What Schools of Design Are You from? What Is a Designer: Objects, Functions, Meanings?

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by: Idris Mootee

I have not written a post on design for a little while. I do enjoy writing about design rather than business and strategy. Maybe I wrote everything about that in my previous life. I was drinking from these beautiful limited Evian bottles (limited edition designed by Christian Lacroix, click on the picture above to see the details) that I purchased from Whole Foods two weeks ago and it sparks a few thoughts on design. I also talked to some creative folks from OCAD at the Innovation Exchange and I think there’s a lot of exciting things going on there. I plan to follow up with a visit in the next few weeks. Now back to design.

I recall reading a book on Design by Bryan Lawson a while ago, he is both an architect and a psychologist. Many of his ideas can apply to interaction design as well as other design disciplines. He acknowledges that design is “an everyday activity that we all do.” However, “professional designers also design for other people rather than just themselves,” and “are better educated and trained.” This juxtaposition serves me as I have a similar view on this.

Lawson believes that the models of design are too logical and not actually useful for practitioners. Lawson says, “Designing is far too complex to be describable by a simple diagram.” This idea is in part my motivation for my paper, having encountered quite a few models that illustrate the design process only to feel like they weren’t quite right, and certainly, never actually using them when it comes to the actual process. “We probably work best when we think least about our technique.”

I’ve seen hundreds of design processes that are anti-design in nature. They force a linear process-driven approach to design as if it is a production line. (Six Sigma for Design? No thanks) Process schools like a form-driven problem-solving approach. These schools trace their linage back to the advanced program of the Kunstgewerbeschule in Basel (Switzerland). These Swiss-style process schools thrived mainly as a response to the slickness of the portfolio schools. The portfolio school has a different approach and is more mercenary in my view and end-product driven. The problem-solving approach is more conceptual and the product rather than the process is king. The two schools don’t get along well naturally. 

It doesn’t matter which school you are from, if you think that every problem in this world has a pure visual solution that exists outside the cultural context, you have a serious problem. That’s often the biggest limitation of designers. Designers’ job is to translate everything within a special user and a cultural context. Design is not process-driven and any methods of science are in fact unhelpful to the designers. There are intimate relationships between observing, reflections and inquiring and this is how design happens. “Good designers tend to be at ease with the lack of resolution of their ideas for most of the design process,” says Lawson. And for those who are not at ease, the design process is painful and unproductive.

Massimo Vignelli (Martin Scorsese of Graphic Design, see his work below) earlier declared "Helvetica in the morning, Bodoni at night" in response to a panelist asking what his favorite typeface is, but the most brilliant response was Vignelli’s "In the States" when asked what was the worst use of Helvetica he had ever seen.
Here are good nuggets from Massimo Vignelli when he spoke at an AIGA event, the comments in brackets are mine:

“Without a grid I’m lost” (I use a grid not only for design but also for strategy mapping. I often swap tools from different disciplines and it works for me all the time.)

“A chair is more important for your head than it is for your ass.” Discussing his love for a Rietvelt chair. (This one is interesting. Everybody should be designed for the head first.)

“Design and fashion are big enemies” (Oh yes, good design should be anti-fashion, if it ends up being fashionable it should only be by accident.)

“The culture of refinement is much bigger than the culture of change.” (Think about incremental innovation vs radical innovation.)

“There is no room for irresponsible design.” (Design has a long history of addressing issues relating to social responsibility such as ecodesign, inclusive design, design for disability, and eco-efficient innovation, design against crime and design for lower income etc.)

“The opposite of modern is contemporary. Contemporary is trendy” (The opposite of trendy would be — fascination with old things — called? Gentrophilia. And that could be trendy too.)

“We never figured out how to make politicians modern. They’re still old farts. Except Gore, we miss him.” (Gore is an exception. We need more politicians like him.)

I love the last one. It is time to make politicians modern. It is time to make government modern. It is time to make every Non-Profit Organization modern. It is time to make a B-School modern. If you ask me: what is a designer? Here is my answer:

Design is about “translation”. Designers are “translators”. They translate needs, culture and meanings into products and services. The design process is a “translation” process. Yoshiaki Koizumi (director of Nintendo’s biggest Wii game yet, Super Mario Galaxy) sees his job requires him to "translate" the maestro’s often-inscrutable insights into real-world gameplay.

Design is more than simply a form-giving activity—it is a strategic issue related to changing from existing to preferred states. Design is concerned with imagining how things can be different (for the better), and transforming strategic aspirations and desired futures into reality in a social responsible manner.

Original Post: http://mootee.typepad.com/innovation_playground/2008/05/what-schools-of.html