What is Design?
In 1964, British mechanical engineer and Professor of Design Research at the Royal College of Art, Bruce Archer, argued that for any activity to qualify as “Design,” two things¹ needed to be present:
- There must be a prior “formulation of a prescription or model for a finished work in advance of its embodiment.”
- The prescribed formula or model must be embodied in/as an artifact.
He meant that for anything to qualify as Design, there needed to be a plan for it, and the plan had to be something observed in a scientific investigation, able to hold cultural, and societal meaning in the future.
In 1992, Donald A. Schön, a philosopher and professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology spoke about the relationship between form and material, and said — “Design is a reflective conversation with the materials of a design solution.”²
Then, seeing that the definition of design was mostly led by individual designers and philosophers themselves, in 2009, Paul Ralph and Yair Wand from Sauder School of business set out to create a formal definition of the discipline.³ and they formulated:
“Design activity is a process, executed by an agent, to generate a specification of an object based on: the environment in which the object will exist, the goals ascribed to the object, the desired structural and behavioral properties of the object (requirements), a given set of component types (primitives), and constraints that limit the acceptable solutions.”
Design can thus be summed up as a process of making decisions so as to achieve a function or goal. This brings us to the next stage of discussing design responsibility, good vs bad Design
Good Design / Bad Design
Reflecting on my experience with products that function beautifully, a few come to mind. The traditional Sari that serves to clothe generations without requiring any alterations. Or a more modern invention, the menstrual cup, that has single-handedly normalized period blood and eliminated waste. And even digital products like Google Maps, and Spotify which have become the go-to for way-finding and music. These products seemed to be so well designed that they are seamlessly intertwined with peoples’ lives, positively impacting individuals and their communities.
Unfortunately, on the other end of this spectrum, poorly planned and dysfunctional products appear to be just as impactful, but the damage they cause compounds over time, and can be slow to notice.
The single-use plastic coffee pods, for instance, have created tremendous waste and pollution (more here). Fleece jackets, practically a uniform in some places, shed tons of synthetic micro-plastics in our natural resource systems (in fact the older a fleece, the more it sheds). Bottled, and tetra-packed water have colonized peoples’ natural reserves and pollute the planet with even more plastic (take action here). All these products while intending to make things convenient for people, end up instead causing devastating harm. They are evidence that the quality of their designs could not be measured by the intention of their makers, but by the impact of their plans itself.
We see that in the end, if a design execution ends up furthering marginalization, oppression, and exploitation, the intention behind the execution ceases to matter in the face of its impact. Good design will always be good impact.
Designers have a solemn responsibility to create for (inevitably shared) outcomes. Designers must be willing to face the question, of help or harm, and then have the courage and integrity to stop the harm (however unintentional) from existing.
Decision-making / How to make a plan
Late Prof. M. P. Ranjan (1950 - 2015) taught me one of my earliest lessons in design integrity (in 2002) at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad in a course that covered decision-making.
Prof. Ranjan presented decision-making within a framework⁴ called the Three Orders of Design:
The first order of Design is recognized by all people and is the most commonly discussed attribute of any product. This is where material, structure, and technology drive decision-making, helping shape the form that we eventually see and appreciate in the product. We can understand the product as an honest expression of the material & structure used, transformed into something unique and functional. The material’s appropriate transformation occurs by the designer who understands its properties, appreciating its limitations and possibilities.
The second order of Design is influenced by utility and feeling, which are parameters determined by the marketplace and the culture in which it operates. Here, utility and aesthetics are informed by the culture and economics of the land. Trends determined by intangible cultural attributes help the designer assess needs, utility, and the price that people are willing to pay for a specific offering. Independent of its cost, the value of the Design is measured by feeling and utility. We can examine this order clearly when we compare similar objects across different social and cultural institutions. The 1976 Ikea POÄNG armchair ($129) vs. the 1956 Eames Lounge chair ($5,495) illustrates this order quite well.
The higher values of our society shape this third order of Design. The designer shapes their product using the philosophy, ethics, and the spirit of a culture. At this level, the value of a product unfolds through the meaning it provides, the identity it allows people to imbibe, and the stories it enables. Here, deeply held meanings become integral to the form, structure, and essential features defining the product, making it identifiable as being from a particular community of people. These key features represent the equity of the form, motif, or character of the product, usually supported by stories and legends about their origin, providing meaning to the lives of the people for whom they are made.
Planning, then executing for a united and sustainable future
We need to recognize the characteristics that all three Design orders bring to our locality's products. Only then can we learn to make good design decisions that increase benefits at each stage of production, marketing, and use.
By understanding products around us by their material, purpose, function, and impact we will begin to appreciate the value they bring to their intended user, enabling us to address that value with better materials, better systems, and better impact.
To build a resilient, united, and sustainable global future, we, the people of the world have to be able to understand each other. By spending the time to learn why someone lives the way they do, learning about the products that bring them meaning, we can build a consciousness that is less inclined to dismiss, inspired instead to create new avenues for shared value.
To learn more about how Prof. M.P. Ranjan understood and taught design, click on the video below: What is Design? - Professor M.P. Ranjan 2013, National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, India.
1. Archer, L. B. (1965), Systematic Method for Designers. London, The Design Council.
2. Schön, D. A. (1992). Designing as reflective conversation with the materials of a design situation. Knowledge-Based Systems, 5(1), 3–14. https://doi.org/10.1016/0950-7051(92)90020-g
3. Ralph P., Wand Y. (2009) A Proposal for a Formal Definition of the Design Concept. In: Lyytinen K., Loucopoulos P., Mylopoulos J., Robinson B. (eds) Design Requirements Engineering: A Ten-Year Perspective. Lecture Notes in Business Information Processing, vol 14. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-540-92966-6_6
4. Ranjan, M. P. (2009). The Three Orders of Design: Lessons from Northeast India. DESIGN FOR INDIA. https://design-for-india.blogspot.com/2009/02/three-orders-of-design-lessons-from.html