Design is the human power to conceive, plan, and make all of the products that serve human beings in the accomplishment of their individual and collective purposes. It is a cultural art and a practical art, supporting all forms of activity in the human community by providing a high degree of forethought for communications, artifacts, actions, and organizations. The practice of design provides the subject matter and examples upon which the arts and sciences of communication base a significant portion of research and theory. In turn, the exploration of rhetoric and the arts and sciences of communication deepens awareness of the dimensions of communication in design and human-made products.
The origins of design are prehistoric, since one of the signs of the emergence of human culture is the images and artifacts created by the first humans. However, the beginning of formal discussion of design and human-made products may be traced to the ancient world, in philosophical and technical writings in both Greece and China. The earliest technical writings were about architecture, instruments for measuring time, and weapons of war. In the west, those discussions were shaped by a broad conception of rhetoric as an intellectual art of invention and communication. In the east, they were related to dialectic as well as rhetoric, placing communication in a context of social hierarchy and duty.
The origins of modern design are traced to the Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution, because it was in this period that a significant division of labor distinguished the conception and planning of products from the manufacture of products by machines. Before this, both designing and making were in the hands of artisans. Craft remains a part of design, particularly in developing countries, as a popular art form in industrialized countries, or as an aspect of design practice, evident in the crafting of prototypes. But from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, design evolved from a craft activity into a trade activity and then into a growing body of professions, based on new disciplines of design thinking and more explicit methods of practice.
The new disciplines of design thinking emerged in a variety of places in Europe and the United States, but the Bauhaus (1918 –1933), a school established in Germany during the Weimar period, is widely regarded as the place where these disciplines emerged around a single coherent vision. It was Walter Gropius, director of the Bauhaus, who expressed the idea of a “modern architectonic art” that would be all-embracing in its scope, creating all of the products and buildings that were designed for industrial production. With Gropius and the Bauhaus, we have the beginnings of design as a new liberal art of technological culture, with diverse forms of professional practice but also providing a broad intellectual and practical perspective on the human-made world that all men and women may use in understanding products and technological developments.
The history of design in the twentieth century took shape around a sequence of fundamental problems that represent a coherent practical inquiry into the human-made world, which continues to affect virtually every aspect of daily life. This is reflected in the expanding concept of “product.” At the beginning of the twentieth century, product usually meant a physical artifact – the result of industrial design. By the twenty-first century, product means any result of the creative work of designers. Designers and design theorists often recognize four broad classes of products, sometimes called the “four orders of design,” representing different kinds of design problems and different aspects of communication.
Areas Of Modern Design Practice And Research
Early in the twentieth century, the problems of design were identified in two great areas of collective enterprise: mass communication and mass production. The first area, mass communication, focuses on symbols and images, yielding a class of products whose explicit purpose is communication. It uses words, numbers, drawings, paintings, diagrams, and photographs to achieve the diverse ends of communication in daily life. Work in this area gave rise to graphic design and its allied professions, including modern typography, book design, newspaper and magazine design, early forms of information design, and advertising. The evolution of the term “graphic design” into “visual communication” and, most recently, “communication design” indicates the field that emerged. It is a field of communication and demonstration, presenting information and arguments for audiences in all areas of culture. It began in the medium of print but expanded with the technological development of new media such as film, sound recording, television, and digital communication.
The second area of design problems, mass production, focuses on physical artifacts, yielding the class of tangible goods, objects, buildings, and technological marvels that are often regarded as the most visible sign of modern technological culture. Work in this area gave rise to industrial design and product design (the branch of industrial design primarily concerned with consumer goods), as well as new developments in engineering design and architecture. It also extended into other areas such as textile, clothing, and fashion design, and led to the exploration of a vast array of new materials based on advances in physics, chemistry, and biology.
It is a field of construction, concerned with the conception and fabrication of the physical artifacts of everyday life, based on knowledge of the natural world and of the human and cultural context of products. Communication in this class of products begins with control features and the interface between the product and the person who uses or operates it. It also includes operating instructions, service manuals, and packaging. Finally, it includes the subtle, indirect communication that comes from forms and materials, with the complex symbolism and cultural associations that these have in different human communities.
Work in the first and second orders of design continues to yield a flood of good and bad products that influence daily life around the world. However, in the latter decades of the twentieth century, two new problem areas emerged with revolutionary importance for design thinking and human culture, yielding the third and fourth classes of products.
Actions And Activities
The third class of products focuses on actions and activities. It involves the design of activities for living, working, playing, and learning. Work in this area gave rise to new professional divisions of design practice such as interaction design, service design, strategic planning, game design, and new forms of information design. Though prompted by the development of new digital technologies in the 1960s and 1970s, where designers were asked to support the dynamic, time-based flow of interface and interaction with computers, this area has expanded in many directions . It has led off the “flat land” of computer screens into the design of activities that support a wide variety of human experiences.
In this broad class of products, communication serves the advancement of specific human activities; information is no longer regarded as a static subject to be presented in printed form but is understood as part of the temporal progression of experience toward some goal. Designing the progression of an activity is the central concern, though often supported by graphics and artifacts. From the earliest times in history, human beings have attempted to plan their activities, whether in battle or politics, education or law, religion or governmental administration.
Today, however, the planning and execution of human activities is increasingly understood as a design problem, requiring a designer’s forethought and communication skills to make the activities more effective in serving the goals of individuals and groups. This is evident in many areas of commercial life, but it is also evident in efforts to improve the delivery of government services and education. The design of human interactions and services is one of the most important ways in which the real intent and values of an organization are communicated to its participants.
Creation Of Environments, Organizations, And Systems
The fourth class of products focuses on the creation of environments, organizations, and systems. It involves the context in which human activities take place and the values and principles upon which human-made environments are based. This class of products typically integrates many activities as well as products from the other classes into a system or whole with many interacting components. Designers working in this area often regard themselves as facilitators of organizational or community process. They organize conversations and debates among all of those who have a stake in the outcome, focusing on the values of a community and how those values may be implemented in concrete plans and actions.
Work in this area is an emergent design practice with a wide variety of applications. Examples include the design of nature parks and amusement parks, businesses and governmental agencies, complex technological and information systems, and any other human environment, whether for medical care, education, entertainment, or some other purpose. What distinguishes this kind of design from earlier efforts to conceive of systems and environments is typically the designer’s use of specific methods of practice and communication, as well as explicit recognition that a concrete product is the intended outcome. Significantly, work in this area has helped to raise consciousness of the issues of sustainability and interdependency in the natural and human-made world.
Method Of Design
Many people regard design as an art of styling and aesthetics, concerned primarily with the visual appearance of products. This is a serious misconception of the nature and discipline of design thinking. The “visual” in “visual communication” captures only part of the work of the designer. Designers create products to solve problems, and the central feature of their work is the discovery of the ideas and arguments upon which products are based.
The method or practice of design typically begins with an understanding of the function or purpose to be served by a product, including the social, economic, and cultural context. Next is the development of suitable form and content, based upon the subject matter of the product, the needs and desires of the intended audience, and the most appropriate quality of “voice” or “ethos” that will be influential and persuasive with that audience, inducing identification with the product.
Then comes the embodiment of form and content in appropriate materials, with determination of the styling and appearance of the product that will make it attractive and desirable for the intended users or audience. Finally, there are considerations of the manner of production and distribution of the product. Design thinking integrates all of these factors in the final product, and variation among the factors serves to distinguish the wide range of products that are available in contemporary life.
Design As A Research Field
The study of design encompasses history, criticism, and theory, including empirical investigation as well as philosophical speculation. In general, there are three broad topics of investigation: the nature of products and their creation in varied circumstances; the nature of the arts, methods, and techniques of design practice and product development; and the “career” of products in individual, social, economic, and cultural life. These topics are explored in three broad strategies of inquiry. First, dialectical inquiries (idealist, materialist, and skeptical) seek to place design in the context of larger systems of philosophical or cultural understanding. Second, the inquiries of design science search for basic underlying mechanisms in the workings of the mind and the material world. Third, inquiry, in the precise meaning of the term, is the exploration of human experience through analysis and synthetic or creative action, involving either rhetorical inquiry or productive science, known in the ancient world as “poetics.” In all of its variety, design research represents a pluralism of perspectives, reflecting the pluralism of practicing designers.
Ethics plays a significant role in design thinking because the problems of design are often “wicked problems,” involving conflicting values and visions that require careful consideration of the consequences of products in natural, social, and cultural life. However, many designers and design scholars would agree that design is fundamentally an affirmation of human dignity. It is an ongoing search for what can be done to support and strengthen human rights and the dignity of human beings as they act out their lives in responsible ways in varied natural, social, economic, political, and cultural circumstances.
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