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Design-Speak

Joyce Williams

Design Discourse: History/Theory/Criticism,

University of Chicago Press,

1989.

edited by Victor Margolin.

Chicago: IL:

Since the early days of human existence on the planet there have been designers. Using materials to hand and working within the climatic conditions of the terrain, people have produced tools and weapons, made clothes and shelters, and specified lifestyles. Humankind is a species that designs. Nevertheless, a critical theory and a history of design-perhaps the central aspect of technology-were largely missing from our scholarship. This situation has only recently begun to be rectified, and design as a subject in its own right is now becoming a focal point for intellectual discourse. Herbert Simon, a pioneer in the field, gave a definition of design in The Sciences of the ArtzjkiuZ (1969) that has since become famous:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into

preferredones. The intellectualactivity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamen- tally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state. Design, so construed, is the core of all professional training: it is the principal mark that distinguishes the professions from the sciences.

Simon’s definition is reproduced in the introduction to Design Discourse and provides the leitmotiv for this ambitious and insightful volume-a valuable addition to the new subject of design studies and its accompanying literature now proliferating on both sides of the Atlantic. The book is an anthology of twenty articles by authors from several countries putting forward a variety of new approaches that challenge conventional thinking on design theory, practice, and history. These articles have been arranged into three sections: (1) Afrer the Modernists, (2) The Interpretation of Design, and (3) Writing Design History. There are also an introduction and a conclusion, by the editor, which provide summaries of the articles and valuable information on source materials. In this review I do not mention every author but

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rather look for commonality of ideas in each section, with use of two or three articles as examples. The weight of my comments, however, is on the last section where, as an art historian, my main interests lie. Nevertheless, I believe that academics in philosophy and history of technology as well as those interested in interdisciplinary science, technology, and society will find this book particularly interesting. In the introduction, Margolin gives a brief account of why initiation of design studies programs in colleges and universities was thought necessary. He says that this is an academic area which is still largely uncharted and that, al~ough we are all conscious that products have always been designed, a comprehensive theoretical and historical study of design as such has never heretofore been developed. Furthermore, until Simon’s attempt, there had never been any clear definition of what design comprises, let alone how it functions in specific societies. Consequently it has been taught as a series of autonomous discrete prac- tices spread over different departments in colleges and universities. A major separation has existed between fistic-based practices such as graphic and fashion design and engineering and industrial design practice. In addition, there has been a further separation in thinking about the design of non-material, information-communicating, products-like graphs and charts and bus timetables-and the design of material objects for bodily use-like chairs and bicycles. The idea behind the new thinking in this book is not to try to sweep all design study into one single unit; there are very good reasons for them being where they are. It is rather to extend the teaching of design by offering a general course that would give designers a comprehensive overview of the multidisciplinary and societal nature of their practice and their own very important role in society. Such a course, Margolin believes, should be offered to the general public as well as to professionals, as we are the important consumers of products and services and pay taxes to support expensive public works and military programs-all of which involve design. The authors in “After the Modernists” all try to come to grips with the cultural confusion caused by the breakdown of the paradigm of modernism with its notions of aesthetic purity and the belief that art is autonomous. By extension, peopIe used to think that industrial design following advances in technology could also be objective if rationally conceived. Even socially aware design educators, like Walter Gropius at the Bauhaus, assumed that there was such a thing as “good design” and that it could ~on~bute to progress by helping to solve social problems. The “good design” approach is that which sees design only in aesthet- ic terms, as a pure and value free entity, the understanding of which can only be taught through studying the canon of design. The analog in fine art is the “art for art’s sake” approach that values form above everything else, and in consequence is taught through the study of the canon of art. Gert Selle’s “There is No Kitch, There is only Design!” in this first section challenges

this concept of absolute good taste. There

is no high culture or low, he says; in the

pluralistic permissive aesthetic of today, taste judgments are standpoint judgments. Selle defends the right of ordinary people to select their aesthetic rather than have it imposed upon them by their supposed betters. Abraham A. Moles in “The Comprehensive Guarantee: A New Consumer Value” pushes the idea of consumer power further. His article is a warning that with the development of indus~al society the designers who fashion our env~nment have become very powerful and are actually manipulating the individual, because environ- ments influence behavior. Under the paradigm of modernism, design was mostly thought of ahistorically, rather than seen as a social practice within a particular society at a particular

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time and place. Following this rethinking of design theory and practice, Moles hopes that a whole new social awareness will follow and designers will understand the vital role they play in the life of whole nations-rather than, as he puts it, designing only because “there is money in it.” Richard Buchanan, a contributor to “The Interpretation Of Design,” says in his article “Declaration by Design: Rhetoric, Argument, and Demonstration in Design Practice” that there is a general attitude in society that technology is an applied science, and that this approach has led many to abandon hope that technology can ever be seriously guided by human values. The corrective, he argues, is to stop seeing technology as a sub-part of science, and to look at it instead as a part of the broader art of design. Long before any scientific knowledge developed, stone age humans designed for the benefit and survival of their people. This way of thinking about the subject is much more useful because it makes quite clear that technological developments are not inevitable but are directed by us. We make things because we, or someone in our society, either wants them or wants to sell them to us. As the discourse around Design Studies programs develops, we can see that many of the arguments, some voiced in this book, are similar to those which have been addressed in art theory over the past two decades. Scholars are now recognizing that design, like fine art, is not autonomous, not just about itself. It is about attitudes. It carries social values; it signals or signs specific meanings; and it recommends particular ways of life. In “Drawing, Design and Semiotics,” Clive Ashwin (also in Section Two) explores these issues through the communi- cation theory of semiology with reference to de Saussure and Barthes. Semiology is the science of signs, the study of patterned human behavior in all modes of communication, and is applied to the visual as well as to the spoken word or written text. Consequently it can be a useful way of examining how design ideas are used to express consumers’ attempts to communicate their feelings about their world, and to look at how designs change as the consumers’ world evolves in different ways. Using this sort of insight, Richard Porch presents a case study on one of today’s designed products. In his article “The Digital Watch: Tribal Bracelet of the Consumer Society” (Section Two), he argues that this product has become an icon as much as a timepiece-a symbolic object of identification with the machine aesthetic of the late twen- tieth century. It is ornamented, he says, not with superfluous decoration but with superfluous extra functions that are largely useless to ordinary users, serving only to feed their vicarious fantasies of perhaps being deep-sea divers or jet pilots. Margolin believes that studies like these that cross traditional disciplinary boundaries must benefit design studies. He argues that, in addition to semiology, there are many new approaches that have arisen in the humanities, arts, and the social sciences in recent years that could be included, and he lists them as: structuralism, poststructuralism, representation, feminism, reception theory, deconstructionism, and reader-response theory. These ap- proaches that examine the area from many angles and points of view could, he believes, provide methods of addressing the various questions that are being asked in the new area of design studies. This is indeed examining the subject in all its discursive forms, to use a Foucaultian term. Design brings order to disorder but, because it is in the terms of this book about persuasion, because it is a rhetoric, it always argues for one or another specific form of order. Order is never a single “natural” outcome of thinking; all “natural” theories are, the editor

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Margolin insists, social theories hallowed by myth and history. Hence his penchant for Simon’s definition: “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” The point is that both the “existing” and the “prefer- red” situations are social constructs. The making of these kinds of connections leads many contributors to this book to be skeptical of the unproblematic “good design” approach which, as I have explained, comes from the Modernist tradition that has dominated thinking for so long, not only in the visual arts but in all cultural matters. The last section of the book, “Writing Design History,” is a must for those teaching, writing, or just wanting to know more about the new field of design history. Authors Clive Dilnot and Cheryl Buckley are well aware of the difficulties involved: the writing of history is itself an historical process, and design history, being a new study, has been outside this process. There is, however, a general belief among academics that we must avoid teaching design history in those ways from which art historians are now struggling to escape. Some examples given are:

1)

Teaching through connoisseurship which is primarily for attribution, dating,

and authentication purposes in the art market. 2) Teaching through monographs-biographical histories of artists which rev- ere the individual as a hero/genius divorced from history and from the social conditions of production, distribution, and reception. 3) Teaching by lineage studies, which pull one thread out of history and extend a desired trend back along this thread in order to make history appear to validate the importance of a certain style.

Scholars generally think that the methodology that has to be used to teach this new area of design history can do nothing other than draw upon the vast stock of art historical materials already available, including even the above three examples. But the using of past ideas is not what must be avoided; rather, what is important is showing how they fit into their historical context. A way must be found to balance the historical material with the histo- riographical method. This means looking critically, and with reference to social context, at the various ways art history has been constructed from Vasari through Burt&hart, Wolfflin, Antal, etc. to the present day. This approach accepts that all texts are arguments based on particular interests and positions, not just passive accounts of what “actually” happened. The most interesting art-historical studies today examine their own past as well as that of their object. We must encourage students to seek to understand how design has functioned in past societies in different sets of circumstances from our own. They need to understand how design has represented certain ideological values and how these values were transmitted visually from the rulers down to the ruled. Today, in the West, industrial capitalism -not princes, dukes, or churches-is in the high seat of power and is the main patron of artists and designers. This patron, according to Clive Dilnot, uses designers’ skills to embed its (industrial capitalism’s) own values within its various products. Cheryl Buckley, the last contributor, agrees with him about the relation- ship between power and patronage, but links patriarchal attitudes into the matrix of values of all past societies. She believes the new design history needs to elucidate and rectify this and also to pay more attention to the history of crafts and of domestic objects that have been produced in the home.

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Both Dilnot and Buckley, thinking as historians, strongly condemn the lingering influ- ence of Modernist design theory, with its orientation toward style innovation and experimen- tation only within the current fashion of design itself-design avant-garde-ism. Design, they say, then becomes a separate totem or fetish to be coveted by consumers despite the product’s functional inefficiency or its perhaps immoral usage. Clearly “good design” in these terms is

not good design. What is needed is to see the ideology of Modernism for the anachronism it has become and to return it to the historical context which gave rise to it. Only then can we genuinely move on. But in which direction? What sort of Post-Modernism do we want, particularly what sort of post modem design do we, the people, want? The study of an imaginative kind of design history could be very useful here, one that helps students realize that they are living inside history, at just one point in a continuum. Such a history must ask questions about the past and relate the answers to the present; must ask why, in certain societies, certain things rather than others were designed; and why, and in whose interest, were they designed in the way they were. For those wishing to learn more about the social and cultural significance of design and its prescriptive role in the world, this is a valuable book. But some might find there is a general lack of attention to all the functional aspects of design, an area which certainly cannot be overlooked as unproblematic. Over the last few years there has been an intense debate about how best to achieve good functional design: What are the processes? Are they linear or iterative/feedback loops? What role does communications play? What is the role of computers? And so on. Even so those designers whose primary concern is with the inventive, solution-seeking side of their profession will find this book of interest, and, as I have, important to the broader understanding of the societal implications of what the designer is doing. I found the absence of an index rather irritating when I wanted to get back into the text to check, for example, who had mentioned Barthes or de Saussure. Otherwise the book itself was well designed-the footnotes down the side of the page worked well and were mostly

how I like them, on the same page as the relevant text. As to the content of the book,

I

believe, like the editor, that design is a complex activity which can be taught best in a multidisciplinary program. I also believe that students ought to be confronted with critical writings like those in this anthology, not so that they should absorb these particular ideas in their entirety as the new “truths,” but rather that they should learn to look at modem texts as specific ways of thinking that have developed within the context of, and in response to, a certain kind of ambient culture. For that reason, if no other, I strongly recommend this book as a course reader for those interested in design studies.