The nature of design

Feb. 13, 2013
As a systems manager for Metro Nashville in the early 70s, I helped build one of the first municipal automated mapping systems

Joel Orr, Copywriter,
(650) 336-3937
Edited by Leslie Gordon

As a systems manager for Metro Nashville in the early 70s, I helped build one of the first municipal automated mapping systems. This endeavor eventually brought me into contact with a wide variety of designers — people turning ideas into practice.

At the time, I thought of designers as almost godlike because it seemed as if they created something from nothing. However, after a while, I learned that designing ex nihil (“from nothing”) is rare. Most designers actually redesign existing products.

Thus began my long quest to better understand design. Reading technical books and speaking to professors showed me that little had been written about design itself. Instead, people wrote about the design of specific things such as buildings, engines, fenders, and appliances. It was as if designing of a fender was thought to be utterly unlike designing a building.

However, this idea seemed incorrect. After all, design can be thought of as a process of concretization. It involves moving things from the world of the symbolic — the “sign” world — and placing them in the world of the actual. De-sign. This spelling of the word “design” comes from Gabriel Rico’s Writing the Natural Way. In discussing left-brain (rational, logical) and right-brain (intuitive, holistic) issues, she refers to the “sign mind” and the “de-sign mind.”

Exploring designs symbolically — through mind-mapping, schematic drawing, and simulation — lets us test ideas quickly and inexpensively. But these approaches only go so far. Building prototypes often reveals issues designers didn’t even think of. So most design settings need both approaches. This means that the best designers use both hemispheres of their brains.

To elaborate on this theme, design is closely related to art, but is not the same. Examples abound of highly functional, ugly designs and of nonfunctional, beautiful designs. Yet some products such as Apple’s are examples of the confluence of design and art — they are both beautiful and utilitarian.

The trial-and-error process that design entails is actually a dialectic — a principle attributed to the historian Hegel. Hegel’s model of thesis-antithesissynthesis was used to interpret human history by Karl Marx (?). A thesis — an idea, concept, or principle — gives rise to an antithesis, which represents “objections” to the thesis. Comparing the two gives rise to something new, a synthesis.

On your next design project, think of what you are doing as a dialectic. Define and refine your thesis (concept). Then build a prototype, thinking of it an antithesis of the thesis. Not because it is the opposite, but because it is a reflection in the real world of what was in your head. The antithesis will teach you about the pieces you left out, or the pieces that don’t work the way you thought they would. Next, create a synthesis, which you can then proceed to refine similarly. This kind of overview thinking about the nature of design — that it is iterative, progresses from abstract to concrete, and is dialectical — can help you improve your designs.

Please send comments to: [email protected] — Joel Orr

© 2013 Penton Media, Inc.

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