What design can’t do

Designers simply lack the power, resources and knowledge to even begin to address these so called wicked problems that are ill-defined and highly complex

Essay by Dirk Osinga. Part of Episode #2.

In the summer of 2020, when we all had time to reflect, architect Jacques Herzog was asked by his equally famous colleague David Chipperfield, who was at that time guest editor of Domus, what architects should do about larger societal issues like the climate crisis, socio-economic inequality and the current COVID-19 pandemic. His short and maybe cynical answer was: nothing. His longer answer was more nuanced.1 But why are architects and designers asked such a question in the first place? What makes them believe they could even begin to address these issues? 

There are at least four reasons for this belief. The first reason is the conviction that we are all designers and everything is design. Secondly designers naturally care about how things work in the world and how they appear, look or feel. Designers are practical, ethical and aesthetical beings.2 Thirdly is the spirit of modernism which can be summarised as ‘be critical of the past, celebrate the now, but change the future’ has never left the discipline, even though it suffered a serious blow in architecture. Fourth is the widespread notion, fed by design critics and theoreticians, that design solves problems. 

In her book ‘design as an attitude’ critic Alice Rawsthorn wants to redefine the role of the discipline not as a provider of luxury products but as ‘an agent of change that helps us to interpret changes [..] to ensure that they will affect us positively [..].3 Furthermore she states ‘There is absolutely no doubt that we need design to address the huge problems mankind is facing,’ and heralds the resolving power of design.4 And though the design author Don Norman partly debunks the myth that designers uniquely excel in creative processes promoted by design thinking, though recognises the importance of the creative and critical outsider, who is by the way most of the time not welcome, he still thinks it is a useful myth to convince people that “designers do more than make things look pretty” because “design methods can be applied to any problem.” In other words Norman also wants to transform design “from the world of form and style to that of function and structure”.5

Both these authors seem to selectively echo Victor Papanek who was one of the first designers to be critical of design while promoting the idea of design for social change. He stated that the most important ability of designers is to recognise, define and solve problems.6 However these authors all seem to confuse two things, namely the difference between design as a discipline and design as an activity. Design as an activity is developing a plan for and the purpose behind the implementation of a desired result or the result itself based on a plan in a visual or physical form. In this sense we are all designers even when we clean our houses or go to the supermarket with a shopping list. However when we talk about design as a discipline then it is about the history, the profession and the discourse of giving form to artefacts in the broadest sense from processes to urbanism that are functional, aesthetically pleasing and friendly to humans and their environment. As such design becomes a practical philosophy drawing from art and science. 

Most of the time design doesn’t start with a problem in mind, the process starts with visions, ideas, dreams, needs or desires waiting to be fulfilled. It is true that while fulfilling these, many problems arise that need to be overcome during the design and realisation phase. And because some novelty is valued in the discipline designers have to be creative. It is also true that the result doesn’t always fulfil but rather it is one of the many possible responses. And furthermore a design can create new problems in the form of unintended consequences. So problem solving in design is related to the specific domain in which a designer is working, just like in other professions. Large scale societal issues often eclipse one single discipline and the fact of the matter is that designers simply lack the power, resources and knowledge to even begin to address these so called wicked problems that are ill-defined and highly complex. Design is totally dependent. Failing to recognise this makes the designer a harmless jester.

What these authors try is to (un)consciously transform design into a science and turn it into a systemised rational process that in the end can possibly be taken over by artificial intelligence. To reduce design to functional problem solving is forgetting it is also akin to art. The authors succumb to the populist disdain that design is mostly just about beauty, taste, form, style and luxury, or in other words; aesthetics and want to give the profession seemingly more relevance so they take out one aspect and blow it out of proportion thereby over-promising what design can do. In the meantime all we can see is that it is spectacularly underdelivering and that the developments in politics, technology and economy are what really change the world. 

However as a society we tend to forget that aesthetics are essential to nature and culture of which we are part and parcel. Humans have an inherit need for aesthetics. And as a consequence there are two fundamental activities we as humans participate in and that is understanding (with an equal capacity to misunderstand) and creating (with an equal capacity to destroy) where the first gives meaning and the second gives pleasure.7 It is to experience these two either actively or inactively which is possibly the purpose of human life. Therefore we must not undervalue the meaning of pleasure, of aesthetics, when we design practically and ethically. It is what contributes to delight, health and well-being and this should not be forgotten when designers are asked what design can do.

  1. www.domusweb.it. (n.d.). Jacques Herzog: letter to David Chipperfield. [online] Available at: https://www.domusweb.it/en/architecture/2020/10/13/jacques-herzog-letter-from-basel.html [Accessed 6 December 2020].
  2. The fact is that not all designers act accordingly nor do those who do act this way do it so all the time. 
  3. Frieze. (n.d.). Design as an Attitude: An Exclusive Extract from Alice Rawsthorn’s New Book | Frieze. [online] Available at: https://www.frieze.com/article/design-attitude-exclusive-extract-alice-rawsthorns-new-book [Accessed 20 May 2021].
  4. What Design Can Do. (n.d.). “No doubt that we need design to solve mankind’s problems.” [online] Available at: https://www.whatdesigncando.com/stories/no-doubt-need-design-solve-mankinds-problems/ [Accessed 20 May 2021].
  5. Design Thinking: A Useful Myth. (2010). jnd.org. [online] 28 Jun. Available at: https://jnd.org/design_thinking_a_useful_myth/. [Accessed 21 May 2021]
  6. Papanek, V. (2011) Design for the Real World, Human Ecology and Social Change, second edition, Thames & Hudson
  7. Just like the yin and yang symbol, there is of course also meaning in creating and there is pleasure in understanding.