Design Practices

The business of design is in a state of flux. The roles, the tasks and the personae of designers are changing.

No longer the technical expert, the heroic aesthete or the inspired individual of our earlier modern past, the contemporary designer draws upon dispersed sources of creativity and innovation. Collaboration, today, is key. For design practitioners, a central paradox of our times is the increasing specialization, on the one hand, but on the other, the need for more broad-ranging and holistic integration of design tasks, working between and across design disciplines. Design is becoming an ever-more social, indeed sociable, process.

The imperative to collaborate, moreover, extends well beyond the domain of professional interaction and working in design teams. It also extends to the relationship with the users, clients and consumers of design. Designers today need to build deeply collaborative relationships with their ‘public’. Participatory design and user-centered design are just two key phrases that capture the spirit of this imperative.

Broadly speaking, the balance of design agency is shifting from the all-knowing designer who creates things that are good for passively grateful consumers, to a dialogue which involves more careful and systematic processes of user consultation, research, co-design, testing, evaluation and continuous redesign. The emerging design democracy turns the designer into conversationalist, facilitator, mentor and pedagogue. As a consequence, the legacy self-understanding of the designer as artist, technocrat and expert is thrown into question. The new politics of design plays through tensions between historical roles and contemporary expectations. Along the way, what’s lost and what’s gained? What is inherently difficult about the new designer-user relations, and what is intrinsically liberating?

As soon as the balance of agency shifts, a polymorphous, polyvalent social world presents itself. ‘Any color you like, as long is it’s black’, said the heroic Henry Ford, who conveniently assumed that every consumer in his mass market had identical needs and interests. But as soon as you start talking niche markets, usability and customization, you discover diversity in an ever more dazzling range of hues and shades—local and global, of different abilities and disabilities, of ages and cultures and genders and affinities. The paradox of today’s design democracy is that designing for everybody means designing for many different interests and uses.

Then there are some new lines of social insistence: that designers work to objectives of sustainability, access, safety and the social good. These are matters of increasingly intricate regulation and compliance. Or, if you will internalize these insistences, they become matters of self-regulating professional ethics.

These are some of the things that are, quite simply, changing the job of being an architect, urban planner, industrial designer, engineer, visual designer, web designer, knowledge manager, communications or media designer, fashion designer, usability researcher or instructional designer – to name just a few of the design vocations.

Design Modalities

Design’s modalities are also in a state of flux, its working tools of representation, communication, visualization and imagination.

Digitization of text, sound, and still and moving image is one important site of transition. This has spawned new practices of modeling and simulation, of prefiguring the real in the virtual. It has also introduced the virtual as a design end-in-itself.

The result is a new multimodality and synesthesia. Design conceptualization requires that designers move between modalities of language, image, sound, space, touch and gesture. The meaning of their design might be articulated one way, then another, or all at one time in a deeply integrated process of synesthesia.

Designers need to able to ‘do’ a multimodal professional design discourse. They must speak and write their way through complex collaborations with co-designers and interactions with users. They need to be able to ‘do’ visualization as they explore design alternatives through mental images and picture their visions into reality. They need to be able to represent spatial realities, prefiguring the three dimensional through the two dimensional and turning plans into tactile artifacts, manipulable objects, architectural spaces and navigable landscapes. The new, digital media provide newly flexible and accessible tools for multimodal and synaesthetic thinking. Today’s media inventions have become the mothers of design necessity.

Such innovation is not simply for innovation’s sake. It is also for the most practical of reasons. There is an increasing need to document for the purposes of planning and project management, regulation and compliance, risk assessment and risk management, and project specification and contractual clarity.

Design Principles

So, what is this thing design? What is the design of something? And what does it mean to ‘do’ design?

The word ‘design’ has this fortuitous double meaning, simultaneously describing intrinsic structure and the willful act of making. Design is at once morphology and construction.

Morphology: design is inherent, whether its sources be organic, unconscious, common sense or the carefully premeditated product of the professional work of the designer. Design in this sense is structure, form and function.

Construction: design is also an act, a manifestation of agency, a process of transformation. The narrative of design runs like this: take the available designs in the world, inherent to found objects, architectures, landscapes, processes, human relationships, cultures. Then engage in the act of designing, or rework and revoice these designs. This is never just a business of reproduction and replication. It always involves an injection of the designer’s social interests and cultural experiences—their subjectivity and identity, no less. The residue, as the narrative draws to a momentary close, is the world transformed, no matter in how small a way. But the world is never quite the same again, and the redesigned is returned to the world. Design agency traces of transformation that join the repertoire of available designs—new openings to new design narratives.

Such a view contrasts with older understandings of design in which designers were passive recipients of expert routines. Their apprenticeship into professional practice had led them to learn to reproduce received, sanctioned and authoritative design forms. This may have been appropriate for a world that set store on stability and uniformity.

But today’s world is a place of change and diversity. Designing, in a dynamic, transformative sense, can be enabling, even emancipatory. It is a process of changing the world.

In this spirit, the Design Conference, the Design Journals, the On Design Book Imprint and the Design News Blog move between theoretical reflection on the nature of design and case studies of design practice, and from research-based perspectives to the experience-based perspectives of design insiders.