Design is not Art or Engineering

I think most Designers who deal in equal parts with the conceptual and the "material" have a point in their early careers at which they reach a critical juncture when they question what makes Design Design. The answer arrives them at an insight that gains a philosphical value.

It is when you come to think of Design, not as some vanity-driven enterprise, but as value-creating. The moment this happened for me was during University, because I met supremely intelligent people who could articulate what Design was.

Oh, I know, every JimBob and JonSnow knows what Design is. It's almost considered a stupid question to even ask... or is it? Almost every answer I've ever got to the question was incomplete at best, and I was asking Designers! It is shocking to learn how many Designers don't really contemplate what makes them a "Designer" rather than an "Artist", or an "Engineer". And some of them really should because Art is such a flexible term that it accomodates the most consummate masters of Visual Communication and simultaneously incorporates some of the shittest people to pick up a brush.

But that's subjective! cry the self-styled "open-minded" - people so averse to criticism that they openly praise the unpraiseworthy to show they have descended, ironically, to new highs. More frankly, they applaud to themselves avoid being labelled uncouth. But those same people do not realise true creativity thrives on constructive criticism. That is because critique fosters improvement and Design is improve- ment oriented. Art seeks critique too, but does not act on it - it merely initiates "discourse" and most conspicuously seeks it from the elite few who are cultured enough to declare any failure. Failure which is itself contestable by any beholder, thereby deeming the assessment inconsequential to all but the cheese and wine crowd. In any case subjectivity is truly at the heart of this discussion because it entails assessment;

  • Design can be bad. It can fail.
  • Engineering can be poor. It too can fail.
  • Art is only ever right, according to its proponents. It can either be beautiful or misunderstood.

If you don't mind me dispensing with the formalities on my own site, that's obviously bullshit. Everything can fail and to celebrate the good with the bad is a weakness of character and a practice of dishonesty. People should be free to criticise Art when it is poor without someone saying "maybe you don't get it". And Artists should be asked what they wanted to evoke rather than hiding behind the cop out "oh it's open to interpretation and so I don't have to have had anything in mind". But so often Art is a pretence and therefore having a discussion seeking finality with an audience seeking the evasion of obligation becomes fruitless.

And Design?

When Design is done right: it is purposeful. Design is intentional - or it should be and sometimes it is practised by people without a message. Good Design is aspirational and seeks to do some good rather than aimlessly entertain. Any good Lecturer or Professor will tell you the same and it's because the lesson has been learnt well and repeatedly. We're not talking some make-the-world-a-better-place nonsense as rightly ridiculed in shows like Silicon Valley. We're talking about treating Design as a worthwhile contributor to human activities devoted to genuine advancement and not just as mere decoration.

Design is a problem solving act. And now we hit an obstacle; so is Engineering. In fact Engineering predates Design as such an act. So why is Design not just a subset form of Engineering? The answer is not yet clear and it could well prove to be that Engineering is the superset of Design.

But to our immediate rescue came a brilliant man by the name of Richard BUCHANAN who articulated that the field dealt with "Wicked Problems" (BUCHANAN, 1992). He wasn't the man to coin the term; it had a long life describing social factors before being put to use helping us understand the distinctions in our own field.

The gist was that Engineering, and other scientifically rooted disciplines, address very clear and explicit problems. Problems that are well-formulated and not ambiguous, like delivering structures capable of supporting easily quantifiable loads, or inventing photo-voltaic substances that provide an increase in solar energy capture. But by comparison, the Design of a new industrial console is fraught with messy problems like usability, visual salience as well as learning and memorisability.

“These suggestions would require a significant paradigm shift, a different way of viewing the information visualization field: widening it and making it more inclusive of associated domains, while still respecting the practice of conducting rigorous and scientific research. Doing so will lead to a greater maturity of the field – a field that is more open to reflection and critique, even for those works that are controversial, unconventional or commercial in nature.” VANDE MOERE & PURCHASE

In preparing teaching materials for my undergrad class, I was able this year to incorporate a paper written by Assoc. Professor Andrew VANDE MOERE, who I was lucky enough to be taught by at Sydney U, (VANDE MOERE & PURCHASE, 2011). In an address of assertions to an Information Visualisation audience, Dr VANDE MOERE reiterates quite clearly, how Design is something we now understand to be discrete and divergent to our creative neighbour disciplines. Design is pointed and purposeful, and yet Design is messy and lacks tractablity.


I genuinely hope these perspectives continue to make ground. Because every so often, with issues like flat Design, and hamburger menues, our field risks undoing the ground it has made to be treated as a valuable contributor to the future direction of things like technology. It would be so easy for us to be relegated back to the nebulous fog of Art with its characteristic embrace of indefinition.

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