What is Design? Defined by Iconic Designers

Musings on the philosophy and practical applications of design by some of our favorite designers, including Dieter Rams, Charles & Ray Eames, Coco Chanel, Massimo Vignelli, and more.

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How should we best define the concept of design? Unsurprisingly, the answer has never been simple. Much like “love” or “success,” design can differ sharply among its admirers and critics. And so, we continue to struggle for a design definition that encompasses all its fields -- from architecture to human computer interaction (HCI) design.

What’s resulted is an impressive range in the designer’s experience. As design expands to acknowledge the traditional (architecture, engineering) to the contemporary (animation, user experience), designers draw wider lines around their disciplines. A designer’s discipline can and often do inform their definitions, mediums, and approach to synthesizing human experiences. And in the professional space - as with a fashion or industrial designer - those roles are sharpened still to reflect the motivations of businesses, brands, and audiences.

But we can still find meaning in how iconic designers have since explored personal experiences, challenges, and beliefs about the design process. Here are the most seminal design quotes on design’s role in modern society:

ON FUNCTION

Originally misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci, it was William Gaddis that went on record to remind us that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” with his 1955 debut, The Recognitions. There’s no telling if he too intended to invoke design’s oldest adage at the time, but thus there it was - finally in print.

Within classic design theory, architects and engineers were driven by viability, not aesthetic. What resulted was an artform informed by purpose, and where good design was considered useful. At its core, classic design theory argued that good design should always serve human needs.

An original proponent of this school of thought, industrial designer Dieter Rams never wavered from functionalism in his extensive dialogues on product design:

Design should not dominate things, should not dominate people. It should help people. That's its role. [...] [Good designers] should–and must–question everything generally thought to be obvious. They must have an intuition for people’s changing attitudes. For the reality in which they live, for their dreams, their desires, their worries, their needs, their living habits. They must also be able to assess realistically the opportunities and bounds of technology.

 

And while ushering in the bulk of the computer age (with IBM), Thomas J. Watson was the first of the digital age to agree:

Design must reflect the practical and aesthetic in business but above all... good design must primarily serve people.

 

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Industrial designer Dieter Ram’s work at Braun (Credits: Daily Beast)

Socially responsible designer Victor Papanek thought that if design were to have any function, such benefit should be clearly rooted in ecological innovation. He wasn’t fond of manufactured products that were unsafe, unnecessary, or functionally useless:

Design, if it is to be ecologically responsible and socially responsive, must be revolutionary and radical. [It] is the conscious effort to impose a meaningful order.

 

In 2011, British architect Norman Foster agreed. Unlike his predecessors, Foster asserted that modern architecture could too be transformative.. With his 2011 TED Talk on green architecture, Foster posed that architects and civil engineers had a social responsibility to consider and integrate important issues - such as the environmental agenda - into their design processes:

As an architect, you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown. [...] Everything we design is a response to the specific climate and culture of a particular place.

 

However, graphic designer and architect Ivan Chermayeff advocated for human-centered design. He thought design was strictly meant to solve the problems of humans:

Design is directed toward human beings. To design is to solve human problems by identifying them and executing the best solution.

 

But designer Lindon Leader thought it was much simpler than that:

“I strive for two things in design: simplicity and clarity. Great design is born of those two things.”

 

As for American graphic designer Saul Bass? Simpler still:

Design is thinking made visual.

 

Multidisciplinary designer Massimo Vignelli placed more value on logic than aesthetics when creating his pieces. Vignelli worked on a range of projects from houseware and furniture design to designing the New York Subway Map.

Good design is a matter of discipline. It starts by looking at the problem and collecting all the available information about it. If you understand the problem, you have the solution. It’s really more about logic than imagination.

 

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The New York subway system map designed by Massimo Vignelli

 

New media designer and filmmaker Hillman Curtis too thought a designer was only as good as his ability to anticipate and address common problems:

“The goal of a designer is to listen, observe, understand, sympathize, empathize, synthesize, and glean insights that enable him or her to ‘make the invisible visible.’

 

But ultimately, it was architects that first threaded form and function together. Upon its birth, architectural design was only considered “good” when it best performed its primary function: shelter. Regardless of its design, a building’s shaky foundation or structural flaws rendered it useless, and thus: badly designed.

With the expansion of modern architecture design, architects were seen as public figures, invited to theorize about their creations at public showings. Here, buildings could be considered both craft and refuge. Yet the first modern architects held fast to “designing with purpose,” reluctant to assign any artistic value to their creations - as evidenced best by architect and professor Michael Graves:

Good design to me is both appearance and functionality together. It's the experience that makes it good design.

 

Celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright took “function-as-form” even further by designing The Guggenheim Museum as a testament to his explicit belief that form and function shared the spotlight:

Form follows function - that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.

 

Still, for Zaha Hadid, known for her modern aesthetic and unique style of rendering surprising new spaces with fluid forms, there was an intangible quality of taste and pleasure that good architecture design should have on a space. Hadid believed that:

Architecture is really about well-being. I think that people should feel good in a space… I don’t think that architecture is only about shelter. It should be able to excite you, to calm you, to make you think.

 

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Zaha Hadid’s Zarazoga Bridge Pavillion in Spain (Credits: Wikimedia)

 

With the boom of the American luxury goods market, product engineers and designers were inclined to agree. As architecture served an explicit human need, so did the original car, digital device, and household products. It didn’t take long for traditional design theory to give way to modal design processes that hyperfocused on rapid iteration. With the rise of design behemoths like Apple and Microsoft, designers quickly spurned the warnings of Charles Eames (of the pioneering design duo Charles and Bernice “Ray” Eames), who once advised that:

Designers should only innovate as a last resort. [...] Recognizing the need is the primary condition for design.

 

Imagine if James Dyson hadn’t fundamentally disagreed. (The idea for his $3-billion Dyson company sparked from his childhood hatred for vacuums.) In Margaret Heffernan’s book, A Bigger Prize: How We can Do Better than the Competition, Dyson once argued the case for modular innovation, noting simply that “people buy products when they’re better.” In 2011, while heralding Apple’s intuitive products, he went onto complain that:

Far too few designers put any thought into usability, ending up with a great product that's completely inaccessible. You read about all the amazing things it can do but when you try to use it you’re just frustrated.

 

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The iconic lounge chair by Charles & Ray Eames (Credits: Smow.com)

 

ON DESIGN AS COMMUNICATION

Nearly twenty years before Ive’s contributions to design, Paul Rand, the father of American graphic design saw design as a vehicle of expression and a means with which to communicate ideas or emotion. By 1997, modern graphic design had already integrated heavily with the modern advertising industry, a booming luxury good market, and experimental design software. Graphic designers had entered a buzzing job market dedicated to assisting brands and businesses in the art of creating iconic narratives. It was in this time period that Rand remarked:

Graphic design, which evokes the symmetria of Vituvius, the dynamic symmetry of Hambidge, the asymmetry of Mondrian; which is a good gestalt, generated by intuition or by computer, by invention or by a system of coordinates, is not good design if it does not communicate.

 

Rand believed there was more to good graphic design than previously believed. A year later, for the The School of Visual Arts’ Paul Rand Symposium, he expounded his original assertion by detailing the delicate web of thought and skills necessary for emotive, intuitive design:

Design is a way of life, a point of view. It involves the whole complex of visual communications: talent, creative ability, manual skill, and technical knowledge. Aesthetics and economics, technology and psychology are intrinsically related to the process.

 

A new practice at the time, graphic design faced the challenge of redefining mass communication with an entirely novel set of tools: graphics, logos, colors, typography, and the modern desktop computer. Iconic graphic designer and artist Milton Glaser had already built a considerable toolbox of his own by the time he co-founded New York Magazine in 1967. He too joined Rand in asserting:

To design is to communicate clearly by whatever means you can control or master.

 

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Some of America's most famous logos, designed by Paul Rand.

Massimo Vignelli took this much more literally:

“Styles come and go. Good design is a language, not a style.

 

One of the first graphic designers to theorize on developing one’s graphic design process, James Van Hamersveld noted:

I look at graphic design as communication, meaning that the work has to have a vibe to connect to the viewer or perceiver. I make a black and white drawing and then add color digitally, bringing in a contemporary pattern to the composition to create a vibrance.

 

Decades later, David Carson has taken up the mantle for intuitive design, a facet of design theory that has further bled into digital product design, mobile application design, and user experience design. Carson, famous for his use of experimental typography said:

I'm a big believer in the emotion of design, and the message that's sent before somebody begins to read, before they get the rest of the information; what is the emotional response they get to the product, to the story, to the painting - whatever it is. [...] Don't mistake legibility for communication." Just because something's legible doesn't means it communicates. More importantly, it doesn't mean it communicates the right thing. So, what is the message sent before somebody actually gets into the material? And I think that's sometimes an overlooked area.

 

More so than its peers, the fashion industry’s dependence on visuals paved the way for its adoption of graphic design as a tool. From advertisements to branding, fashion ebbed and flowed by the invention exciting, functional clothing products and the inventive advertising campaigns that housed them. Luxury or haute couture fashion could clearly invoke a certain feeling, mood, or look with imagination or exclusion. Long before “fast fashion” flooded the market, fashion was only considered viable when could produce a desired emotion about one’s body or self - or so says celebrated Gucci designer Tom Ford:

When you are having fun and creating something you love, it shows in the product. So when a woman is sifting through a rack of clothes, somehow that piece of clothing that you had so much fun designing speaks to her; she responds to it and buys it. I believe you can actually transfer that energy to material things as you're creating them.

 

But even Ford could rightfully acknowledge that fashion needed a little help when communicating such complex messages:

[...]The key to marketing is to make something people want. When they want it, they buy it. When they buy it, you have sales. So the product has to speak. The product is what markets things. Advertising is of course important because advertise is the final design. It’s the last layer that speaks to the customer, that tells them what you have.

 

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David Caron's use of experimental typography (Credits: David Carson)

EVERYTHING IS DESIGN

In its loosest form, “communicative design” still relied on the idea of functionality. Much like the architects before them, modern graphic designers believed that design was a tool meant to accomplish a purpose. With further experimentation across subsects of fashion, architecture, digital design, and advertising, design theory took on a certain fluidity. To let Paul Rand describe it:

Design is everything. Everything! [...]To design is much more than simply to assemble, to order, or even to edit: it is to add value and meaning, to illuminate, to simplify, to clarify, to modify, to dignify, to dramatize, to persuade, and perhaps even to amuse.”

 

Designer Tom Peterson was convinced that design wasn’t just part of the process, it was the process:

The dumbest mistake is viewing design as something you do at the end of the process to ‘tidy up’ the mess, as opposed to understanding it’s a ‘day one’ issue and part of everything.

 

As did communications and multimedia artist Erik Adigard, who thought design to be the composition of many integrated practices:

“Design is in everything we make, but it’s also between those things; it’s a mix of craft, science, storytelling, propaganda and philosophy.”

 

At Apple, Jonathan Ive had since expanded his “function first” views into an overwhelming indifference to the traditional product “design” process by 2012.

Design is a word that's come to mean so much that it's also a word that has come to mean nothing. We don't really talk about design, we talk about developing ideas and making products.

 

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The Apple Watch, one of many Apple products designed by Jony Ive (Credits: 9to5mac)

 

In Axel Madsen’s 1991 biography, A Woman of Her Own, Coco Chanel had since warmed to the idea of fluid fashion design. Though never one for rules, fashion’s trailblazing maven had maintained a rigid set of rules in her approach to creating the signature Chanel look until that pivotal moment:

Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.

 

Twenty years later, in 2011, James Dyson echoed Chanel’s sentiments in the world of digital product design:

When you say 'design,' everybody thinks of magazine pages. So it's an emotive word. Everybody thinks it's how something looks, whereas for me, design is pretty much everything.

 

American architect Buckminister Fuller, however, thought designers themselves must be “everything:”

A designer is an emerging synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, objective economist, and evolutionary strategist.

 

Nike designer Tinker Hatfield thought all designers sourced from their own experiences consciously or otherwise, as related in a Nike Sportswear ad in that same year (2011):

When you sit down to design something, it can be anything, a car, a toaster, a house, a tall building or a shoe, what you draw or what you design is really a culmination of everything that you've seen and done in your life previous to that point.

 

Poet and cultural critic George Santayana saw graphic design as the culmination of self-expression, capable of translating the beliefs and experiences of the designer themselves:

Graphic design is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, abnormality, hobbies and humors.

 

Unlike fashion, streetwear learned quickly to blend the instincts and experiences of urban youth culture with the innovation of haute couture. In the vein of Chanel, streetwear icon, former Nike designer, and current Louis Vuitton creative director Virgil Abloh further thinned the line between design and the ordinary:

There’s endless inspiration in the mundane. That’s the cheat code of streetwear. [...] You can take this and claim that it is a sculpture, it is a work of art.

 

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The "Ten" by Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Nike (Credits: Nike)

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