Is everything design? Danish Design Award in a conceptual light
Henry Dreyfuss figure

When it comes time to celebrate the Danish Design Award in 2016, we should use the event as an occasion to discuss what design is today and, not least, what role it plays in relation to current national and global challenges. Today, design unfolds within a diverse range of professional domains and on a wide range of scales, which is also reflected in the broad new spectrum of categories included in the Danish Design Award. Associate Professor Ida Engholm at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, School of Design, explores the implications this has for the way we discuss and understand design.

‘Everything is design,’ claimed the legendary inventor Buckminster Fuller in the early 1960s. Since the 1920s, Fuller had drafted visionary projects in many different design genres, from urban planning to cars and architecture.

Photo: Victor J. Papanek Foundation, Papanek.org
Everything is design: With his call for a comprehensive design concept in the early 1960s, Fuller contributed to the ongoing debate about the role of design in modern society. Photo: Victor J. Papanek Foundation, Papanek.org

In 1962, the first academic conference on design methods was held in England. This inspired a widening debate about design domains, where design was seen as the driver of welfare development in the post-war era. In 1969, the Nobel laureate Herbert Simon published his famous book ‘The Science of the Artificial’, where he introduced design as a fundamental human activity that dealt broadly with ‘changing existing situations into preferred ones.’ This process might involve any of a wide range of professions, from engineering over architecture to business.

Since these historical debates, the concept of design has been the object of growing debate in the design profession, among the design public and in design research. Today, we have a wide range of design definitions that can hardly be encompassed under any single understanding. Design is included in all sorts of contexts, from hair design, toothbrushes and computer programs to urban planning, welfare design and organisational development.

Planning and form-giving

Etymologically, the word ‘design’ comes from Latin, ‘designio’, which means a draft for something to be created. Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary defines ‘design’ as planning or conceiving of something for a specific purpose or end and lists the first documented use of the word as 1569. The mediaeval Latin term ‘designare’ also points to a meaning related to projecting and predicting or identifying the underlying meaning or character of something. Many of the original etymological definitions are also found in Fuller’s and Simon’s views on design as an activity aimed at devising plans and proposals driven by visions for the world – in Simon’s case with the explicit goal of improvement: altering existing situations into preferred ones and, in a broader perspective, developing a science for the artificial or manmade itself. This etymological meaning is, however, also associated with an understanding of design as form-giving. In Renaissance Italy, ‘designio’ referred to the sketches that formed the basis of sculptures and paintings with an emphasis on artistic aspects.

Henry Dreyfuss' Design Chief
In 1955, Henry Dreyfuss portrayed the designer as a design chief who was simultaneously an engineer, an artist and a businessman. This view is perpetuated today in the notion of the design manager, who is involved in both coordination and form-giving in the design process but who does not necessarily have specific design training or experience.

A similar meaning gained ground in the late 1700s with the first industrial manufacturers of consumer goods in England. The legendary manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood, who built an international business empire based on mass-produced porcelain, used ‘design’ as synonymous with cut, pattern and style. Thus, design was associated with an artistic and crafts making practice. This development occurred at a time when ‘art’ as a practice and a vehicle of understanding branched off as an independent field, leaving crafts as a separate area suspended between the artisanal utility and the ideal aesthetic aspirations of art. Years later, in post-war America, the understanding of design as primarily associated with considerations about form and style was consolidated with the emergence of the first self-proclaimed profession of ‘creative engineers’ or ‘industrial designers’, the latter category introducing a profession of creative form-givers with an industrial outlook and purpose. In 1955, the famous streamline designer Henry Dreyfuss presented the industrial designer as a Native American chief who was simultaneously an artist, an engineer, a businessman and a PR-specialist, with form-giving as the integrating function that would make products technically feasible in a mass production set-up and irresistible commodities in the growing consumer market.

The academisation of design

The wide range of design concepts was further accentuated with the widening debate about the role of design in the 1960s. In design and architecture schools, these debates were related to the dual ambition of making the design profession research-based and of making design methods more efficient by means of a sharper focus on design planning and design methodology. The new ambitions emerged from the historical form-giving tradition from Arts & Crafts over Bauhaus to industrially engaged designers, who needed a stronger knowledge and research base as support for their form-giving practice.

Design is form: In 1971, Christopher Alexander, who helped organise the first academic design conference, defined design as ‘the process of inventing physical things which display mew physical order, organization, form in response to function.’ He added succinctly, ‘The ultimate object of design is form.’
Design is form: In 1971, Christopher Alexander, who helped organise the first academic design conference, defined design as ‘the process of inventing physical things which display mew physical order, organization, form in response to function.’ He added succinctly, ‘The ultimate object of design is form.’

This presented a contrasting view to Herbert Simon’s interdisciplinary concept, with its emphasis on planning and its involvement of multiple professions and types of goals. At first glance, Simon’s view might not be seen to contradict the ambitions of professional designers to give the design profession a scientific base and maintaining the designer’s role as an integrator who, like Dreyfuss’s designer character, was able to reconcile many different concerns in the resulting solutions. However, Simon’s expanded concept also included the notion of design as a multidisciplinary activity that could be practiced by a wide range of professions.

Everything is design: design thinking and design doing?

The polarised perceptions of design continue to exist to this day and are reflected in the current debates, for example in the notion of ‘design thinking’, which has gained ground across several industries in recent years. The various approaches can be illustrated with the design researcher Lucy Kimbell’s model, which encompasses several different versions of the concept. The first two approaches in her model (columns one and two from the left) show an understanding of design as a privileged domain and the exclusive reserve of designers. According to the design theorist Nigel Cross, who represents the former of the two approaches, design thinking is defined by a particular intelligence that is unfolded as ‘reflection-in-action’, to use a phrase coined by the theorist Donald Schön. The unique design ability is characterised by being abductive (making guesses, offering suggestions and focusing on solutions). The assumption is that designers have a particular ‘cognitive style’, a designerly way of knowing, to borrow Nigel Cross’s term. The designer’s approach, based on creativity and proposals, is seen as unique, because it has a special way of keeping solutions open in processes while finding form-giving approaches that offer glimpses of solutions and thus impart direction to the process. This approach is largely supported by the next understanding (the middle column), where design thinking refers to reflections in design research about the field’s underlying philosophy of science and methodology. The aim of these reflections is to define the various disciplines included in design, based on the assumption that it is possible to specify a specific research and knowledge pertaining to design. This approach is largely represented by the efforts of American Design Studies, which employ a more multidisciplinary perspective, but which nevertheless also aim for a shared research and knowledge form that is specific to design and oriented towards a special category of design knowledge, which also holds the interest of Cross and others.

The first two approaches are contrasted with a management and business-oriented version (right column), where design thinking is seen as an organisational resource, and design is seen as a way of not only developing products but also addressing societal challenges – from health care to access to clean water. In this view, design thinking is a competence that can be incorporated into any professional capacity, and design is a method and a mindset that anyone, in principle, can acquire. This view is an extension of Simon’s expanded concept of design in combination with a current innovation and growth agenda.

The various approaches to design thinking may be seen as extensions of historical debates about design as action versus design as research. In fact, however, they also reflect the success of design in the post-war era: the fact that all scales, objects, plans, constructions, media etc. are now the subject of pervasive construction, planning and design, inside and out. No internet without design, no industrial production without design, no healthcare without design etc. The climate challenge is perhaps the most absolute and almost incomprehensible expression of design, dealing with design on at least three levels: design in the form of manmade emissions of greenhouse gases, design of the computer models that generate scenarios and evidence for the climate challenges and, finally, design in the form of solutions, which will require all sorts of new design solutions – if we elect to put our faith in them.

Lucy Kimbell figur
Lucy Kimbell’s summary of various understandings of design thinking. Source: Lucy Kimbell (2011). ‘Rethinking Design Thinking: Part 1’. Design and Culture. Vol. 3, Issue 3, pp. 285-306.

Who are the actual designers?

The nominations for the Danish Design Award include examples of products within the established design disciplines, which would also have qualified under the traditional ID Prize. At the same time, the expanded concept of design is represented by solutions that are more systemic or organisational, for example, and which involve other professions besides professional designers.

If we look at the design award in a larger societal context, from Herbert Simon’s point of view, we might say that all sorts of professions are now involved in the development of objects, systems and organisations and on any scale. To a large extent, design competencies are distributed across many professions. If we look at a digital design firm, for example, there is a wide range of professions involved in developing websites, games or apps: programmers, information architects, interface designers, graphic designers and others.

Who is the designer? When the Danish architectural firm BIG builds the waste-to-energy plant Amager Resource Centre, the project not only involves architects but also other professions, including engineers, technicians and even physicists. The physicists are involved in developing the solution that enables the facility to emit the large smoke rings that are going to be a landmark of the plant as a visual signal every time the plant emits the equivalent of a quarter ton of C02.

The start-up company Rokoko, which has developed a hybrid between animation film and theatre based on a new motion capture system. At Rokoko, a wide range of professions work together to use technology in a field spanning from children’s theatre over cartoons to psychiatry. What profession do they belong in? And who are the designers?

The future of design education

In the established and arts-based design schools, we strive to maintain the notion of a professional competence that is tied to a historically rooted discipline of art, craftsmanship and form-giving. Historically, this discipline has made important contributions to the development of our modern welfare society. The vision of a centrally positioned and integrating form-giving competence should continue to play a key role in design education and in the design profession. However, it is also important to continue to debate what the institutional setting for the field should be, and how we can establish meaningful interfaces with other professions and competencies in relation to the major local and global challenges we are currently facing.

The Danish Design Award

When we hand out the Danish Design Award, we need to address the current reality, where a wide range of professions is involved in the design of solutions for all sorts of tasks and issues. And perhaps first of all, we address the implications of a world where everything is design, as Buckminster Fuller claimed. Everything, on any scale. When we hand out awards we highlight aspects, offer recommendations and applaud practices that both reshape and perpetuate the traditions that we still consider modern design.

Perhaps above all, the Danish Design Award requires designers to step forward, across industries, to debate and practice ‘good design’: design as form-giving, design as solutions, problem-solving, innovation driver, organisational development etc. In that light, it is encouraging to see that the revitalised award in 2016 is based on an assessment of the impact of the solutions on current local, national or global societal challenges. In extension of this, we need to debate what we mean by the impact of design. And, not least, what sorts of impact we wish to encourage. Both in relation to a national agenda: What types of design would we like to promote in Denmark? And what role do we want to play in relation to international agendas? Design has the potential to address problems and tasks on several levels. The question is whether this introduction of new awards for Danish design can bring Denmark into play as role models.

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