In class last night, I led a discussion of readings by academics Maurizio Vitta and Richard Buchanan.
Vitta – in an article titled “The Meaning of Design”, written in 1985 – laments a process of pop-culture identification, by which people gain a sense of self only through consumption. For him, products offer only semiotics, not functionality, and goods become embedded with deep cultural significance. The process of consumption becomes the only tool to leverage for communication, where a consumer signals to the world around them that they are the “type of girl who drives a BMW” or “type of guy who shaves with a straight razor.”
If products are to be only superficial vessels for communication, the role of design becomes equally as trivial: “Thus, at the very moment when the sphere of the designer’s intervention is taking shape, and is delineated in all of its complexity, his or her role runs the danger of fading into an ambiguous mist in which it may even be reduced to a mere signature placed on the products.”
I’m not sure Vitta could hone in on the “Target Problem” any more directly: in this world, there is no toaster, no toast, and no Philippe Starck. There is only the Philippe Starck brand, which you can choose to align yourself with or avoid, in order to make a statement about yourself to everyone else.
We juxtaposed Vitta’s writing with Dick Buchanan’s essay, “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking (one of my favorite; I remember reading it when I was a freshman studying with Dick, and feeling the powerful new perspectives the essay unlocked).
Central to this reading is Buchanan’s framing of design as a “liberal art of technological culture.” A liberal art broadly describes a set of knowledge, skills, and literacy necessary to participate in culture. If design is a liberal art, one that allows us to better manage the complexities of technology amongst the natural, a literacy of design is necessary for all of those who participate in culture – indeed, for all people. Technology here does not refer to digitization, but instead to the art of experimental thinking: to the process by which designers introduce novelty (or “strangeness”, or “newness”) into our lives. This framing of design positions us to better negotiate innovation, invention, and consumption; it gives us a frame, a vocabulary, and a manner in which to make sense of “advancement”.
Simply, this design literacy gives consumers a way out of the trap described by Vitta. In the same way that a study of the humanities empowers a richer, more multi-faceted examination of culture, a study of design provides an intellectual depth in which to reflect on the designed world. It gives consumers a new context in which to examine products they buy, a perspective that is neither focused on utiltity (function) nor on Vitta’s signification (communication to others). A broad study of design allows consumers to embrace other qualities of owned artifacts: experience, emotion, nostalgia, and meaning.
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