Why Design Matters

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Whenever I’m asked what my job entails, there’s a brief pause that exists between me and the asker. I always stop, answering slowly as I consider my audience: “Will they think I’m vain if I reveal that I share smartly-crafted objects and creative ideas for a living? Will they see and understand the value in the beautiful? Will they appreciate the importance of thoughtful design?” More often than not, I simply explain that I write on the Internet, leaving out the very premise that I so passionately believe in. And it saddens me.

Naturally, I’ve been focusing my efforts on a better answer. An answer that encompasses the multitude of reasons that I spend hours researching, uncovering and exploring the many facets of design. An answer that gives weight to the topic while giving validation to the numerous designers and talents I feature here weekly. And today, I’ve found it.

Designer Ingrid Fetell authors Aesthetics of Joy, a blog dedicated to exploring the very idea of design as it relates to our humankind’s wellbeing. It’s a must-read, if for no other reason than the passionate wisdom Fetell shares so willingly. She’s what I like to call a “thought-designer”: someone who doesn’t create for the sake of creating. Instead, she sends beauty into the world in an effort to better our surroundings. In an effort to better the world.

I needed Ingrid’s help in communicating exactly why design plays such an integral role in our society today, a society where we live fast and large and in excess. Her response was beautiful, true and wise. She writes:

“A closely held belief of mine is that it’s easier to change things than it is to change people. People may want to exercise more, be more creative, or share more with others, but we have ingrained habits that make these things difficult. Design can help by making it easier to live up to our aspirations: by making stairs a more accessible and enticing option than escalators, for example, or creating open spaces where people want to gather instead of being trapped in their cubicles. By shaping the objects, interactions, and environments we live around and within, design literally changes the world.”

And everyone is a participant in that change – from design writers to creative directors to suburban mothers. “Whether we have the title “designer” or not, we can all use the tools of design to create more moments of joy in the world,” Fetell writes. “Anyone who decorates their home, hosts a party, or gets dressed in the morning is designing something that is experienced by others. I think these moments can be the most powerful because they are intimate and real; they may seem small, but because of the way they touch people, they have ripple effects that create big change.”

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These ripple effects are often left unexplored, but when discovered, nearly always stem from a functional design concept. Take, for instance, a recent excerpt from an interview with Bill Bryson, author of At Home: A Short History of Private Life (and a fascinating read, I might add):

“I never stopped to think about that, but you don’t have dining rooms in your home because at some point in history people suddenly decided they wanted a room dedicated to eating,” Bryson says. “When [upholstered furniture] finally began to happen in the late 18th century, guests, when they sat in these chairs, were tending to wipe their fingers on the upholstered furniture … The mistress of the household essentially decreed that it was necessary to put aside a particular room dedicated to the purpose of eating so that they weren’t spilling food and messing up the really good furniture in the living rooms.”

It’s historical references like these that do (and should) shape our current view of design. Fetell adds, “There’s a temptation to want to view design always through a personal or a cultural lens. These lenses are important, but they emphasize our differences. Evolutionary history reminds us that even if we don’t speak the same languages or eat the same foods, we share universal attributes as human beings, and this translates to design.”

To further illustrate the concept, Fetell offers the example of color. “Whether it’s the Thanksgiving parade in New York City or a New Year parade in Beijing or the Holi Festival in India, bright color and exuberant joy seem to go together,” she writes. “Tracing this pattern back in time, … it turns out [that] our color vision evolved in part to help us find ripe fruits among the forest’s leaves, so from the very beginning, color was something to celebrate.”

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In other words, design is rarely an object. Design is an emotion, a feeling – a story that has existed long before our time. Jon Kolko, founder and director of Austin Center for Design, expands on the belief that design cannot be identified in singular terms. “Producing stunning creative output it only a tiny part of what it means to be a designer, yet aesthetics continue to be the only part that we herald as valuable,” he writes. “But it’s these other skills—empathizing, systems thinking, storytelling—that describe a successful career in design.”

Of course, this idea begs the question: Do the objects we surround ourselves with tell a story? Or are we simply consuming goods at face value, collecting and gathering and hoarding until the very meaning of the object itself is lost amidst the heap?  “Humans are the only creatures to be able to have significant control over our environment, and design is the mechanism by which we do it,” Fetell writes. “Design can be thoughtful or it can be thoughtless, and much of the design we’re surrounded by every day is the latter,” Fetell writes.

It’s an unfortunate thought, but it’s also the driving force of today’s creative, handmade movements. Like this photo project. And this film series. And this very blog you’re reading.

“As more and more of our products are made by machines, we are increasingly living in a world of objects that were crafted entirely in computers, with more attention paid to manufacturing specs than to the hands that will eventually use them,” writes Fetell. “With each act of design, we are pulling resources out of the earth and concentrating them in objects. Design is what determines whether those objects have value or meaning, whether they support our intentions for how we want to live.”

And that, in a nutshell, is precisely why design matters. Design exists to assign meanings, create associations and support intentions. Yet it stops there; the next step is ours. Design can support our intentions, but it cannot choose them.

So for me, this blog – this exploration of design – serves as an intention for how I want to live. Slower, with greater meaning, and with an eye ever-searching for the beauty that exists in this world.

(I’d love to hear yours.)

All images via my favorite office supply shoppe, Present & Correct.

  • thank you for thinking about this, and SHARING it out loud. always a pleasure to read. design celebrates both the inventiveness and empathy of people. design is really about us.

    • AMEN re: empathy – I haven’t yet explored that side of things, but it’s now on my mind! Thanks for the continued inspiration ALWAYS, Rena!

  • This is interesting, and, I think, connected to your link last week on the value of creativity for the next generation. What we surround ourselves with explores what we value. How we educate explores what we value. Both of these things together contribute to how we move forward, what we tell our children/youth about our values and what materials we/they should value in creative and everyday work. There seems to be this societal sense that putting energy into understanding how to create beautiful spaces and/or things is either something extra or something for those who know how to do so. One of the things I love about blogs is the way they are challenging that notion, breaking down barriers while expanding awareness. That design is accessible, in a wide variety of ways, and, as you say, that changes the world. What a lovely and thought provoking post. Thank you.

  • beautiful piece Erin. Here is a paragraph from James Hillman (RIP), one of the greatest psychologist ever. He believed that above all, soul years for beauty.

    “That the world is loveless results directly from the repression of beauty, its beauty and our sensitivity to beauty. For love to return to the world, beauty must first return, else we love the world only as a moral duty: Clean it up, preserve its nature, exploit it less. If love depends on beauty, then beauty comes first, a priority that accords with pagan philosophy rather than Christian. Beauty before love also accords with the all-too-human experience of being driven to love by the allure of beauty”

  • Erin….you have answered a question I personally deal with daily. I have often wondered about the importance of what I do (design and write about design). Have you ever noticed people’s reactions when you tell them you are a designer always seem to drop by one degree of respect for some reason? But I have come to realize that all living things long for a comfortable and safe retreat that they call home so I justify my job. Your time, effort and research to answer your own question has given me something real to hold onto and to make the job of design seem as important as it is and I thank you.

    • Thank you SO much, Diane! I’ve had similar reactions, yes! It makes you start to feel as if we’re participating in this frivolous profession, but in reality, design truly is everywhere. There’s nothing wrong with merging form and function for a living!

  • I’ve been exploring and brainstorming how to present this mantra/ calling for my own studio & website. I believe we all must take responsibility for doing the CREATIVE BEST we can with our own life. That life is a gift, it’s short. And to love what you do (whether you’re a farmer/ banker/ artist/ etc), to connect with others, inspire and empower others. This deep thinking with how design matters allows us to realize that our life or work is more than just a routine or paycheck, its a quality life. Thanks for this post, to allow discussion among others. Great stuff.

  • Thank you, Erin, this was a very interesting read and raised so many good points. I’ve noted a few sources here that I want to look into further. As a graphic designer, I’ve often had trouble talking about *design* with people in other fields. When I say the word, I think of problem solving (from selling more bracelets to creating a kitchen perfect for the wheelchair-bound chef). Often, when others hear the word, they think of making something pretty (and say the word with some disdain).
    I appreciate this post (and the cited writings) and want to do a better job myself of explaining what I do, why I do it, and why the broad field of design is important. Thanks!

    • Ha, you’re the opposite of me, Maggie! My brain gets defensive immediately as I think of the beautiful, pretty, [sometimes even fluffy] things I sometimes write about. Perhaps I should take a cue from your description. ;)

  • Erin this is an amazing post! you clearly articulate how I feel about design, but never had the right words myself. My usual short answer is-similar to Michelle’s. Designers solve problems by following form and function principles, and artists ask questions to form discussions and push our boundaries.

  • This totally fits with you and who you are. As long as I have known you, you have had an eye for beauty. Maybe not always specifically design, but you have always been able to see the good in things and in people. I agree that design brings a lot of joy and certainly enhances the world. Very important to our quality of life!

  • love this piece.
    am working on a new bio/statement and have also been doing some soul searching along similar lines. and you know the crux of what it all means for me and what i’m caught up with trying to say is almost precisely what you’ve written so beautifully in your last paragraph!

  • Thanks for introducing me to Aesthetics of Joy! I’ll be spending some time there for sure.

    I have an emotional, physical response to design that I love. When I see something great, I feel it. Sometimes I inhale sharply or my mouth literally drops open. It’s hard to explain what this is like or why it’s so important to people who really don’t seem to care how things look or were put together as long as they’re serving a purpose.

    I don’t ever want to be blind to it. I don’t think that I will, but with so much stuff out there that pulls our attention away from the present moment, I’m sure I’ve missed seeing some awesome things.

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful post! I love what you’re sharing. I love Present & Correct too. They’re awesome. :) xoxo

    • Ah, thank you, Melanie! And I love your thoughts about being blind to it – it’s so important to remember that!

  • Regarding design that changes the world, I highly recommend “The Chair: Rethinking Culture, Body, and Design” http://buff.ly/15iyNv1 Great reflections on the way the chair may have changed the way our societies are structured. :)

    Thanks for the lovely blog post. Will def follow you on the Twitter. :P

  • Thanks so much for writing this. About design – whether we are making conscious choices or not, we ARE making design choices as we go about our day. What we wear, what we pick up and use, how we arrange our desk, the pad of paper and pen we use to take notes – all are choices that affect us.

    I love your intent – living slower and with greater meaning. I cannot help but imagine that being a mother now has influenced that intent as it does for me too. Life is fleeting and it’s primarily made up of very small, mundane moments. Meaningful to us, but common to most. It is those design choices that we make that enhance those small moments.

    We aren’t machines. We aren’t soulless consumers of stuff, pinning madly for a life we will never lead. We are still the same cave men/women who dipped our finger into some pigment and with a sweeping gesture, decorated the walls of our cave to flickering firelight.

    We need to create, to make, to experience beauty.

    • @Sandra – this was so, so very beautifully put. And you’re right – I think becoming a mother was the catalyst for the thinking process. What else snaps you out of a fast-paced, rigorous schedule faster than babies? ;)

  • PS I too have downplayed what I am trying to do with my blog and recently have stopped doing so. This is who I am and this is what I value. It feels good!

  • Erin, et all

    Thanks for the truly great discussion on the importance of design to our society. It has started the snowball rolling and just look at folks adding to that snowball… what fun…But its a very worthy discussion because design ( as a craft) goes so much deeper in our personal social consciousness than it does in actual working society. People love to buy pretty things but many don’t ask why they are the way they are. They feel it emotionally first, and they buy it as a reflex to something unexplained. Its the wanting thing…But many of these things are designed into products and structures, and its not just an emotional fix.

    People have very little understanding of what designers do ( through no fault of theirs…but our actually) Designers are thought to make precious fluffy objects that everyone wants to own. But as one of your bloggers correctly states, true real honest-to-goodness design is actually problem solving. We designers are, essentially, problem solvers. To solve a problem you must approach the problem with neutrality, ie without bias. You must be open to understand the underlying forces, be willing to consider all angles, even the improbable, look at all the underlying problems with manufacturing, creating, marketing, production all that stuff. For many its just too much information, too many decisions. Its just overwhelming, and so just let me buy it not think about it….Ha…right.

    In addition , of course, artists must be willing to take risks with their art ( or problem solutions) as social commentary, take hits below the belt sometimes and keep on doing it. This takes a lot of an ego and a tenacity. THats why artists blessed with god given talents must actually USE them. Very few others see that kind of potential or have a way to express it, or visualize it. When I work with buildings and architecture I ask people to express the best they can about what they want, how ever they can do it. One lady bought an antique cupola and said build me a building beneath it…wow. that’s an open challange.

    So when we talk about why design is so important , it doesn’t stop by creating artful objects , making people happy in the contemplation of the object, but it really permeates all society …its problem solving any way you look at it, small scale or large scale its the same process…identify the influencing factors, identify the limits of that influence, identify the resources at your disposal, look at past approaches, formulate your new design, throw it out, redo it, test it, present it…build it, evaluate it…etc.

    But it is this absence of problem solving know how( or the recognition of its real value) that has created the vacuous thinking all the way to the political grid lock in america, where the intent is to look at problems, but not at the solutions and what must happen to arrive at a point that really addresses the problem9 In many cases the solutions are too narrowly defined) . Most just are content to have a knee jerk partisan reaction. Most don’t venture into the depths of the ( design) problem to truly understand it. Its too complicated and its too risky. No one would listen anyway..but thats not acceptable.

    Artists must begin selling our “creative” skills as less weird eccentric nerdy, continuous self promoters , but more as explorers of the hidden solutions.. and discoverers of new worlds that others fear to tread, and people who can identify the social ills and try to come up with ways to fix them. POssible approaches others have not tried. And using an age old axiom, take a slow and deliberate approach the Chinese take in solving problems, do it by generations, not in an American instant.

    Its important to my profession , that architecture unfortunately looses 1/2 of its college and master graduates to other fields of practice, ( gosh knows where…David Byrne was an architect and we are glad he jumped ship) but we must sell the craft of design ( as problem solving) better than we do. We cant hold it as a precious gift when all we do is feed our own egos, and the world is left with problems that we could have help to solve, or have a great stab at them…but didn’t. THese things are too important to ignore.

    I too have pangs of anger and frustration driving down the road littered with commercial garbage, throw away structures, glaringly awful design, and thoughtless respect for natural systems and ( oh yes ) no beauty. But ( like the pony in the barn) there is always a way back home and there are things you can do to turn the ship around. Seeing ugliness makes me want to take it on. Im working on a design to turn a highway next to my house into a parkway, why not…if you can imagine it, it can happen. So few people have the capacity to see that potential..use it. It may not happen, but as they say if you dont make it happen it wont happen.

    so designers need to use their god given skills in other important ways. To kick politicians around a bit and chide them for their lack of creativity, but also to Take on the odd problems that others wont …and keep throwing yourself at the wall. Its important to take that risk. Its that important to keep getting turned back, because its a hard fought victory but things only change in baby steps, and we have a long way to go. THanks..Jay Corvan

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