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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Comments & Trackbacks

  1. henry says:

    straight from the heart

    we love design not because its cool but for the chance to contribute something useful and beautiful to our world.

  2. Jorge says:

    Well, in my early days, back to school..when i thing about Design it was about "(..) the chance to contribute something useful and beautiful to our world.", like Henry said. But today, it just help me to pay the rent and put the food on the table.
    Why? I still love Design, but when you work in a coorp. there's sometimes (read always) people to tell you how to do your job...
    "I don't like this type, please!! more blue..too shiny"..well you know...

    That 's why the only time i really love to Design it when i do freelance work.


  3. dubbs says:

    surely its all about getting your work in front of other peeps? thats what drives us all. we want our peers recognition and approval... deep down every designer is continually seeking approval from those around them

  4. yani says:

    Great article, design is something you can't seem to turn off.

  5. arjan says:

    I agree it's about seeking the approval of others. But most of the times, the really outstanding, fresh work is done by people who didn't mind what other people would think about their design.
    Maybe we should try to let it go and work from an inner judgement. I'm sure it will help get design more interesting and diverse.

  6. Cosmin says:

    I totally enjoyed this post. Thanks a lot!

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  8. sonali says:

    This was a good read! Thank you so much. I like the fact that you mention medium agnostic. Moving from typesetting and print to web to data viz and now playing in electronic and wearable technology - i really have been able to step back from "design" as a duty to more of an expression of the mind. And you are right the boundaries are what you make for yourself.

  9. M.Winter says:

    Dubbs: Approval seeking has held me back for nearly a decade now. When your best mate tells you that you're not a good designer, and wouldn't make it in art school, while he's worked his way to being a creative director at a big deal company... it can really do some damage.

    Anyway, great write-up.

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