On an episode of the Sway podcast a few weeks ago, Rory and I talked about the First Things First manifesto and I gave some background on my own manifesto that I wrote five years ago. Shortly after we aired that episode, I started thinking about what I wrote then and how it reflected my current work, if at all. I realized that even though I still believe those seven points, they no longer seem to frame the work I do and the work I want to do. Since then, I've been slowly working on a new document to reflect my views of design.
Less a statement of declarations about process and intent, my ethos are my core beliefs about design and how it operates in the world. I feel these are so central to the work I do, I've placed a link in the top navigation across every page of my site to emphasize my approach. If you follow my writing, the podcast, and my other endeavors, none of these should be a surprise as they are a culmination of my recent thinking, writing, and practicing of design. Centering around the phrase "Design is...", these six paragraphs give loose definitions to my views on design and reflect my values and guide me in navigating the work I do in the future. These are the things that get me out of bed in the morning.
Design is responsive
Unlike other forms of art, design exists in the world constantly brushing up against those that view and interact with it. A designed artifact is constantly fighting for the attention of an audience who is often unaware of its existence against thousands of other images fighting for that same attention. Design never lives in isolation and must consider its audience and context to fully engage with the public and communicate its message. By responding to its environment, the work can communicate most efficiently to the audiences it must reach. The designed artifact is never the last word, but merely the first word in an ever-unfolding dialogue with the world around it.
Design is a language
At its most basic, design is a form of communication—it’s a way to share, promote, surprise, evangelize, persuade, delight, and inspire. Design is rarely about itself, it is a vessel in which any content can fill it. As with any language, sometimes design is better suited to say what needs to be said. “Because objects of art are expressive, they are a language. For each art has its own medium and that medium is especially fitted for one kind of communication,” wrote John Dewey in his book Art as Experience, “Each medium says something that cannot be uttered as well or as completely in another other tongue.” Design works best when it takes complex information and translates it clearly and directly.
Design is democratic
Historically, design has been used by those in power to wield control and further entrench their beliefs, often for capitalistic and consumeristic gain, but when design is viewed a liberal art it becomes something available to everyone. If design is a way for people to transmit their ideas and amplify their message, it becomes a tool that is freely available. “We must begin to believe our own rhetoric and see design as an integrative field that bridges many subjects that deal with communication, expression, interaction, and cognition.” wrote Gunnar Swanson, “Design should be about meaning and how meaning can be created.” When design is made available to everyone, we can recognize its relationship to power and use it to connect, promote, and further personal beliefs and humanitarian efforts.
Design is never neutral
Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the content or message of any given medium has about as much importance as the stenciling on the casing of an atomic bomb”. Every decision a designer makes affects the message being communicated—from color to form, typography to iconography—each piece is loaded with meaning that enhances (or detracts from) the chosen message. Today, even a typeface like Helvetica, often cited for its neutrality, carries with it basic assumptions. This gives the designer an invisible power to affect what is being communicating, embedding their own views into the piece. Design is an opportunity for a designer to project their opinions into the world. It is not neutral. It is not a passive medium.
Design is inquiry
Design is frequently described as problem solving, yet this has always felt too limiting. When one’s profession is centered around looking for solutions, everything looks like a problem that needs solving. Design should be less about searching for better solutions and more about asking better questions. Problem solving is closed— suggesting there is one solution a designer is working towards. But design is open—through improvisation, play, experimentation, and research, the designer can ask questions that engage multiple publics and imagine new futures previously previously undiscovered.
Design is action
“The word building contains the double reality,” writes Stewart Brand in his book How Buildings Learn, “It means both the action of the verb build and that which is built—both verb and noun, both the action and the result…a building is always building and rebuilding.” The same is true of design—it can be both the the verb and the noun, the process and the result. This has profound implications on how the designer views their work—a finished artifact may no longer be the goal but a by-product of a process of research, communication, synthesis, and storytelling. “There are designs in this world, but there are also chance events,” write Lewis Hyde, “which means design is never finished.”