Spring 1994

The education of Young Design

Imagine, if you will, a fictitious youngster called Design. Young Design wanted desperately to fit in, to find its identity, to belong; but how could it fulfil this wish? It lacked the pedigree of other disciplines, which it found both a blessing and a curse. With enough effort and a bit of luck it could fit in anywhere, but the lack of structure was intimidating. It was not that Design did not like the idea of fitting in everywhere – it was just overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Young Design was very idealistic, some even said utopian, and what it lacked in strategic foresight it made up for in ambition. It was convinced of its own talents and wanted to share its skills and visions. Finding its place among the older, more established disciplines was not going to be very easy, but it was driven by its wish to find the place where it belonged.

It has been said that opposites attract. Young Design’s lack of identity meant it had lowly social status, but this hardship, combined with its abundant ambition, created a powerful drive to find friends who had what it believed it did not. This was no small feat. In the town where Design lived, the old leader, Aristocracy, was rapidly losing power to Industry and its adoring bodyguard, Middle Class. Though there were some who did not entirely trust it (particularly the Crafts and Hand Skills, who set up the official opposition), Industry was widely admired. It spoke boldly about exciting new ideas – production, profits, progress, freedom. Young Design’s head was fairly buzzing with thoughts of its wish coming true – not only of having an identity, but beyond that perhaps becoming chief advisor to Industry. In its mind it could already feel the warm glow of appreciation from Industry and Middle Class. With a smile on its face and a song in its heart, Design set off to offer Industry a helping hand.

It soon became plain to Young Design that this was not going to be easy. Industry was known to be hard to please and had only a few close friends. The urchin Design could not stride into the front office with its pocketful of wishes and say “I’m here to get a job! I can really help you!” Design would not even get past the front door looking the way it did. In a moment of cunning it considered disguising itself as one of Industry’s friends in order to obtain access to Industry’s offices and speak with the new power face to face. For this it would need new clothes.

The garb of a discipline in its language – the specialised “speak” that shields it from the lazy probing of ordinary people. One of Industry’s closest advisors was Science, so it was to Science’s tailor that Design went to be fitted with a new linguistic suit. It chose the same style and size as Science wore, but because was so young, its new clothes fitted badly. Feeling very uncomfortable but still optimistic, Design set out to see Industry.

Along the way Design began to think perhaps this new outfit was not enough. It remembered that an old employee of Aristocracy, Art, had been kept on by the new president because of its ease with the media and chameleon-like ability to adapt to change. Fine Art was charming and witty and could even get away with telling dirty jokes or making fun of the boss. Although it was not smart and reassuring like Science, or quite as useful, Industry enjoyed its company and found its oratorial skills useful. Design was much inspired by the Art’s abilities and felt some sense of kinship with it, since Art too had been creative and energetic in its youth. Design decided that Art’s qualities would be a valuable addition to its new wardrobe, so it set out to find the shop where Art bought its clothes.

Once inside Art’s haberdashery, Design was dismayed when it was pointed out that the new scientific suit did not fit well. The shop assistants even went so far as to call it ugly and were even more than a but put out when Design told them that it would not jettison its new clothes altogether. Far from happy, the assistants went about extensively altering and accessorising Design’s new outfit until in the end, by nipping and tucking, stitching and grafting, they managed to make Design look like Art from one side and like Science from the other, though from the front it did not really look like either. Undeterred, Design carried on to the tailors ad shops frequented by all the other disciplines that Industry favoured – a derby from Economy’s hatter, an overcoat from the outfitters to Marketing and Technology. You can imagine the result.

When Design arrived at the offices of Industry it was dressed in something nearer to a costume or disguise than an appropriate, functional outfit. As it nervously blurted out the wishes and helpful suggestions it had come to share, it carried on a strange dance, making sure its science-like side always faced Science and Art denounced the intruder as an impostor, Industry was confused by the phenomenon of recognising something of all its advisors in one entity. Intrigued but unconvinced, Industry offered this oddity, Design, a clerical job in the public relations department under the joint supervision of Art and Science.

It goes without saying that this is not exactly what Design had had in mind, and although it accepted the job, it was not very happy. Having two bosses who barely tolerated each other, and neither of whom Design had intended to serve, was a nightmare. Science accused Design of slipping its own ideas into Industry’s PR and of copying Art’s foolish idealism. Art, on the other hand, was frankly disgusted by both Design and Science and accused them of being gutless automatons who were too narrow-minded to understand anything.

After years of hard work and frustration, Design realised that it had failed to do what it had intended. Moreover, it realised why it had failed. It was misunderstood by its masters because it had misrepresented itself – not only to Industry, but to itself. There was a pathetic irony in this because one of the things Design felt it did best was to communicate.

Design could now see that it would never become the chief advisor it wanted to be – in fact, it had only been into Industry’s boardroom a few times and it had never been able to get a word in edgeways. Not only had it not gained the position it wanted, it had not even attained its first wish – the wish to belong, to have an identity. It had seemed to have taken a step forwards when it was dressed up in its costume, masquerading as an established discipline, but in reality it had taken two steps backwards by misrepresenting itself and getting caught up in the tug of war between Art and Science. Design was becoming entirely frustrated with the idea of serving Industry. Although it had learned a lot from working under Science and Art, it had also taken its position in the public relations department seriously, and was becoming increasingly interested in this “Public” it was supposed to be so concerned about.

During the time Design worked for Industry it had heard both Science and Art talk about Public. Public was what Industry was interested in. Industry studied Public. Industry tried to woo Public. Industry needed Public. Anything that exerted such an influence over Industry must be powerful indeed: Public, it seemed, was a kind of magical monster, huge yet agile, fickle yet incredibly stubborn, an adoring pet and at the same time a dangerous predator. Design understood that one of the few things Science and Art could agree on was contempt for Public. It was this strange relationship of fascination and fear that gave Design the idea that it should learn all it could about Public because, after all, if Design could befriend this beast and learn its ways, then Industry would be interested in being friends with Design.

By this time Design was also learning not to listen too closely to either Science or Art. Although Art could occasionally mesmerise the beast with one of its dazzling spectacles, Science’s attempt to understand Public had resulted in the creation of Marketing. Design and Marketing had never got on very well in the office, so it was no use asking Marketing about Public – Design knew that this monstrous creation of Science was practically blind and could only make guesses at the meaning of the things it thought it saw Public do. Design decided that in order to understand Public, it would have to understand something about how Public thought. And that eventually led Design to want to learn about human knowledge.

Let me leave our story to make a few points. By now I would expect you to have had some objections to the generalisations and over-simplifications put forward. Of course, Science has been hiding an abundance of self-doubt – anyone who knows about Uncertainty Principles and Laws of Relativity will realise that this character of Science is from a previous age. Yet even thought we live in times of accelerating change, the notion of a knowable and unchanging Newtonian universe still resonated strongly in our culture. The character of Art, cast as a simple foil to Science, is similarly outdated, but strangely resonate.

But if the qualities of these two characters are troubling, then what about the absurd and archaic position Design finds itself in? Design’s initial wish to find a position for itself is still a very real issue today, particularly for graphic design, which has had the most trouble within the discipline in gaining professional status. Ultimately the dilemma of our character Design is our own dilemma: we have not adequately defined our discipline to ourselves and must not blame others for sharing our confusion.

So what definition of design do we share? The Oxford English Dictionary also had a hard time with it – a full two pages are filled with attempts at defining the bush by beating around it, until in the end we are left with the general definition of design as being “a mental plan”. Even if we use the popular classroom definition of “problem-solving”, we come closer to the areas of the human cognition than to some kind of corporate serfdom. With this in mind, let us rejoin the story.

We had left Design on its way to find out something about human knowledge. As luck would have it, Design had the good fortune one day to meet Philosophy, a curious old explorer who always carried around heavy navigational equipment and was seemingly obsessed with checking its bearings. Although difficult to understand at times, Philosophy seemed to have been almost everywhere and to know a great deal about human knowledge. It was from Philosophy that Design learned about Techne and Episteme, two old Greeks who owned a restaurant where Philosophy and Design began to meet.

As it got to know these two, Design could see echoes of a situation it recognised from its position with Industry. The older of the two, Techne, represented man-made objects and was the chef. Techne always seemed to be cooking up new things, regardless of what was listed on the menu. Techne revelled in the chaotic games of creating new dishes in the kitchen, which gave Episteme, who represented systematic knowledge, no end of trouble. The fact that Techne never wrote down its recipes or even made lists of ingredients drove Episteme almost mad. Episteme was a lot like Science, always wanting to a controlled process and a sure outcome. Careful and critical, Episteme did its best to makes sense of what Techne did, while offering suggestions from old recipes and trying to write down then new ones.

The symbiotic relationship between this odd couple had a mad equilibrium that Design could appreciate. Design empathised with Techne because Design too loved to experiment and make things. But Design could also see that Episteme played a necessary role and admired its organisational skills. What with Techne cooking up a storm in the kitchen and Episteme trying to keep the recipes in order, everything worked quite well. Design could also see that the one could not get along without the other and that they gave each other context, defined each other, gave each other an identity.

Observing Philosophy’s friends in action resulted in a profound insight for Design. Not only did design finally understand that it needed a context in order to have an identity, but it realised that Design’s context may well be human knowledge itself. Of course, all this seemed self-evident to Philosophy – everything needed to find its place if it wanted to be understood. Philosophy also knew that in human knowledge the landscape is always changing – hence its maps and navigational devices.

Design found Philosophy’s maps of the constantly shifting connections that reshape the landscape of knowledge fascinating. Design could see the pattern of settlement and the relationships that had occurred like a great family tree. Design could see where Science lives and its relatives, Mathematics and Abstracts, living next to Engineering and the Applications. Having come from such a grand family with so much territory, it was no wonder that Science held the position it did. Design could also see Art and its surroundings. It seemed that in addition to its own extensive family, Art was part of a larger clan called Humanities. The Humanities, Design saw, were Arts that were Liberal: powerful disciplines that controlled the gates of human knowledge, Perception. These Liberal Arts were the official importers of Experience, the raw material of all disciplines. They were uniquely free to trade with all the other disciplines, so their influence spread everywhere. In being able to define their own values, they were free to define themselves.

Design found this idea of broad appreciation and influence and the capacity to define your own values almost unbelievable. So imagine Design’s surprise when upon visiting Humanities, it discovered that they already knew who Design was and were aware of the work it had done in the service of Industry. From Design’s impressive but erratic output under Science and Art, the Humanities could see that the now maturing Design had a lot to offer and had gained much training and many useful skills. It was their considered opinion that Design should make its home with them, not only because it would fit in so well, but also because from its new vantage point it would be able to advise Industry in a way that Science and Art could not. The thing that convinced the Humanities that Design belonged with them was how Design spoke about and shared its wishes – so much of the thinking in the Liberal Arts was what Design had dreamed of as a youth.

Before I put a “happily ever after” ending on this story I would emphasise that now, as in times past, we cannot find the position of, or absolutely define, design. We all know that design is a process, but rarely do we think of that process as developmental or evolutionary on a scale larger than the project we are working on, or with some vague awareness of the changing styles in history. As a process, design must be allowed to evolve and change its identity, as all conscious beings do.

The development and repositioning of disciplines is nothing new. Just as one can trace the evolution of literature from a curious and misunderstood expression to a serious study that reflects central human values, so we must be aware of the changing position of design in culture. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, design can express our personal, social and cultural values – it can communicate our ideas and help us to define ourselves. It seems absurd to categorise a discipline with that degree of potential as support staff to industry, especially since we are leaving behind the industrially dominated phase of culture. These changes necessitate not only a rethinking of industry, but a new position for design in the context of human knowledge – with a living, resonant vocabulary and open forums for criticism and ideas that would hopefully be even more democratic than those of other liberal arts.

We have done ourselves a great disservice in borrowing a vocabulary from other disciplines, one result of which is the confusion between the practitioner and the principles. Without the proper equipment for articulating out thoughts, many arguments revert to sloppy statements such as “Jay Doblin said…” or “Herbert Bayer did it this way…” The greatest minds at work in design have always had a vision of the future and have acknowledged the need for design constantly to adapt to the needs of society, yet our playing obedient peasant to fictitious, epistemic land barons has done little to empower the average designer or student with the tools of critical thinking. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why design has had a hard time being taken seriously or gaining professional status.

Recent discussions among prominent thinkers have made important progress in repositioning design within culture, though much of this has either been ignored or regarded with suspicion by the design community because it arrives from unexpected sources. Introducing the simple concepts of techne and episteme, for instance, shows that the kind of ground we need to cover has already been explored – maps are available for the journey that design is about to make, while exciting uncharted areas are coming into view. One such area, interactive media, is now being explored with newly designed tools and the ideas that will ultimately inhabit this area may bear little resemblance to previous models of design knowledge. It is exciting to think that a lot of new techne cooking will have to go on before the epistemological dish is served up.

The notion of design as a form of authorship with an important bearing on perception and culture will become more real as the old passive positions, readers, end-users and target audiences, find themselves in the active role of having to design their own information environments. With everyone becoming a designer of sorts, society will no longer be able to ignore the discipline’s central role in education and living. Even though we, the design specialists, may be uncomfortable with our new position – scared of the freedom and responsibility – let us not forget that design has not changed completely, it just matured. Design can rightly be identified as a new liberal art, a valuable form of critical thinking at home in the humanities.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions and single issues.