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When Does Design Stop Being Design?

Andrew Maher

Design is often cited as living on a scale. If this scale is not understood then the nature of our industry can not be understood and we may lose focus of what exactly it is we are doing being designers, put little weight or overemphasize the importance of our industry. This is what compelled the drawing you see before you to exist, a need to identify just where it is we sit in a world of continuing artistic endeavours, contrasted against the technologically innovative age we live in.



It could be said that design walks a tight rope somewhere between the conceptual world of art and the rigid discipline of engineers. Designers live the role of fusing the two together with a rigid focus on accessibility; connection to a user is the end goal of the designer and the very reason for our industry’s existence. Answers are formed when we look to the inception of our industry – the Deutscher Werkbund. The goal of the Werkbund was to fuse art and industry to create excellence of products. Ever since designers have seemed to walk this identity crisis of whether we are artists, engineers or designers.

The Design Scale



Design Engineering Art


Answering this question with saying that we did all three would be a good way to satisfy all arguments and is perhaps the perfect answer. But by saying this we bring degradation to the disciplines of engineering and art, as we can’t be revolutionaries in all thre fields (if we are then perhaps we are worthy of the title of genius, though I know a lot of stupid designers who don’t deserve such a title). Instead we choose to live somewhere in between these two disciplines, design it seems can be accessible engineering, but also accessible art. Expanding on this my scale can also act as a map. We could say that Modernism existed within the space that is closer to the extent of engineering, post-modernism existed in the space closer to the artistic and philosophical end of the graph. Of course these are simplified views, but the scale is not inherently locked into asking big questions. Looking at Modernism more closely we could say that designers such as Paul Rand existed in more of the central realm, adverse to the more extreme philosophies, and that designers such as Corbusier occupied the engineering space more greatly, as he wanted to bring the more glorious aspects of engineering to the masses.

ni sm od er Po stM

ni sm od er M Engineering


Design Engineering Art

The extent of things within which we call design, much like Hawkings universe is ever expanding. As we find more ways to incorporate newer technologies into the hands of the user then so to must this graph change – in other words the green bit will expand, just as the blue of engineering and orange of art and philosophy. If this is the case we can define the nature of a design ‘epiphany’ as expanding design into either one of these territories. If we look to the post-modern movement we can see a shift towards the artistic direction. 1960s pop-art dictated much of MTVs style and designers often called on greats such as Andy Warhol to assist in designing aspects of brand ephemera. We can look at many case studies where art and design have merged, typography offers one of the best pointers – it is heavily influential on what our graphics look like and in turn influenced by the art of the day (deco fonts such as Ehmke, Modern fonts such as Helvetica and Neville Brodys post-modern fonts, it is within their theses that lie some of the answers to this essay). These pseudo design artists pushed the realms of what design was and redefined the way we thought about our roles, pushing out the right hand side of that green section of my graph in a very different way to what pushes the engineering side of design. When we think about the rational end of what we do and the way in which it is extended we can see a contradiction. Stated before is that design lies within what the client needs, but another facet is added when we think about engineering, which presumably also suits the needs of a client. Often though engineered devices are far too complex for the needs of the layman, training and education are often needed to operate the complex contraptions of an engineer. Design innovation and the

development of our field within this area lies within the breaking down of technical barriers and minimizing the cognitive workload required when operating these devices. It is within this area that modern credo’s come into playless is more and less but better are the overwhelming instructions to a designer that operates within this field. Just as Hawkings big bang theory involves the universe in a constant state of growth, so too are art and engineering. Things that were created with the intention of being used were referred to as engineering, If they were intended to be looked at they were called art. The Deutscher Werkbund was an initiative that fused these two together and the Bauhaus was born. At this point art and engineering were linked strongly, goods needed to be produced for mass production that were not mere imitations of the arts and crafts movement. At the time there were disciplines of art that better leant themselves to the restrictions of the machine better than anything else - De Stijl, Expressionism, Abstraction, Futurism etc. It was the fusion of users needs, mass production and art that design was born, that legacy lives on today and it seems all to easy to forget. As a closing note and perhaps most importantly, remember that design is not a soulless pursuit. Vignelli designs to rid the world of vulgarity, Carson designs to represent minorities, Fletcher to answer questions, Rand created to solve business problems and surprise us with clever games. All of these things lead me to the conclusion that design is simply to make the world an easier place to live; and this is why we should design.

When Design Stops Being Design  

A short essay to answer the question what is design and where does it start and end.

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