Design Death, Democratization and the need for a Definition

Occassionally, a “design celebrity” says something that starts the Design Industry echo chamber buzzing. In April, mention of an interview that Philippe Starck gave popped up in several design blogs. Nussbaum On Design, Frog’s Matter/Anti-Matter, and others.

Occassionally, a “design celebrity” says something that starts the Design Industry echo chamber buzzing. In April, mention of an interview that Philippe Starck gave popped up in several design blogs. Nussbaum On Design, Frog’s Matter/Anti-Matter, and others. Each has a different take on Starck, and more importantly on design, so they are worth a look.

The statement that got them going is Starck’s declaration that “design is dead.” It’s not the first time that Starck has said this, but each time it is met with gasps.

Nussbaum argues, in essence that design isn’t dead, it’s just changing. The change he speaks of is design’s so-called democratization. The tools of design are now available to lots of people…everyone can take part. That’s great, but as I see it design is about judgment, not tools. That free license of Photoshop LE that came with your scanner does not make you a designer, at least not any more than having a skillet makes you a chef. It’s not about having tools, It’s about what you do with those tools.

The same goes for the more exclusive and expensive tools that designers use. Whether it’s Maya, Pro/Engineer, the Adobe Creative Suite, Processing, or a pen and paper. All of them, regardless of your technical acumen with them, can be used to express poor judgment.

Frog’s Tim Leberecht characterizes Starck’s statements as poignant and humbling. Starck certainly seems to be taking himself to task. Perhaps what he means is that he wants to do something different than he has been doing… to raise his game so to speak.

That said, I have a bit of trouble with the blanket nature of Starck’s declaration. Now, maybe I, along with everyone else reacting to the interview, am simply assigning too much weight to what Starck had to say.

Either way, here’s my take.

One quote in particular struck me, because I think it is indicative of a problem with the way design is defined, practiced, employed and valued.

“…I have designed so many things without ever really being interested in them.”

Taken alone, maybe this is Mr. Starck’s way of driving home his point that design is unimportant, but it makes me wonder what exactly he was doing that he called design. How exactly does he define this thing that he declares dead?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of design as something best left to a chosen few. If it were, I’m sure there would be those who would argue against my membership in that club. After all, I’m an engineer, and by some people’s thinking that disqualifies me. In any case, good design, the kind that is worth doing, the kind that addresses a problem meaningfully and adds value requires effort, thought and dedication. It is not about learning to use a piece of software, but about identifying and solving problems, recognizing and addressing opportunities. And it is not necessarily communicated in the beauty shots that adorn design firm web sites.

In the realm of Product Design it is about:

  • how a task might be accomplished,
  • how a user might relate to an object or tool,
  • how that object or tool might better serve its purpose, or
  • it may go further and examine the purpose itself.

The bottom line is, if you don’t have reasons for the solutions you propose, you are dangerously close, as I see it, to designing things “without having much interest in them.” Going through the motions so to speak.

All of these descriptors might be applied to invention, to engineering, to art or to architecture. Substitute observer, audience or client for user if you like. Decide whether you want to emphasize physical form, function or experience, either way you will address them all, either purposefully or passively, so it’s best not to ignore any of them.

Finally, Starck ends with this: “I have been a producer of materiality. I do feel ashamed for this. What I want to be instead now is a producer of concepts. This will be much more useful.” Perhaps, what Starck means to do, is to question the problems designers are called on to solve and their own complicity in creating things destined for a short trip to a landfill near you.

Design viewed as decoration, focused solely on the sale of shiny new objects, or stated another way, focused on short-term ROI at the expense of longer term usefulness, is a real problem. While creating and maintaining corporate profitability may be the goal, we must be careful of reducing the product, to mere background noise in the pursuit of profits. If the corporation and the designer produce things “without ever having any interest in them” we have a problem, but the problem is not with design, it’s with the designer and the corporation. It is a matter of priorities.

Perhaps what he’s trying to say is that he’s tired of not being taken seriously. For all his accolades, he along with many other designers are called on, not to take part in defining and solving problems, but to lend their names and ‘style’ for the sake of selling poorly conceived chotchkies.

What’s your definition of design? How does it fit into your business, and how should it?


For context, you can find a full translation of Starck’s interview with German magazine, Die Zeit at mlle a.

David Oliver | Cusp |