How should 'design' be defined today?

Should "design" be a rigidly defined discipline, or widely practiced exercise in creative problem solving? To understand the present and the future of design, it's worth looking at its ever-evolving history, suggests design critic Alice Rawsthorn

What does the word "design" mean, exactly--whether used as a verb or a noun? Today, as engineers, business executives, artists, hackers, and everyday people with entrepreneurial dreams call themselves "designers," is the term more open-ended than in the past? And if so, how will that change the profession of design and the hiring of designers? Is it even possible to neatly sum up the history, the present, and the future of "design" so consumers and corporations alike can better understand the term and its many contexts?

Alice Rawsthorn, the design critic of the International Herald Tribune and the global edition of the New York Times, has attempted to do just that. In a piece titled "Can Anybody Be a Designer?"--which at first seems to be a review of an exhibition, "Unnamed," on view through Oct. 23 at the Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea (and curated by the Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei)--Rawsthorn offers a concise backgrounder on the field of "design."

In the piece, published on October 2, she sums up the earliest origins of "design" as a term, as well as the debates and new directions the subject faces today. Rawsthorn appears inspired to do so by "Unnamed," a show featuring a dizzying array of objects and projects, from the software code of a computer virus to a low-cost prosthetic leg, all by unknown scientists and artists who could also be considered "designers."

Here's a summary of Rawsthorn's brief history of design, which can serve as a cheat sheet for anyone hoping to understand the topic better.

The word's origins are Latin, from the verb "designare"--defined as "to trace, describe, and plan." The Oxford English Dictionary first included an entry for "design" in 1548, a synonym for "indicate." In the 1600s, the term "design" was used as a way to describe professional plans for artworks or architecture. When the Industrial Revolution began in the 1700s, the concept of design evolved to include new disciplines, such as product design, and the context has been commercialism ever since.

The early 20th century brought the contemporary notion of design as a potentially powerful force that could be harnessed to conquer numerous challenges outside of addressing consumer needs. Legendary American designer R. Buckminster Fuller was one of the first champions of this idea. Today, one of the newest roles for designers is to address social problems, such as improving health care for the elderly. And one of the most current debates in the field of design is whether it is now completely "open," or, essentially undefined.

Rawsthorn warns that such looseness could dilute the importance of "design," because such a wide or even non-existent definition could basically refer to anything that is planned creatively. But she also suggests there are two worthwhile benefits of an "open design" approach:

  • Those who are trained in a formal discipline of design (say, interface design or graphic design) could more easily join teams of scientific researchers (which, in theory, could help communicate new discoveries and technologies more efficiently)
  • Inventors without formal design training but who create ingenious and effective new products might earn the public recognition (and, hopefully, revenues) that they might deserve

It's worth noting that Rawsthorn, a respected author who speaks at such high-profile venues as the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, decided to devote her weekly column simply to defining design historically as well as in a current context. As design becomes more of a mainstream topic, it is also becoming both a more respected profession and an everyday practice, simultaneously and paradoxically. Its history, like its definition, is constantly being re-written.

Photo: Premsela, Netherlands Institute for Design and Fashion/Flickr

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