What is designed?
Oftentimes, when you talk to someone in the branding / advertising / consulting industry and ‘design’ comes up, it’s assumed you mean graphic design or industrial design or whatever tangible output your project requires. A segment of design gets extrapolated to represent the whole. And, while this kind of definition works on an ad hoc basis, I feel like it also can lead to false limits in one’s thinking.
Yes, magazine layouts are designed. As are buildings. As is furniture. But should our understanding of design be limited to these forms?
The problem with a limited and situational understanding of design is that it fails to account how design pervades every aspect of human life - from the most obviously designed products (i.e. an iPhone) to the least. Our homes and our cities are designed, of course, but so too are our countries. While national sentiment may suggest otherwise, the lines between countries are arbitrary. And though it’s often forgotten, a country’s folk traditions, its unique history, its popular characteristics are too designed. In anthropology, we often call these ‘invented traditions’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983), but I think they could be equally referred to as ‘designed traditions’. For example, in Norway, the ‘raw material’ of culture was consciously manipulated by nationalists in the 19th century as members of the city bourgeoisie went to rural valleys and presented cultural elements from them as expressions of ‘authentic’ Norwegian culture so that the painted flower patterns, traditional music and peasant food became national symbols ‘even to people who had not grown up with such customs’ (Eriksen 2010). In my understanding, design extends to almost every aspect of human life - from how you dress, to how you eat, to the offices you might go to or the roads you drive on. It affects not only the tangible world and the obviously designed objects, but also certain intangibles that feel natural, inherent.
The question we need to ask ourselves when thinking about design is, I think, whether something could be different. This is important because everything is designed whether or not it was consciously so or left to chance. Indeed, as a leading designer I recently talked to said, the decision not to design is just as significant as the decision to design.
I would argue that thinking about design in this way is powerful - both in that it liberates you from the often implied boundaries of the discipline and because it points to the systems of power and influence which informs who designs things, which designs become naturalized, and why.