What drew us out of the caves and forests into gatherings of our own kind, living in structures we built with our own hands, eating from vessels we meticulously crafted, sleeping in beds of our own construction? What is this insatiable voice that leads us to believe that we have the power to make something from nothing?
What drives our need to design the things we use?
Cave paintings. Clay pots. Smoke signals. Adobe dwellings. Hieroglyphs. Aqueducts. Morse code. The automobile. The iPhone. Everything in history that we’ve ever used to push the human race forward was the result of a careful plan that was executed to solve a particular problem. Whether we were trying to construct a better smoke dissipation system for our cave or are trying to conceive of a car that runs on hydrogen gas, our basic motivation is the same; we are not satisfied with the status quo. We believe that we can, and should, solve problems. Design, in the end, creates a context for understanding our world. I believe that we can’t understand our place in it until we understand how we can make our own place in it.
In the simplest terms, design is the making of things by humans for humans. It is the exchange of knowledge and experience through created objects. While graphic design as a specific discipline is often tied directly to written language, other design disciplines transverse these cultural barriers. A beautiful home is comfortable whether you speak English or French. A lawnmower works just as well in Cambridge or Sydney. In a lot of ways, our designed objects are what bridge these cultural divides and bind us together as the human race. From my perspective, design is a language of love; we believe that we have something to offer to our fellow men that will improve their lives.
Designers reside in the awkward realm of being expected to justify themselves as experts in a field that in the end cannot be objectively quantified. As the field is by necessity fraught with risk and huge amounts of experimentation, the financial prospects of the design frontier are rarely substantial. So, there must be another motivation. One that is more powerful than financial need alone. For some designers this could be the search for beauty, for some it might be a quest for truly elegant function. In the end, we are all driven by our insatiable need to explore, to tweak, to know. Personally, I am driven by the daunting, unshakable belief that I need to learn something about everything. There is nothing that I do not want to know. Design is the path to that interaction with the human mind-scape that I desire.
The ability to recognize a problem and create tools to solve that problem is a uniquely human attribute. While some primates are able to utilize rocks and sticks to break coconuts and gather food, they can’t construct a vision for these objects beyond their original form. They can’t conceive of evolution. Only humans can look at the clouds and say “I want to make a building that touches those. I know I can figure out how to build it.” The ability to conceive of design is intrinsically related to being human. Since design is so intimately entwined with the human pursuit, our belief in design is a noble one.
This does not mean that every object we design needs to be noble in itself. It’s undeniably useful to have clearly-designed bathroom signage or a toothpaste tube that dispenses its product properly. What it does mean, however, is that when we design, we need to always remember the gravity of our capacity for design. We need to make sure that our intent and motivation as practitioners of design live up to this singularity of the human spirit.
While it’s easy to argue points of style and taste when it comes to made objects (Dieter Rams vs. Neville Brody, early Frank Lloyd Wright vs. late Frank Lloyd Wright) these arguments miss the point entirely; what we need to be concerned with when it comes to design is why was it designed, not how was it designed. I believe that the key to a successful piece is to create something with the honest intention to advance the human race in some way, whether that be from a micro perspective (a small-business website) or a macro perspective (Biodomes to regrow the rain forests). Design that is crafted with the appropriate gravity, depth, and passion has a great chance to resonate within the human consciousness and be effective, regardless of stylistic tropes.