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How Should We Define "Design"?

I just came back from Denmark where my client, Better Place, received the INDEX Community design award for creating a complete electric vehicle services system. It was an amazing ceremony and the Danish organizers ran a flawless design gathering both in content and in spirit. I truly enjoyed it!

Better PlaceHowever, I returned a bit conflicted after talking to many designers and participants from across the globe. There is a feeling of confusion around INDEX's definition of design, and how it reflects current trends in the design world.

Over dinner, Chris Bangle, the former chief of BMW's design group, expressed concern whether any bright idea for solving a social problem, is by definition "design." At a different event, industrial and furniture designer Hella Jongerius suggested to me that a different object—itself an award winner—had 'too little' design. Or does 'design' imply something new or different than before?

kivaAlice Rawsthorn covered the conference for the International Herald Tribune, and had some interesting observations about this "new design," among them the acknowledgement that other factors, such as financial resources and political clout are also necessary for even the most clever design solution to get traction.

Based on this, one may ask few interesting questions:

  1. Is there truly a "new design" phenomenon?
  2. Is any idea, whether it's an initiative for social progress or a clever way to market movies, enough to be declared a work of design?
  3. Can a construct such as a "process," "business plan" or a "system" be work of design?
  4. Lastly, are these metaphysical constructs always design or is there a threshold of beauty, a rigorous process, or another quality standard that must be met for something to be considered a design? In other words, is a 'business plan' always a form of "new design" or does it have to involve some level of good, "old fashioned" design to be considered more than an ordinary business plan? And, if the latter, what are the requisite elements that would distinguish one from the other?

What do you think? Should "design" be better defined?

[Images: INDEX winners Better Place and Kiva.org]

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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.