What We Talk About When We Talk About Design

17th February 2015
by Scott Burnett

Last week saw a welcome flurry of discussion about design and its promotion. If it achieves no more, the fledgling year of design seems to have inspired design practitioners to speak up, engaging with the discussion and promotion of their discipline. This to my mind is an extremely important activity that to date has been sadly lacking in Ireland.

I've appropriated the name of Davids post because it underpins all those conversations we'll hopefully continue to have this year and beyond. As such it's integral to us getting the most out of this year and to design finding wider acceptance in Irish life, business and society. But are we constructive in the way we talk about design? Are we making ourselves understood? Or does our use of the d word and our fluid relationship to it make us look like factions of a wacky cult trying to convince the world that we're their salvation. 'Join the UX and see the light!', 'Brand is the one true word, amen!' We need to get better at talking about design, or more importantly what we do as designers.

A fundamental problem is that we move between design as noun, adjective and verb often without being aware we're doing it. This shows the huge shortcomings of the word and makes many conversations unclear or just plain confusing. However what's more problematic is that what we most often talk about when we talk about design is our own professional practice. We talk about our own values, tastes, intentions, contexts, problems, solutions and hedge them all under the general verb/noun/adjective - design.  This of course is misleading and distracting to us never mind the people we're so desperate to impress. Each of us shaping the word to our needs like a lump of plasticine before its snatched by someone else and the cycle continues. I'm pretty sure it does us no favours.

Design is universal. A simple little attribute that allows us to re-imagine our situation. It's used by people across the world every day for all manner of purposes, from fixing holes in fences to building weapons of mass destruction. As professional designers, we're not the guardians of design, just people who are tasked with employing this attribute consistently, at scale, with skill and to achieve a desired impact. Much like the relationship between home cook and chef. Professional practice however is not universal. There are as many ways to practice as there are practitioners. I don't think this is a problem but a strength as long as we're clear about it.

Its my opinion that in order for us to be taken seriously as designers we first need to release our grip on the word design, and secondly to build more constructive conversations around it. To do this we need to accept that most of our conversations are about our own relationships to design. Our values and tastes, the way we want to work. The idea that there's a more right way to be a designer or practice design just permeates a land grab for ownership of the term. This in turn builds walls around our own practices threatening to create a design caste system (with every practitioner believing they're on top of the pile). The ultimate effect being that we not only alienate the wider public but each other.

Without the luxury of better language its up to us to untangle the spaghetti of design, to be critical (starting with ourselves), balanced, accurate, generous and responsible. I think this starts with using the d word less, and being clear about context when we do use it. It needs us to be forthcoming regards our personal and professional biases. To stop mixing up the personal with the universal and most importantly to stop undermining the value of one design practice, approach or context to win points for another.

Most of us want to a help build a better understanding of designs fundamental potential and value. But to do this we often use either / or examples, pitting completely different areas of practice against each other in a winner takes all battle. Doesn't reducing the conversation in this way just damage understanding? Surely showing that there are many ways design can deliver value and that different approaches deliver in different ways just helps make things clearer? By employing this rhetorical approach we're not only devaluing what we're dismissing but what we're arguing for too.

So much discourse on design seeks to legitimise one area of activity, working approach or set of tastes by off handedly undermining others. I'm pretty sure there's space enough for the tactility of craft based design, the slick surface of the 'middle class monocle' approach and the structured 'invisible' design we spend so much time lamenting the lack of. Getting people to think more about one area won't happen by telling them to think less about others.

So the conversation around ID15 should be about how the design profession can make a difference for the country, whether in business, commerce, culture or society, with profession as the key word. The illusive term design only serves to keep us talking in circles, holding those we want to engage at arms length while we argue among ourselves. ID15 can pave the way by expanding the story beyond the object or end product of design, by revealing a rich and varied landscape of practice and showing how different ways of working suit different requirements. Whether this happens or not remains to be seen, regardless, in the wake of 2015 it'll be down to us as professionals to be clear about the way we work, and candid about what value we can deliver rather than espousing the mythical powers of a cult called design.

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