DESIGN - A BROAD FIELD. ON ODD WAYS FROM VIEWS TO INSIGHTS
by Horst Oehlke, Berlin, August/September 2001
About the concern of the project
The stipulated title of the project takes a detour route to the essential core of the condition and the competence of design.
In a narrower sense all of this aims at an elucidation of what is thought, said, and written on a relatively removed level, let us say in the area of theoretical reflection, not just in the area of a particular design theory, but of design theory per se.
In the end, this should be important on the level of what constitutes and realises design.
In other words design theory, which is acting as a self-referential system, as a horizon of thoughts complete in itself, is relatively uninteresting, even though often of high complexity.
The following considerations do not aim at the heights and depths of designing meta-physics, but rather result from activity and insight into the unspectacular design existing in reality, its industrial practise and institutionalised education.
The metaphor "swamp" can be interpreted positively as a breeding ground but also negatively as a devouring entity. One can follow this, for both can be correct or come true.
Still I would prefer to speak in the discourse on hand about a "wide field" ("Großes Feld", Fontane) instead of about a swamp.
A wide field does not only consist of swampland.
The large and surely also endless field, even land of design with its ups and downs, its arable land and jungle, glades and tilled fields, but just as well weeds and thicket, brushwood, with swampland, and, how could it be any different, thrown away garbage, if one wants to stick to the image.
The metaphorical elements as analogies of design in the entirety of what can be found there and what has nested there can still be individually deciphered and attributed. What one person considers weed, another may find valuable enough to present it in an adequately conceptual container.
As far as I have understood the concern of the project, it also aims at clearing out some underbrush. But be careful with what you throw away, because it might turn out to be lost forever.
Obviously one can only speak about design by using metaphors, if the matter is not about concrete facts such as objects, systems, processes, design ways, or methods.
Could it be possible that the problem with its metaphors "The Basic Paradox", the unknown quantity "x", and the "unfounded discipline" including the question of its "basics" is only a dummy-problem, which has its origin not in the matter itself (design), but rather in the way an individual person draws upon it, and thus occupies it in the manner of his participation. One does not have to be a radical constructivist to see it in this way.
Still, the question remains what the topics of design in which one could hope for a greater degree of commitment would be. This commitment may be a goal, but it does not have to be one. For comprehensibly formulated divergences or disagreements these two are not the same are in any case better than unclear positions. Thus this thought comes full cycle.
The x-factor or the unknown variable x decoded may stand for: design as a cultural process in its embedment or clinch by spreading global economical, political, cultural, social developments and feedback. That sounds fatally boring.
Or, instead of definitional torture: Design as the great unknown, in between everything, mixing in and giving offence.
Less encoded, but instead sufficient for characterisation and encirclement of the impending question, design can also be understood as the big Life-Experiment, as an overall principle, with all its hopes, uncertainties, setbacks, and results (even though they are not always expected).
First of all one would like to know what paradox actually means or what the core of paradox is made of, and what it is comprised of in design? Discrepancies and incompatibilities are a kind of condition of existence that can be found on every level, in every area, and in every nook of the so-called realities. Of course, designers can tell you a thing or two about that.
A presumed essential, maybe also apparent or terminological lack of ability to locate different grades of complexity, areas and artefacts / objects of design do not make design a paradox yet.
Diverse, diffuse, and also divergent facts would have to be investigated as much as possible, they would have to be pointed out and "comprehended". However, comprehending a fact in design requires design research and not "design philosophy". You can talk at cross-purposes with words, but less so with terms.
Maybe the paradox consists of the unsolvable contradiction between the demand for improvement of the world and the phasing with strategies and processes of territorial market protection and global market expansion, without which design would not be talked about so much today.
Even more distinctly this can be recognised by looking at the participation in the so-called technical progress, which subsequently turns out to be destructive. The examples do not have to be recited here.
What is meant by foundations / basics
What kind of basics are we talking and writing about when we contemplate design? Are we talking about professionally objective basics, about curricular ones provided by education, about the existential basics of a discipline or, as it can be supposed in this context, about the preconditions for approaching the explanation of the problem, which at first is called a paradox?
"Foundations for an unfounded discipline" ("Grundlagen für eine grundlose Disziplin") can be considered as a question and as a statement. If you take it as the latter one, then the answer is already obvious. This answer is not agreed to here, even on taking the chance that problems implied in the specification are evaded instead of being untied.
Not all foundations calling themselves such can be lumped together.
Division of labour belongs to the basics of design that lack any myth. Industrial production, handicraft industry, and every kind of sophisticated objective organisation are basics, each possessing very specific foundations of labour-dividing co-operation with design.
Division of labour in the production of tools exists since the Stone Age. During the Middle Ages, the crafts had specialised workshops which were organised in guilds. Up to the beginning of the first industrial revolution and for a long time after it started (until labour-dividing specialisation was widely spread), one can definitively not talk of design being a discipline. For up to that point, conceptualisation and production of artefacts were concentrated in the same people. Engineering and industrial design even though it was not called design from the beginning appear as co-operative areas only after that time. This cannot and does not have to be explained further here, but it does point to a certain grassroots level, which is the foundation of design.
It is contained inside the term "industrial design", besides further areas that would have to be specified. For that it is absolutely not important whether there are designers who work in nearly all areas, or if the majority of them moves in narrower ranges. In principle it is a matter of one of the basics, complex and nearly unmanageable considering its influences and its structures today.
A critical situation arises if design is supposed to be understood as the all-embracing, coordinating, and realising principle. That may work as a "glass bead game" but not "like real life".
The digital revolution brought a basic change to the work processes of design through enlargement and potentiation of tools for creative work. This involved a shift of communicating activities and the usage of virtual technologies for generation, illustration, and for cross-linking with defining technological-constructive structures.
The original reason for designing and the creative exploration can still in the frame of these conditions be found in the area of individual potency. The computer remains the most comfortable and the most detailed plagiarist.
Last but not least the impending subject can be seen in the interlocking of the basics of design and design oriented theoretical reflections.
Design science in the sense of observing and examining design and design theory in the sense of pondering and generalising do not form a withdrawn superstructure, but rather come into consideration as essential part(s) of the sought-after basics. That cannot be pursued further in this context.
Plentiful factual and intellectual statements do exist about design, not necessarily as patterns of activity and instructions, but rather in the sense of perception-, experience- and knowledge-protocols. It is not enough to refer to them singly, neither in practise nor in reflection. They also do definitely not aim to design and they are not necessarily up to date. But for the sake of a fair debate about what is basically valid for design, they must not be ignored.
It would go beyond the scope of this discussion to list them all.
About the specifics of design
Design is teachable as far as its stocks of knowledge and necessary skills are concerned.
Design forces us to choose preferences and decisions. For that purpose, the professional ability to act and proper knowledge are needed. They do not have to be in opposition to what holds design together from the inside, but they are not congruent to it, either.
The special potencies of design can be described less easily.
Abilities required for the solution of tasks possessing a shaping and designing character are of special interest in this thematic context, as they are essential for the isolation of the problem that comes up for discussion.
Designing capability has to be brought along. At this point it is, for starters, insignificant whether it is due to a genetic condition, learnt in the course of life, or if above all it can be and has to be educated in the double meaning of the word. Probably all of this comes together.
It is not to be discussed here, what is denoted in some training centre or other as basic (subjects) of the so-called basic education. These areas are neither sufficiently elementary nor are they dispensable in principle and in their shape. It is a project of its own to deal with them.
The field of basics for and of design is broader.
With the implication that with "shape related", handicraft, technical-industrial, economical, historical, systematic, and systemic aspects, one can only name one determinable part of the fundamentals at any given time, the unrecognised and unconscious are left open and operating...
About the disciplinary extent of design
Whether one asks for the "basics" of design or whether one searches for its own place in the systemic levels and areas of human society, industry, culture, research, etc., which as it is permeate themselves and are cross-linked, it always comes to a stop with the question as to what one means by design.
Is it actually possible to explain, to describe, to define, or even to commit design, and if so, how wide and how deep could one go?
In this expose, the term design is used in a generalising way. Without a doubt, design can be seen as a general phenomenon of the human species. This means that looking back at historic and prehistoric times, design denotes everything human beings made in the form of "Lebensmittel" (Lothar Kühne), basic necessities. In the same way what is called art today actually started coming upon us with cave-paintings.
Searching for orientation on this level, one necessarily sticks to the generalisations.
For it is not unimportant what functional and structural areas of artefacts one moves around in.
Not only textiles and clothes, commodities, tools, machines, edifices etc., are objects of design, but also celebrations, ceremonies, rites, plans, maps, and schedules, social as well as scientific arrangements. But not all of this can be subsumed under the same terms or worked on with the same tools. That does sound banal but the "real life" in design and about design does not like to differentiate nowadays.
One has to distinguish between the object of design specific to the discipline and the various design-objects as working tools of designers, from the product concepts ready for production, marketing, and usage (which have to be made concrete in order to realise them), and their "designs". Both do not align, they only overlap in what can finally be realised in the form of objects ready for production and marketing.
The design of products that are not sold and not used is quasi-virtual design, it is a non-existent design, it is at its best a collectible or a show-piece.
Both the object of design and the designed product have an unclear horizon where the scope of their functions is concerned. The object of design has it regarding its functional presence in the areas of technological-economical and socio-cultural environment and in the openness of its aesthetic-creative decisions. In products, on the other hand, this horizon regarding their perspective which is both limited and opened by the respective research and development is caused by obsolescence.
Nothing in design is thought or done for eternity.
All the more, a need or awareness appeared in design to think and design in terms of sustainability, compatibility with the environment, and alternative possibilities. The barriers and oppositions against this following globalisation and the coercion to accumulate money can not even be hinted at here. This is an even wider field.
A second battery of questions follows all of that. What are designers and where do they come from? How can one describe their activities, operation modes, professional and disciplinary integrations and their education? By doing so we already approach the describable facts, numbers, dates.
This nearly clear level of design cannot be meant by the suspicion/verdict of paradox. Thus the stringent suspicion need not to be proven wrong on this level.
Unless one generalises the imagination and the area of design in principle, one could say and that is to all intents and purposes hidden in the English term that everything made conscious by Homo Faber, material or virtual, by gestures or literary, conceptual or planning, can be described by the term design, in fact it is design. Some of it is coincidence, as it does not emerge through conscious planning, but rather by accident or by non-describable functional results of thought activity. Both design solutions as well as scientific theories fall into this category.
This manner of creation is altogether occupied by the arts. However, one can restrict this to that the flash of thought is not enough, but rather its communicable specification or the coordinated work of spontaneous and targeted gestures and reflecting sight.
Is design apart from its bureaucratic legal classification in education systems really a discipline in the stringent sense? Or is it rather something completely lacking discipline? It is, to express more nicely something that cannot be seen through completely even by insiders. Besides it is positioned between all professorial chairs and uses all of them if required.
The expression discipline is helpful if the point is representing design versus the established, legally recognised disciplines and potential co-operation partners. Designers should, in the double meaning of the word, represent their professional arguments in a disciplined manner.
For the existential question for the reason concretised in terms of substantiation reads simplified: What is design, what does it want, what is it able to do and what not? That is the pragmatic level.
Just for that reason it is sensible and necessary to make practical differentiations in each case concerning the typological size and the functional differences of the stock that this field, open to all sides and depths, possesses; namely from functional as well as cognitive conditions, without trying to establish them for all times.
Trying to go deeper, there is neither a visible start nor a foreseeable end to design, neither an explicit starting point nor a defined target.
To this effect it is correct that design is still an endless unknown factor if stripped of its apparent external appearance.
About the terminology in design - an afterthought
The half-life value of words that are used in relationship to designing activity is becoming increasingly short. Adding to this is the divergent occupation of terms, if one can speak about those in a stringent sense at all.
After all, the simple denomination of a part of design as formgiving has still not become obsolete, just as one still can and has to use one's own legs despite of so-called advanced traffic engineering.
Floating parlance, which is a mastered stylistic device in literary statements and nearly standard form in journalistic coverage, can absolutely fulfil an enriching and uncovering function in the discourse about objects and areas of design. It should not replace objective speech and objectifying description.
The word design is more and more used as rhetorical filler at a point where there is a lack of conceptual formulation and illustrative imagination concerning design. Communication in, on and with design can only be accomplished sensibly using the analogy of, or better, the fold of "saying" and "showing". There is no need to use semiotics to understand this, but it has contributed to making this relation obviously and consciously usable.
If you ask a designer about what design actually is, he will normally refer to industry products first, he will point at them. Explanations can be attached to that with the aid of words as shape, gestalt, aesthetics, usage, utility, marketing etc.
This manner of "explanation" is on another level a motive for reducing design to product design in terms of formgiving, or even for denouncing it as merely being concerned with the external shape.
Discussions about the expansion of product design to system design and finally to process design are by no means devoid of unobjective simplifications, since they normally are carried out without reference to concrete design objects and much is said but little is shown.
No design object, defined in an objective-spacial or process-oriented way, lacks attributes describing structure of shape as well as structure of process. They do have in both respects active as well as latent potentials as a functional core in mutual supplementation, intersection and dependence.
The words creation, creator, create, design, designer, to design are available for the areas of social and professional activities which are the central theme of this essay. It is not by accident that the term of "Gestalt" has been transferred from German to English language due to the word's precision. Vice versa, the flexible term "design" is taken from the English language to German. Roughly phrased the former encircle a core fragment of the field of activity, the others its extent.
A special esteem of both linguistic expressions has to be highlighted here in order to support this fact.
The old, but not archaic excelling term Gestalt is of great importance in nearly every area of human activity and orientation, just as it is in identifying the lack of "Gestalthaftem" or its opposite, the unshapely and the shapeless.
Gestalt is and will remain a centering item for broad areas of manufacturing industrial goods in single-piece, serial or mass production, as well as the production of unique objects via any production method. Gestalt and design that means their appearance and the path of their development refer to essential and concise phenotypes and the processes of their generation up to their structural features of form, digitally generated virtual and realised objects and structures. They are to be differentiated regardless of technical, usage-functional, and market-depending obsolescence by typology, precision, and degree of maturity. That has nothing to do with stylistics and cultural preferences, but rather is open for it.
The term "Gestaltung" acts as a cardinal feature of specific working processes in design. Thus the original term of formgiving could not keep up with it and is only of historical significance today.
The congenially open expression "design" is, however, indispensable if no definite but general facts of artefacts and the artificial are to be debated. If that is not sufficient for understanding, adding adjectives can provide complementary, clearer focus on what is generally and particularly at hand. However, one has to be consistent in doing this in order to disclose what one is talking about in the actual case: about design as a global principle, as structural order of form for machine tools, as a seasonal fashion principle, or as beer mat graphics.
The word design can be handled in a more relaxed manner that the term Gestalt. Unfortunately this can stretch up to vulgar, journalistic nonsense, where terms such as designer clothes or the design of a German shepherd are generated. The linguistic depravity and an ironical hint at tendencies in design are both shown there.
The use of the words design and Gestaltung in this text is for that very reason neither to be understood as accidental, nor is it a mere stylistic loosening of the text, but rather targets the required differentiation in the field of discourse.
In the field of design one should speak in a definite but not univalent manner, neither assign absolutely nor judge authoritatively.
"Design / Gestaltung", "to design / gestalten", "designer / Gestalter" are each separate fields which overlap because they have no borders.