Saturday, October 25, 2008


“What is art?” this age old question is still alive and well today, and the answer, as always, remains ambiguous. At RISD all students must deal with this question at least during their freshman year while they grapple with new freedoms and challenges. After this time many students go on to fine arts majors where they continue to grapple with the question. Wikipedia says “art is the process or product of deliberately and creatively arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions, especially beauty.” One would be hard pressed to find a painting major that would say beauty is enough to make something art, in fact it is for this reason that many feel illustration is not art. Many feel that art must convey a message and should be clear and concise. Others say that art should simply evoke some kind of emotion, some feel that it is enough to have some deep personal motivation that is apparent only to the artist and never the viewer. Many artists today claim that everything is art including their “lifestyle.” Certainly these questions pertain to painters, printmakers, sculptors and the like, but what about “designers”? It seems that questions are not asked nearly so much of the definition of design as they are art. No one is asked us sophomore year “what is design?” at least not with any importance, nor were we given a definition to work with. It seems that our role as designers is simply inferred from a popular culture driven by consumerism. In this culture that is causing many would be “artists” to become “designers” it is not surprising that people aren’t asking questions; it is assumed that design is simply a “real job” for creative people. Rather than settling for this we should be asking questions. What is design?

To begin to answer this question is an enormous task. The first step in answering this is establishing some point of reference from which we can base further speculation. It is commonly accepted that design is different from art in that it has a function beyond decoration; it is functional. In order to use this statement we must define ‘functional’. The dictionary definition of functional is “having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was created.” A key word in this definition is utilitarian which is defined as “having regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty, ornamentation, etc.” It is clear, however, that the world does not accept this as a definition of design. If this were the case posters would be two-toned and have the largest type-face possible, all buildings and cars and shoes would look the same and be made of the most durable and least expensive material possible. Color and pattern would be of no significance. In essence if we accept this definition of design we are stuck with pure functionalism.

Functionalism is, no doubt, a huge factor in design today and has been since the end of the Victorian era when Modernism began. Modernism is a term used to describe the aesthetic of functionalism between the turn of the century and the mid-late twentieth century. Modernism advocated a bare bones approach to “design.” It centered on cost, industrial production, and efficiency. Modularity became popular in this time largely advocated by the architect Corbusier. But as pure as these designers tried to be in their thought and as much as they broke with old ideals of beauty they were certainly concerned with creating their own aesthetic. This concern for aesthetic proves that a purely functionalist definition of design is not a sufficient one; beauty always must play a role. Moreover, it cannot just be any beauty. The stark beauty of modernism no doubt has a strong appeal but to many proved uninhabitable, and even inhuman. Ray and Charles Eames, two of the greatest proponents of modernist industrial design and architecture, themselves had a home “cluttered” with nick knacks and decorations.

As a side note which is might be helpful in defining design, this is a point at which design largely breaks from art. As we have just noted modernist design was largely inaccessible to the masses and was therefore ineffective. In the same way modernist art was inaccessible and was largely rejected. This triggered a turning inward an incurvatus in se, that the art world has largely not recovered from and has caused many to claim that art is dead. Conversely the world of design is in a much different state, because it has been forced to deal with the faults of modernism, though it is hard to say if design is healthier.

Based on this apparent need for humane beauty and the consideration of the individual in design, we must re-shape our definition of design. We could say that design must be functional, utilitarian and simultaneously aware of its user. This is roughly the definition we see today, the one that is most accepted at RISD and beyond. It involves identifying user groups, researching markets and ergonomic studies; it puts the human before the product, or so it seems. Ironically, design has, to some extent, become a tool for taking money from individuals, many of whom cannot afford it, and giving it to those who already have it. At the same time it is indirectly creating waste that is harmful to everyone on earth. Design is being used by the rich executive who is made or broken by the level of exploitation and deceit they are able to achieve. In this sense design is in no way putting humanity before product. Our current definition of design is meager and ambiguous and, in our disposable, consumer culture, it panders to the deceitful and wasteful.

Thankfully things are starting to change. With the rise of awareness about the environment, the current world financial crisis and continued humanitarian travesties the design world is beginning to wake up. Designers are a crucial cog in the machine of the modern consumer market and thus have potential power. Being a financially stable, skilled and critically thinking group of individuals, designers have not only power but also the responsibility to bring about change. Those below us on the chain of production are largely financially bound and those above us have too much to lose. As the next generation of designers we must redefine ourselves in a way that will stabilize our economy, aid those in need and protect our planet.

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