Design, Four Ways

Two weeks as an AC4D student down, but the reality of what it means to design has just begun to take shape. With the question of design’s role in society, we were tasked with making sense of the following pieces of literature.


Manipulating Public Opinion: The Why and The How by Edward L. Bernays

Design with a Cause and Creativity vs. Conformity by Victor Papanek

Informing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman

The Meaning of Design by Maurizio Vitta

The Need of a Theory of Experience by John Dewey


These authors came from several fields, some in design, some not. They produced their work at various times, the 1920s, the 70s, the 90s. All differences considered, compelling patterns began to emerge. Each reading captured a unique perspective which built upon the viewpoint of another. 


With my interpretation of the readings, I answered two questions from each author’s perspective. What is design? Moreover, what is good design? I described summaries of their attitudes in figure 1.



figure 1.


Upon further review, distinct relationships began to form. Authors, Bernays, Papanek, Postman, Vitta and Dewey, understood design within the larger context of four ideas: language, resources, experience, and power. From their point of view, the purpose of design was defined by these terms.


Through the lens of language, design became a vehicle for communication, an expression of social relationships, and an external phenomenon. If viewed as a resource, design is a reaction, a tangible material, and a solution. Framing design as a source of experience, it becomes a catalyst for behavior and an opportunity for interaction. In its relationship with power, design can influence, deviate from expectation, and serve as a source of failure. 


Within this framework, design was a basis for language, a creator of resources, a source of experience, and a foundation for power.


In the following figure, four circles represent design’s role within the context of these four themes. As seen below, each author is placed inside the circle that correlates strongest with his viewpoint as described in figure 1.

Artboard Copy2


figure 2.


If design spans these overarching ideas, what qualifies as good design from each perspective? Indicators for good design must adapt to the context in which design operates. 


In its relationship with language, I believe design should assess its own voice, seek to understand social implications, and address the cultural context of its surroundings. As a resource, design should respond to the needs of people, minimize waste, and seek to identify real problems. As a source of experience, design should value our humanity and generate opportunities for social progress. Finally, in its relationship with power, I believe design should seek to understand its power, explore potential consequences, and claim responsibility for outcome.


The graph below ranks viewpoints based on criticality to the modern designer’s role in society. The graph is further broken down to identify where each viewpoint most strongly associates. 


figure 3.


Experience, language, resource, power –


Design’s purpose is defined by these terms, but collectively, these definitions represent society at large. So, what makes for strong indicators of good design now?


If we view design’s ultimate purpose as the benefit of society, there are countless questions to unpack. Many of which call for my own self-reflection. How do I define benefit? What qualifies as progress? When “society” advances, who is left behind?


Two weeks at AC4D down. Let my search for answers begin.