so much better than ‘designer’), it should be enjoying a business vogue.

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