Design as open

This blog is part of the keynote talk ‘Inside out/outside in: design as open’ I gave at the Spaces of Learning conference, April 18th in Toronto about how the nature of nowadays design has become fundamentally ‘open’ in nature and what impact this has about we deal with design. 

This talk is divided in 4 seperate blog posts:

Design as open

Design has opened itself up to the world and has let the world in.  A quick glance at some leading design conferences and prizes shows how broad the current playing field of design is. At Design in Daba, last february in Capetown, were for example among the speakers The Workers, the creators of four little robots that enabled the public to explore Tate Britain at night, Roy Choi, who spoke as the godfather of the LA’s celebrated gourmet food truck culture which he started with his successful Korean taco truck and Yoni Bloch, an Israëlian rock star, who launched with his band the online platform Threehouse, a fun website where you can makeover classic songs, 21st-century style.



Ok, so we have robots, a chef of a taco truck and and Israëlin rock star as speakers on one of the highest acclaimed design conferences in the world. Design nowadays is obviously not that easily defined anymore. Was this different in the past?

Ambiguous as love

Design has always had a broad spectrum of meaning. Alice Rawstorn, the well-acclaimed design critic of the New York Times, describes in her book ‘Hello World’ how the word design dates back to the ancient Rome and the Latin verb ‘designare’, which has several meanings, including to mark, trace, describe, plan and perpetrate. She writes that ‘every word with a long history is redefined over time, reflecting anything from the prevailing attitudes from the particular eras and commercial opportunism to unexpected catastrophies, but few words have ended up more ambiguous as design.

The design historian John Heskett has compared the difficulty, if not impossibility, of defining design to doing the same for love. Both words have so many layers of meanings that they can be read very differently in very different contexts: “Just as ‘love’ can describe anything from tender affection and lifelong devotion to unbridled lust and destructive obsession, it is possible for ‘design’ to convey a minute technical detail to one person; a million-dollar chair to another; or a life-changing innovation, such as an efficiënt, inexpensive prosthetic limb, to a third” (Rawstorn, p. 18).

Shift in meaning: From design as adjective to design as verb

There is one shift in meaning which I would like to highlight, which has taken place not that long ago: the shift from design as adjective to design as a verb. 30/20 years ago, the word “design” denoted a position on style, ‘something which could be bought in a museum shop. A design coffee maker was something which was better, or at least more expensive, than the usual coffee maker’ writes the Dutch/German design critic Lucas Verweij in this column for Dezeen.

Alessi design coffee pot

Alessi design coffee pot

How that has changed! Design has become a verb and quite a sticky one as the image below shows.Verweij writes: “Everything has become design, and design is everywhere.No longer is its scope confined to interior, graphic or product design. Now it also encompasses social, interaction and food design. Nothing remains untouched.” (Verweij)

Sticky verb

Design process has a value of it’s own

How has this development of ‘design as verb’ come into being? I see two causes. First of all, the design process has opened up. One catalyst is the growing popularity of open source development with the 3Dprinting techniques. Moreover, ‘we citizens’, the people who use designers work, don’t accept the ‘designer as god’ anymore, and are increasingly eager to design for ourselves, either by making things from scratch or by hacking or customizing existing designs (Rawstorn, p. 50).

Secondly, the design proces has got a value of its own. Traditionally, design was valued for the things it produced, whether they were objects, spaces and images, or things like software. But now design has become less and less tangible.Designthinking widens the scope of design to nclude process, distribution, retail and organisation. Dutch design critic Tracy Metz writes:

‘‘Design is less about a finished, market-ready product, but about the idea, the collaboration, the personal story, the engagement – those are products too”.

By liberating the design process from its traditional outcome, design thinking has enabled designers to apply their skills to a wider range of challenges. At the first What Design Can Do conference Daan Roosegaarde presented his technopoetry, which involved Intimacy, a dress which turns transparant as the wearer gets excited, Smart Highway (together with Dutch road compagny Heymans) a paint on the road deck which lights up when a car approaches so no additional lighting is necessary. And if this is not thinking big enough for you, his latest design project is about creating a sort of vacuumcleaner for creating a smog free park in Beijing.

Daan Roosegaarde - Smog Free Park

Daan Roosegaarde – Smog Free Park

And so designers now have some many roles to choose from. Alice Rawstorn writes: “Designers can pursue environmental, political and humanitarian causes by casting themselves as activists. Or they can immerse themselves in specialist fields such as medical research, supercomputing and nanotechnology, which were once the preserve of scientists, not of designers.”

Vise versa, by removing the technical aspects of the design process, it also has it made easier for people from other fields to participate in design exercises. At the 2014 What Design Can Do conference foodscientist Bernhard Lahousse spoke for example about his research on foodcombinations on molecular levels: Foodpairing.

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