Design thinking

The ultimate union of function and beauty: lyre-back armchair by Thomas Chippendale in the Library at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust Images/John Gibbons

The ultimate union of function and beauty: lyre-back armchair by Thomas Chippendale in the Library at Nostell Priory. ©National Trust Images/John Gibbons

I have been reading a thought-provoking book by Alice Rawsthorn entitled Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, analysing the pervasive presence and multi-facted role of design.

Fit for purpose, 1950s-style: melamine picnic set in the Butlers Passage at Tyntesfield. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Fit for purpose, 1950s-style: melamine picnic set in the Butlers Passage at Tyntesfield. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Rawsthorn shows how ‘design thinking’ (in David Kelly’s phrase) can help us to analyse problems, find solutions and persuade others to adopt them. She persuasively argues that design is not just high-end styling, but also includes aspects of psychology, sociology, communication and politics.

Shaping and shaped by the means of production: two engine-turned creamware vases produced by Josiah Wedgewood, in the Library at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Shaping and shaped by the means of production: two engine-turned creamware vases produced by Josiah Wedgewood, in the Library at Saltram. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Josiah Wedgwood was engaging in design thinking when he brought together kiln technology, aesthetics, logistics and marketing to create and sell his eponymous ceramics. But so are the street traders and itinerant technicians of present-day Beijing when they customise their battered tricycles to suit their individual needs.

Functional, beautiful, but potentially deadly: mid eighteenth century pistol at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Functional, beautiful, but potentially deadly: mid eighteenth century pistol at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

I don’t agree with everything Rawsthorn posits in this book, but that is partly what makes it an engaging read. She equates good design with moral integrity, which I find slightly problematic. Weapons, for instance, though intended to wound or kill, can be both aesthetically beautiful and technically efficient. I think they can be called ‘good’ from the point of view of design even if one might call them ‘bad’ from an ethical perspective. It seems to me we need to treat moral virtue and design quality as two separate issues – without denying the importance of either.

Is it design or is it art: carved wooden finial in the shape of a sea monster, on the Oak Staircase at Clandon Park. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Is it design or is it art: carved wooden finial in the shape of a sea monster, on the Oak Staircase at Clandon Park. ©National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

One the other hand, when Rawsthorn states that design and art can never be the same thing – because the former always has a function whereas the latter doesn’t necessarily have one – I don’t agree with her either. I tend to think that even ‘fine’ art fulfills all sorts of functions, it is just that they are slightly more abstract or intangible than those of design. Moreover, we live in an age when art and design seem to be increasingly resembling each other, and to her credit Rawsthorn describes some fascinating examples of that tendency.

Humble functionality, timeless beauty: mahogany 'Windsor' armchair, c.1760, in the Hall Gallery at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Humble functionality, timeless beauty: mahogany ‘Windsor’ armchair, c.1760, in the Hall Gallery at Ham House. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

But I am fully in agreement with the author about the list of qualities she thinks design and designers need in order to break free from the limitations of elitism and preciousness that have become associated with this profession. Rawsthorn argues that design needs more openness and empathy and that it needs to combine boldness with humility. It strikes me that those virtues are equally relevant to the museums and heritage sector.

10 Responses to “Design thinking”

  1. Deana@lostpastremembered Says:

    You know, this is a topic close to my heart. I do believe that design affects us in so many ways, both good bad and indifferent.

    A few years ago, someone made the point that 100 years ago, an impoverished seamstress worked at a beautifully decorated machine and that in the 1990s, CEOs were working on horrid plastic computers.

    If you ask me, Steve Jobs genius was hiring a great designer to elevate their product lines and in so doing, fed the consumer’s egos by implying what they did deserved beautiful equipment not cheap plastic… not elitist or precious but supplying something that says you are worth elegant products that work beautifully –– Apple honors you. At its best, that’s what design does.

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes exactly, and interestingly Rawsthorn too mentions Jobs as doing something quite similar to what Wedgwood did, i.e. creating a new category of desirable goods through a thoroughgoing application of design thinking.

  3. Susan Walter Says:

    There is also the issue of being able to separate the designer’s morals from the object designed. It doesn’t make sense at all to link designing and morals.

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Indeed, that perennial temptation to indulge in biographical fallacy :)

    Equally, I don’t think you can entirely separate the artist or designer from the work, but it is never a straightforward relationship. I tend to think Marcel Duchamp made a good stab at describing that ineffable ‘art coefficient’ (or should that be ‘design coefficient’, in this case?): the relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed.

  5. MJH Design Arts Says:

    Great post. More of these please. Design vs. art which one is taking the lead today?

  6. artandarchitecturemainly Says:

    Thanks for the book that most Bauhaus designers would have given their eye teeth for.

    Most people would agree that design is not just high-end styling, but also includes aspects of “psychology, sociology, communication and politics”. But what art object does not? Wedgwood is a great example, with his aesthetics, logistics and marketing plans. But perhaps he just did it better than anyone else.

  7. Robert M. Kelly Says:

    A yeasty post well curated.

    Works like Rawsthorn’s will help to bring about a re-definition for “design” and more so the discussions (like this one) that ensue. I wonder why she states that design and art are at odds and that design must have utility. On the contrary, there are entire categories of objects that make no sense at all, but just look good, or are enjoyable. The sea-beast on the handrail is the perfect illustration.

    Rawsthorn is far from the first to assign moral values to design. Of course the fervent Pugin comes to mind. But, the qualities of openness and empathy, boldness and humility that she seeks may have already been attained. We find these in the material culture of everyday life.

    A good place to start might be a general store (perhaps even a Dollar Store these days in the States) where brooms, cans, waste baskets, and potholders fulfill a function and yet are designed objects at the same time.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    MJH, that is a very good question, perhaps something to explore in a future post.

    Helen, yes I agree: good art and good design do very similar things, in mediating between the individual and the world.

    Thanks Robert. And by using the word ‘curated’ you make me wonder whether that can be synonymous with ‘designed’. Of course the design of an exhibition usually means the display cases and the graphics and the lighting etc, whereas the curation is about the – traditionally more prestigious – choice of the exhibits. But aren’t they in fact two sides of the same coin? After all, the lighting can be just as eloquent as the choice and juxtaposition of the objects.

    Interestingly, Rawsthorn echoes your appreciation of well-designed everyday objects by referring to the ‘Super Normal’ concept: http://www.jaspermorrison.com/html/4996075.html. And again I am reminded of Marcel Duchamp and his beautifully banal/banally beautiful ‘readymades’.

  9. Richard Law Says:

    These are interesting questions. I have just started reading a (pdf) book called By Hand & Eye written by George R. Walker & Jim Tolpin (Lost Art Press 2013 ISBN: 0985077751)

    This book explores how craftsmen of the pre-industrial age used proportions to make pleasing designs at the bench. This was done mostly with a ruler and dividers. The maker and designer were truly one and the same.

  10. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes that is a fascinating question, how designing and making gradually diverged. Glenn Adamson, now the director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, gave an excellent talk about that at the the Furniture: Making and Meaning symposium last year.

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