Monday, August 13, 2007

Design Guy, Episode 2, What is Design?

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Design Guy here. Welcome to the show.

This is the program that explores timeless principles of design, and explain them simply.

Today, we'll tackle the fundamental question. The one that frames everything to follow. So, before we get too specific, to define, say, graphic design, we want to begin by asking, "What is design?" What is design, itself? Now, there's a number of ways to answer the question. But the definition that I believe really distills it down to its essence, is this one:

Design is the act of creating order out of chaos.(1)

And what is chaos, but a randomness. It's a senseless jumble of elements. It's an absence of rules, a complete breakdown from any scheme that would lend sense or reason, or purpose or meaning to anything. And as human beings, we all have a desire for this order, it's a drive that's in our individual and collective psyche. That need to move away from chaos is in all of us. And when we're engaged in design, that's what's going on under the surface. It's really what's driving our efforts and moving our hands as our minds are churning away on the problem.

Now, as a theme, this idea of order versus chaos runs really deep in our culture. It forms the foundation of our sacred books. Take the Bible for example, which starts right off, of course, with an account of creation. But what's even more interesting in light of our definition of design, is that it goes on to describe the earth being initially formless, and void, basically in a state of chaos, as if it's just raw material. And it's only after this Creator performs an act of Design by ordering it, that he can declare it "good." When it was chaos, it was not good or pleasing. But now that everything has been put into order, with purpose and function, it can be declared good. And the same account goes on to describe mankind as having been made in the image of a Creator/Designer. And, of course, man is ever ordering and designing his world. Some of us listening today would describe ourselves as creative professionals as we go about desiging the little worlds of our websites or posters or books, etc. So, we see this concept everywhere we look. It's all around us.

So as designers, we're constantly engaged in it as we do our work, which boils down to combining many elements into cohesive whole. The more successful we are at integrating elements, the better our design outcomes will be. I like the word "integrate", especially in light of it's opposite, which is "disintegrate," which basically means to fall apart. I think that's why we speak in terms of design problems. They're like puzzles to be put together, or strings to be unknotted. As visual designers, we help untangle the problem of communication for our clients. We give shape and form and hierarchy to their message. Without our help, things fall apart. There's less meaning or purpose or sense to things that are poorly designed.

So, if you call yourself a "designer", you want to realize that you're providing a true service to others in that you're helping them to order and make sense of their worlds: You just completed a website for some local musicians - well, you've just advanced how they perceive themselves, and how they want to communicate that idea to the world. You've created packaging for a new product - you've just given expression to something, you've somehow made it more tangible, so that people taking it off the shelf with their hands, can better grasp it with their minds, and assign meaning to it. This could be something mundane, a bottle of organic dandruff shampoo, but you've enhanced understanding and meaning so that others can better fit this new thing into the order of their lives, and be happier for it. And this kind of enhancement of order and purpose and meaning captures somewhat of the definition and high calling of design.

And that's it for today. If you'd like to check out show notes, theyr'e available at my web page, which is Music is by I thank you for listening, and hope to have you back again.


1. White, Alex, The Elements of Graphic Design: Space, Unity, Page Architechture, and Type, Allworth Press, 2002

1 comment:

Faith said...

just wanted to let you know that I'm using this episode as part of my introductory lesson to a high school art history class I'm teaching to international students right now. Such a great big picture view of what design means for us created beings!
Thanks for all your lucid podcasts.