The Lost Message of Design

by Scott Henderson, IDSA

Vol. 39 No. 3, p. 10-13

“Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.” — William Morris, 1880 

If you look up the word design in the dictionary, you don’t get one clear definition, but two. The first one reads: “A plan or drawing produced to show the look, function or workings of a building, garment, or object before it is built or made.” Definition two goes like this: “An arrangement of lines or shapes created to form a pattern or decoration, as in "pottery with a lovely blue and white design." Unfortunately, it’s the second of these two definitions that seems to have stuck with 99.99% of the population—mostly due to the miscommunication of our message or even our own lack of definition as to of what our message is.  

I have two nieces. “My uncle is an inventor,” they say, a kind euphemism they deliver in a supportive and encouraging tone. “What does your wife do?” is an interesting follow-up question in the cocktail huddle. One niece bounces around from various marketing related jobs; the other is a lawyer. They are so far removed from our world of design—along with almost everyone else—that they just can’t put together what I actually do. I no longer subject them to my fruitless explanations at the Thanksgiving Day table. I just let it go. I have grown weary of saying “It’s like architecture for things like your coffeemaker.” That crowd pleaser usually generates a brief silent pause just prior to a “Pass me the red?” request. In my own mind, I leave myself shrouded in a mystical mystery, like a creative dark lord who has bucked the conventions of the society that they must laboriously conform to at their “real” jobs. In their minds, I am the eccentric, wild-haired tinkerer in a cluttered, rickety workshop on the hill with a single dimly lit window punching a square yellow hole through the night’s cricket-chirping blackness.  

Crayola Expressionism 

Interesting, though, how the word “inventor” makes so much more sense to them than the word “designer.” To their ears, the word “design” conjures distant memories of the miniature kindergarten table and the intimidating stack of white paper flanked by the Maxwell House can of Crayola stubs. The lovely Miss Heart would say, “If you can’t draw it correctly, it’s OK. Just make a design.” A design in this example meant some waxy purple and yellow lines woven together randomly like an abstract expressionist Spirograph. If your creation did not look like a scene from the yard, it was deemed a design—and that’s OK! Yes, our first exposure to any organized learning, perhaps even our very first formal school lesson ever, relegated design to a lowlier status than that of a daisy. The five-year-olds who could draw mom and the oak tree were exhibiting a higher level of cognitive ability, and thankfully design was there as the face-saving safety net for everyone else—a stop gap to prevent sobbing.  

I’m personally quite happy to be thought of as an inventor. It’s a vastly more accurate and descriptive portrayal of what we do. My favorite movie as a kid was bar none Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s really the quintessential designer’s movie from an entrepreneurial, engineering, and marketing perspective. Here is Professor Caractacus Potts, a struggling inventor living in a leaky windmill. At the bemoaning of his children, he buys a wrecked car long forgotten in a sunken roadside mud bog and welds it up into a flying boat in the shadows of the night while everyone else reads bedtime stories. The distant sounds of metal grinding metal and the faint glow of burning embers faintly illuminating the windowsill is all I needed to see. I was hooked!  

Inventors are the underdogs who save the day with their intellect and are doubted every step of the way for their ability to conjure newness. “It will never go my boy!” says Grandpa Potts, who escapes reality by retreating to his outhouse on imaginary sojourns to India—and so says society of our efforts, which are just one dimension too far for quick comprehension with a name like design. So we go it alone and talk amongst ourselves in our secret meetings, congratulating each other.  

Potts goes on to make his millions by tripping over a discarded idea in his workshop brimming over with discarded ideas, the genius of which is illuminated by his non-designer girlfriend Truly Scrumptious for its purity and simplicity. Born is the Toot-Sweet, the blockbuster whistling dog biscuit. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang the movie was originally a children’s book written by Ian Fleming, the same writer who delivered us the James Bond character in his 1953 novel Casino Royale, a story filled with even more fascinating gadgets and shiny barware. Designers often evoke romantic stories of early toaster disassembly projects, but tell me truthfully that Q’s bagpipe flamethrower didn’t subliminally put you on the career path you enjoy today.  

Big Picture, Not Micro Details  

Designers often think that the origins of our profession stem from the time, people, and practices of the Bauhaus school. But the real origins actually go back much farther than that with early roots in the work of William Morris and his brotherhood of Pre-Raphaelites. Morris was a poet, fiction writer, architect, painter, textile designer, and political activist—a true renaissance man in the most da Vinci sense of the word who immersed himself in studying the medieval period and who hated overconsumption. He examined how furniture was made in medieval times—by hand with axes, mallets and wooden joinery—which generated a purity, simplicity, authenticity, and sustainability that was in stark contrast to the swoops and curls of Morris’ time. 

The era Morris lived in, the mid-1850s, was at the height of the Industrial Revolution when ornate Greek columns were being cast in iron by the millions and placed on building facades everywhere, offering fake antiquity and non-authenticity galore—and choking the skies with a black silt during their needless manufacture that would drift to earth like an oily talcum mist. Now that we could make anything, we chose to make lots and lots of two-thousand-year-old designs! Morris was one of the first to see this absurdity and object to it—long before Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus, was ever born. 

Sometimes designers think it’s a cop-out to say that merely designing something better is in and of itself friendly to the planet and sustainable, but in the context of Morris’ soot-filled age of industrial non-creativity, this was definitely the case. The world needed better designs as well as an entirely new approach, a completely new design philosophy. Through his fiction writings and their intricate illustrations, Morris gained popular fame, but his take on simplified furniture and other architectural creations basically single-handedly revolutionized Victorian taste and gave birth to the Arts and Crafts Movement, which would later evolve into modern design. Yet what Morris is primarily known for today is his elaborate textile and fabric motifs—his “designs.” Yes, the entire rethink of smokestack-belching factories and how to wield heavy industry in a more thoughtful way—which gave birth to ideas greatly expanded upon by the likes of Gustav Stickley and later Frank Lloyd Wright, Gropius, Eileen Gray, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier—has been remembered by history as flower patterns. The triumph of thinking differently in response to a problem, the achievement of pioneering a philosophy that would become the essence of design as we know it today, was deemed—probably dismissed—as arts and crafts.  

Arts and crafts, once a major design movement that shaped all things modern yet to come, later became the class you took at day camp when it rained. If you enroll in shop class in high school because you want to learn how to make real things, people assume it’s because you can’t hack calculus. The kindergarten table where we made designs because we couldn’t draw trees yet has shaped everyone’s idea of what we do. Our grumbling response to this has been a systematic shunning our ties to the arts out of self-invented embarrassment, favoring science as something more credible and valuable. Somewhere along the line we started devaluing beauty in favor of what we think of as the total design experience that requires a scientific study to uncover it. However, the simple Morris chair, an icon of design that led to the widely adopted Mission and Prairie styles, was design stemming from neither of these micro-managerial camps that are buried deep within the much bigger picture of today’s design equation that we have yet to adequately and effectively articulate. 

In Morris’ view, the world needed to become more like the sustainable medieval times to prevent industrialization from destroying our planet, bodies, minds, and souls. Now that is one solid thesis!—the bedrock under which monumental skyscrapers of design can be built! Could it be that today’s design discussion should focus less on a process, less on the artifacts of our craft and how we sell them and more on identifying a new ideology, a new code, an entirely new approach to address the many deadly problems that threaten us? Did Morris incessantly describe how he went about creating his designs and why that specific process has so much value like we constantly do about the five-step process known as design thinking, or did he instead focus on why he was creating them in order to address a much bigger overarching concept? We read about the pivotal course corrections throughout the history of design and architecture—the Arts and Crafts Movement, American Modern, the Bauhaus Movement, Memphis. If there was ever a time for a new movement of our own, a big-picture model and philosophy that we all can get behind, that time has most definitely arrived.  

Nowhere Is Real 

Looking back on it now, the kid at the miniature kindergarten table who was bent on perfecting the perfect squiggle was probably in fact the genius in the room—maybe subconsciously tapping into threads that define how the universe itself is constructed, unknowingly representing what we all observe and later instill in our work that seems to come out of nowhere: those unexplained leaps of creativity. Nowhere, though, is a place that is remarkably understandable once we discover it. However complex we think a problem or enduring mystery is, when the secret is finally revealed, we marvel at how we could have missed it for all this time, probably dismissing it as nonsense instead. Nowhere is real, and defining it is precisely what design is. The ironic truth behind the kindergarten table is that the beautiful Miss Heart, in her attempts to maintain a calm classroom, was exactly right! The squiggle on the paper that did not look like a tree was in fact a design and one that may yet play an important part in a much bigger story. 

—Scott Henderson, IDSA 

Yearbook of Design Excellence