Definition of Design pt. 2 (When you forget to read the outline as you type...)

Reading the original outline I realised that my definition so far left off a number of key points. So, tack this onto the end (it feels tacked on when you read the whole thing through, will have to edit them into something a little less jarring):

What about “paper designs” or other unrealized plans; does design actually require that something be created? The action of making the plan itself, is a form of design. The plan's job is to change its viewer's perception of their environment; to demonstrate a possible future course of action, or an idea to be integrated into the user's world-model.
There are likely other obvious objections to the formulation, but we will take it as a functional definition for now, and move on to considering the scope of design more directly. As may be understood from the previous discussion, design as formulated here is extremely broad, we use “design” in its definition closest to “plan” or “intention”. However, our primary research focus being on the practise of architectural design, we will tend to focus on those aspects of design related to the creation of built environments, with notes regarding differences for other design disciplines.

How does design, as practised by architects, graphic designers, chefs, industrial designers, furniture makers, visual artists and similar practises differ from the more general definition of design?
The traditional “design” disciplines tend to focus on the creation of physical objects. They are focused on the creation of “form”, and are thus “concrete” in their operation.

Non-traditional designers, such as actors, musicians, performance artists, politicians, and philosophers, tend to produce ephemeral or ideological “things” to affect their audience. These “things” are often rendered into physical form by recording or writing, but the form itself is not integral to the thing created. Whether a symphony is recorded on a compact disk or a computer file doesn't change the symphonic creation.

It would be overstating the issue to imagine that the split between the formal and the ephemeral designer are so broad as to constitute a different type of design. The choice of media for expression has many consequences, but every design will have both ephemeral and concrete aspects, the distinction is one of focus, not truly of type.

I have skirted the issue of “better” and “good” design in the previous discussion for good reason, but will here begin to address it. Again, we will precede from Kant, for simplicity's sake. Particularly, Kant's Categorical Imperative proposes that an action should be viewed according to whether the action, were its impact to be magnified across the entire society, would create the type of society that would be desirable to the members of the society. In short, actions which move to achieve your goals, and the broader goals of society, are “good”, while those which would tend to produce an undesirable situation are “bad”.

This formulation pushes the “moral question” to what our goals should be, but while that is an interesting philosophical question, it lies outside of the scope of our discussion of design. Design is action taken to effect a change in the user's perception. The goal of the change doesn't alter the operation of the design process, design can as readily be bent to “evil” ends as “righteous” ones, so while we may feel that our communities should be tight-knit and friendly, and wish to alter our user's perceptions to support that idea, the goal is just an goal within the process, it doesn't affect whether the design itself is well done or effective.
For our purposes, “good” design is design which is effective in achieving its goals, whatever they may be.

Determining the “right” goals for design may be considered a different branch of the philosophy of design, “design morality”. Here we are interested in what may roughly be termed “design epistemology”, a study of how we understand and form models of our world. While a morally sound model for design is important, our focus here is on the way in which the moral goals are transformed into actions.

Similarly, we will not focus here on the practise and craft of design. We will not discuss ergonomics, economics, materials science, or office work-flow patterns, save as they alter the nature of the actions taken and their perception by the user. While craft is important, it is well covered in other texts.

Lastly on this topic, we are not here going to attempt a study of aesthetics. Aesthetics attempts to find a universally “good” form of design. As we are proceeding from Kant, we can see that any attempt to find a universally “good” form must reduce down to discovering artifacts of the human perceptual system. While this can be useful in informing the design process as part of our craft, it's extremely limited scope cannot hope to encompass the breadth of design.


  1. Nicholas Ochiel

    Nicholas Ochiel on 10/28/2005 4:39 p.m. #

    In your post you say that "These “things” are often rendered into physical form by recording or writing, but the form itself is not integral to the thing created. Whether a symphony is recorded on a compact disk or a computer file doesn't change the symphonic creation."<br />
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    I'm, however, not convinced. Scott McCloud, in his book *Understanding Comics. The invisible Art* seems to define design as comprised of the following six elements: Idea/Purpose, *Form*, Idiom, Structure, Craft and Surface.<br />
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    I'm convinced that form is an integral part of design simply because a symphonic creation *can* potentially sound qualitatively different depending on the medium on which it is recorded, bittrate of the computer file, etc. <br />
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    This decision is important. The value of that decision can be evaluated by observing the extremes. Recording on an LP generally produces sound that seems to have more atmosphere (correct me If I'm rambling meaninglessly:). On the other hand, an mp3 recorded at a low bittrate could a stylistic device to introduce artifacts into the sound intentionally.<br />
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    An artist can choose to draw the same image on stone, wood, sand or some other medium.<br />
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    These decisions are all very significant design decisions and can either create good or bad design.<br />

  2. Mike Fletcher

    Mike Fletcher on 10/28/2005 8:16 p.m. #

    My argument here was toward the question of whether actions in an ephemeral media can be considered a form of design, or whether a concrete form is required. It is fairly obvious that creating a particular "thing" (such as a record) to communicate a muscial experience is a form of design according to the formulation presented.<br />
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    However, absent a recording, is there no design? That is, if *concrete* (non-ephemeral) form is a *requirement* of design, then we are forclosed from considering the performing arts as a form of design unless or until someone thinks to record it.<br />
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    The distinction is thus between the concrete and the ephemeral; all actions have a media in which they are carried out, and selection and mastery of the media alters the perception of the action. The design of the symphony, however, the action taken, is different from the design (action, object) of the recording. The symphony was a designed work *before* it was recorded (in the philosophical sense, i.e. it does not depend on being recorded to be a work of design), so while the recording is also a designed work, it is not a work on which the design of the symphony is necessarily dependant.<br />
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    I hope that clarifies the idea I was trying to present. I'll look at further exploring the idea in future drafts.

  3. Nicholas Ochiel

    Nicholas Ochiel on 10/29/2005 1:37 a.m. #

    Ah.... Now I understand the distinction you were trying to make. I believe you have a valid point. <br />
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    Your analogy is perfect: I do consider the performing arts a form of design even without a recording. Thanks for clarifying it for me.

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