Friday, September 14th, 2007

What draws us to design?

What draws us to design?
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Thinking back on colour coding high school class schedules to make them more usable (embarrassing, I know); I accept that design was fused to my DNA. To gain a command of the discipline, however, required a disproportionate personal investment if measured against tangible returns. Law school, by contrast, would have wrapped-up a decade ago and returned a more handsome salary. Design’s rewards are less linear, but upon tasting them, anything less would be hard to accept.

At last month’s screening of Gary Hustwit’s Helvetica, I realized that I am by no means alone. Those in the packed theatre all seemed to share in the same knowing laugh, as we listened to Michael Bierut’s persuasive and rather droll comments on the typeface. There’s something about this profession that sucks you in.

That evening led me to reflect on why I find design so consuming. A few key themes presented themselves:


Although different general feelings on the nature of design exist, I believe that it’s an exercise that owes much to the constraints we are challenged to work with. It’s rare when a project isn’t somehow shaped by implementation concerns, cost parameters, or any number of other requirements.

Some complain about these requirements, feeling that they stifle one’s creative spirit. In my mind, these individuals miss a pivotal psychological insight and advantage. Conquering Mt. Everest wouldn’t mean much if there was a chair-lift to the top. Design isn’t about a perfect world; rather, it’s how we maneuver and succeed in face of such challenges. This makes it fun.

No religion

Perhaps the challenge in classifying design is the obstinate determination to remain media-agnostic. Regardless of the effectiveness of design, it is everywhere and in everything.

I used to find this bothersome. Given my desire to organize information, I wanted to align myself with one design philosophy. Now, I find it more interesting to simply revel in the varied insights and perspectives of others. In what other industry do its practitioners engage in projects as varied as Anke Loh’s LED dress, which uses Philips’ textiles to create a luminescence; Marimekko’s seemingly timeless applied patterns and styles; and Deborah Adler’s admirable effort to make medicine bottles safer for users?

Some of us make work that is playful, some personal, and some concentrate on problem solving that hardly looks like the “design” that others would imagine. Our practice defies easy classification. This leaves us to contend with only the boundaries of our own construct.

A medium of the people

As a student of painting, I was continually at odds with the pursuit’s lack of interest in actually engaging with an audience. Perhaps this is an overly general statement; however, I contend that much of today’s high art is held in forums removed from the populace. This doesn’t make it any less relevant, but it’s unfortunate.

Design on the other hand, seems democratic, as it works to improve conditions for the greater population. Just think of the wide-spread issues addressed in Bruce Mau’s Massive Change, or the polemic of Shepherd Fairy’s long-standing Obey campaign, which works to reclaim public space.

On a surface level, design brings beauty to even the most banal, as evidenced in Michael Graves’ toilet brushes at Target. And sometimes it’s just “geeky” fun, in items like Veer’s “kern” hoodies. It hardly matters whether it’s whimsical, functional or reverent—the people ultimately decide what works and what doesn’t.

I spend a great deal of time with my nose in books, glued to a computer display, or simply outside assimilating and working to better understand that which we as designers have chosen to ensconce ourselves in.

On occasion I find it all quite overwhelming; there’s just so much great design out there. What a delightful way to pay the rent.

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