• 06.23.09

Was Einstein a Designer? Relatively, No.

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.


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.

Read more of Gadi Amit’s The New Deal blog
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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.

About the author

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.