Was Einstein a Designer? Relatively, No.

einstein In his recent post, "Design is Too Important to be Left to Thinkers," Robert Brunner made a good point about how every Tom, Dick, corporate strategist, and engineer is now calling himself a "design thinker." This issue needs a deeper look.

In 1921, Albert Einstein won a Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect, based on a paper he published in 1905. The physics behind every solar panel was effectively described and understood by Einstein. Does that mean Einstein was a designer?

I'm guessing if he were living today, many design institutions and pundits would rush to declare him "The Grand Designer of All Things Solar!" However, I would disagree. Einstein is obviously one of humanity's greatest minds, absolutely the gold-standard for creative thinking, and one seriously interesting character.

Still, not a designer.

night-watch

Think of another example: Rembrandt's fabulous painting, The Night Watch. It was commissioned by Captain Frans Banning Cocq and 17 members of his squad, and was destined to be hung in the banquet hall of their meeting house. In the context of today's world, Captain Cocq and his squad were the clients, but were they also the real artists? The "painting thinkers?"

Can you fathom that? No more painters, or artists, just "art thinkers"? After all, they commissioned the work, set the brief, even argued and guided the painter in position and order. (Captain Cocq—dressed in black, with a red sash—and his lieutenant, Willem van Ruytenburch, get pride of place, in the center of the painting). In current design-world speak, they were the "thinkers": they came up with the idea, and even suggested funding (18 members of the militia kicked in a total of 1,600 guilders), so why not give one Frans Banning Cocq credit for one of Holland's most famous artworks? Also, there's the fact that Rembrandt did have help from quite a few assistants, so why is he so famous?

Where am I going with this? Simply put, there is a massive push to trivialize the act of design and with it, the designer's unique position. It is an immoral and anti-cultural behavior that is widespread. Although in the English language the verb "design" could be attributed to many aspects of creation (from floral design to microprocessor design) in the public/cultural/media vernacular, design generally means one thing: the creation of a visual object of a cultural importance.

But that cultural aura is the reason it's suddenly so cool to be a designer and that's the very reason why there is a pile-up of love around the use of this term. To paraphrase MoMA's design curator, Paola Antonelli, in a world full of complexities, designers become the ultimate intellectuals. Intel runs a great commercial with its USB inventor, Ajay Bhatt, as a rock star. It says a lot about our current media culture and the case in point is simple—no one typically thinks of the USB inventor as a true rock star...but maybe we should, right?

Then why is Rembrandt the real artist and not a mere vendor for a squad of art thinkers? It's because of all the things Rembrandt put in The Night Watch that are beyond the brief. The way he interpreted the brief, the way he fought the brief, and the way he made his client go beyond the obvious, the non-verbal, non-cerebral things: the nuances, the whimsical postures, the color palette and many more. Basically designers are unique for all the things "thinkers" cannot visualize and cannot imagine. That's the true reason why design (like art) is such a precious word. The interpretation of the idea from verbal-cognitive to a visual-emotional is the magic designers bring to the world.

And where does morality come in? Somehow designers feel philosophically-weak in defending the uniqueness of design creation. They're uncomfortable saying that artists and designers are different from other types of thinkers or those with great ideas. It seems undemocratic or elitist. Fortunately, smarter people have already dealt with the issue. There is a body of law dealing with moral rights and it is becoming more applicable every day.

Regardless of the practical meaning and application of such law, the philosophy behind that legal concept is relevant. It establishes our society's interest in protecting the cultural authorship generally and the visual creative class specifically. Beyond functional ownership, copyrights and such, moral rights speak implicitly about the important role designers and artists have in our society. Moral right philosophy applies only to a visual work of art. Hence, there is a special place in legal and moral philosophy for these very nuanced forms of creation: The visual arts. That morality is the core of my (and Brunner's) disdain of the design-thinking crowd. Like it or not, that set of values suggests strongly that it is immoral for non-designers to be associated with the visual intangible that designers and artist bring to our world.

So here is my bottom line. Albert Einstein, Captain Frans Banning Cocq, Ajay Bhatt, and many others are important and amazingly creative individuals. We should celebrate their contribution to humanity in any way possible. Just don't call them designers.

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Design is Too Important to be Left to Thinkers

Gadi Amit is the president of NewDealDesign LLC, a strategic design studio in San Francisco. Founded in 2000, NDD has worked with such clients as Better Place, Sling Media, Palm, Dell, Microsoft, and Fujitsu, among others, and has won more than 70 design awards. Amit is passionate about creating design that is both socially responsible and generates real world success.

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5 Comments

  • Tim Hulford

    Ha, Steve, I don't think your statement is ridiculous. Tim, you gotta agree that the definition of design is a moving target, particularly nowadays. The word design, along with what it means, along with everything connected to the idea of design has the right/obligation to change precisely when enough people start agreeing with each other about it. It's a slippery little devil, but perhaps we do it to ourselves...There is a joke: "How many designers does it take to screw in a light bulb?" The answer is "Does it have to be a lightbulb?" Even designers laugh a little when they hear that one.
    Something I admire about many of Gadi's posts, is that I often find in them an archetype of the designer-as-craftsman, the doer, the one who puts together the pieces, brings clarity to confusion, fights, questions, elevates, etc. The designer, by this archetype, is someone I imagine to be a bit of a cowboy, or maybe a quintessential "man of action."
    But then I read about how several high-profile designers and design firms are consciously stepping away from the role of "design doer" and marketing themselves as "design thinkers." They are citing the worrysome prediction that someday in the near future the thinking will be done here and the doing will be done elsewhere. They see the true value of the designer to be moving "upstream," perhaps further and further from the reach of the traditional "design doer." I don't think they're crazy, and I don't think they're wrong...I even think they will retain the right to call themselves "designers" as the definition will have changed by then...perhaps in order for the title to position itself more intimately with where the money and the prestige is.

  • Steve Portigal

    Tim, I guess it is a perfectly ridiculous statement if you willfully misconstrue it. What I actually wrote was "no one can agree on who is designing" but regardless my point is not literally that there is no one person who agrees with any other person (that would require a lot of opinions to choose from) but that the people who are involved in the discussion (which includes those with design degrees and those without) can not collectively come to agreement. This discussion (and dozens of others elsewhere on the FC blogs and the rest of the blogosphere) are proof positive of that fact. Perhaps because you see your own answer to that question you don't think the disagreement - which is certainly symbolic of a real challenge to the practice nowadays - is valid. I guess you can deny it, but it'd be nice if you could discuss it.

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    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/

  • Tim Johnson

    Thanks for a great article. I am appalled at this trend to co-opt design. I see it as an ever-increasing encroachment on truth itself. I've been at it long enough to remember a time when if you called yourself a designer, and you weren't, you'd get laughed at and called a fool. Creative thinking is not the same as design. Everyone can think creatively, and there are lots of people who can channel creativity (their own and that of others) to solve problems and invent or express important new truths. But that process doesn't make someone a designer any more than balancing a checkbook or preparing a tax return makes someone an accountant.

    I believe the biggest mistake our profession ever made is the failure to develop a certification standard. If there was certification in our industry, folks like Mr. Portigal wouldn't say things like "Since no one can agree on what design is..." which is a perfectly ridiculous statement. There are plenty of people who agree on what design is. The problem is we get drowned out by those who want to steal words because they either aren't creative enough to make up a new one, or they arrogantly dismiss the body of knowledge and the artistic talent required for someone to actually be worthy of the title.

    Tim Johnson
    Brandwave

  • Tim Johnson

    Thanks for a great article. I am appalled at this trend to co-opt design. I see it as an ever-increasing encroachment on truth itself. I've been at it long enough to remember a time when if you called yourself a designer, and you weren't, you'd get laughed at and called a fool. Creative thinking is not the same as design. Everyone can think creatively, and there are lots of people who can channel creativity (their own and that of others) to solve problems and invent or express important new truths. But that process doesn't make someone a designer any more than balancing a checkbook or preparing a tax return makes someone an accountant.

    I believe the biggest mistake our profession ever made is the failure to develop a certification standard. If there was certification in our industry, folks like Mr. Portigal wouldn't say things like "Since no one can agree on what design is..." which is a perfectly ridiculous statement. There are plenty of people who agree on what design is. The problem is we get drowned out by those who want to steal words because they either aren't creative enough to make up a new one, or they arrogantly dismiss the body of knowledge and the artistic talent required for someone to actually be worthy of the title.

  • Steve Portigal

    Since no one can agree on what design is, it makes sense that no one can agree on who is designing (and if one does designing, does one become a designer?). I have also heard people talk about "design" and "Design." But none of those things make it any clearer, they just seem to be ways to shout louder and try to own the vocabulary that makes up the conversation.

    In discussions and facilitation around brainstorming, my colleagues and I have been encouraging everyone to use words and/or pictures to express themselves. My take has been "anyone can draw well enough to do this" but I've seen a few people that have tried to sidestep the "draw" verb by suggesting that people instead puts "lines on the page" and not worry about whether they are drawing or not. So this movement to reclaim the meaning of words (art, draw, design, etc.) back to the authentic providers is always hampered by people trying to do better at their process by sharing and demystifying.

    I've spent my career doing things while other people tell me I can't do them because THEY do them. I don't claim to be a designer, or an anthropologist, or whatever. And those degree-bestowed professionals can always point to their credentials, but usually its too late.

    I'd like to see a discussion about preserving the value of the term "design" and the role of the "designer" that takes an inclusive bent, not a defensive posture. What do you think Gadi?

    --
    Portigal Consulting - http://www.portigal.com/
    All This ChittahChattah - http://www.portigal.com/blog/