Design: The Final Test Question

Okay, here it is. This is the essay I wrote in advance of the essay I’m supposed to write answering the question;

“What is a designer? How might the concept of the Subject be engaged to help us think critically about this question? Finally, how might this critical vantage point on the experience of the designer help you re-think the original position paper you wrote for this course that explored your interest in becoming a designer? You should consult Hall + at least two of the case study materials listed below *** to answer this question. ”

I tried my best. I feel like somethings may not have been explored enough, but it’s already too long, so it’s the questions fault not mine. Prepare to be fall asleep halfway through.

What is a Designer?

Design is a complex and not so complex field. It is a broad term, and it encompasses many disciplines, work flows, mediums and thought processes, but they are all held together with a similar approach and framework.  Design, I believe, can be defined fairly straightforwardly, as can designer, and I will be attempting to define designer today. Designer under the lens of discourse changes, and it is that lens that gives it new depth and application, and I will attempt to explain this new level of importance of the designer in our contemporary world. To do that we must understand design, designer, discourse, power, knowledge and subjectivity. Ultimately everything comes down to influence and design as a field is integral to that.

Design if searched can be defined rather 2 dimensionally. Merriam-Webster has multiple definitions, some as vague as; “to  create, fashion, execute, or construct according to plan”, and specific as;  “To draw the plans for”. Of course, Merriam-Webster is worried about all its different meanings in different contexts, I am not. I think design can be even vaguer and at the same time even more applicable than all of the definitions Merriam-Webster can muster. To me, design is deliberate action taken to solve a problem with the utmost thoughtfulness to all of its aspects. That means anything from the materials it uses, the processes used to make it, and all the way too who it’s being sold too, how much it will costs, and what will happen when they’re done with it. I say deliberate because deliberate implies understanding and thinking. Everything that was ever made was made to solve a problem. Knives were to cut and stab, hammers to slam and crush.  Design was in the first tool a Neanderthal ever fashioned and in the very last plastic chair in a school’s cafeteria. They both are the way they are for a reason, and that is design. Design goes as far as story-telling, and so it is present in movies. It is a part of paintings. Design is in every car, picture, status update and conversation we’ve ever had. Every time you talked your way out of being grounded or a friend from getting angry, you were picking very thoughtfully the exact words to keep them happy and you out of fire. Now, to define designer, we must go a wee bit further into design and look at it discursively. If I didn’t than all we would have is “A designer is one who applies design”. Which is true, but what that implies is far more complex than it would seem.

Stuart Hall talked about discourse in his work, and what he got to was that all meaning stemmed from discourse. We gave meaning to things, events, people, within discourse. Every conversation was a discourse and every institution was a discourse. More importantly, they all affected each other. This was through knowledge/power. Michel Foucault’s theory of knowledge/power is essentially that knowledge is created through power. That power decides what we know and what ideas are important to us. Foucault did not mean the government prescribed us our values, but that there was power coursing through all of discourse that would create these values. This power was simply ideas surfacing from coincidences; when people started to see that HIV was transferred through needles and homosexuals were appearing with more and more cases of HIV, homosexuality became a scourge. This is knowledge, or how knowledge is created according to Foucault. It may surprise some to find out that homosexuality was hugely ignored and sometimes encouraged in ancient times. What this says is not that homosexuality is actually good, or that is was found to actually be bad, because as we know today homosexuality is becoming more and accepted in mainstream culture, but that it never had a particular polarity; it depended entirely on the circumstances surrounding it. This was discourse, power and knowledge all at once. There is no truth to either homosexuality being a good or bad thing, simply a ‘regime of truth’ that decides at a given time. This regime was put in place by all of the discourses coming to an agreement, stemming from the knowledge that the discourse of health came across; HIV is dangerous and transmitted through needles.

Why this is important to know in regards to design and designer is because we have to understand where design sits on this spectrum of discourse, knowledge and power to even get to the question of subjectivity. If power courses through all of us, and design is inherit in everything we consciously generate, be they objects or ideas, then design is power. That is, design is the language of our expression of our values at any given time. The values we hold dear, that we may or may not know are our values, are being coded into every object that was ever deliberately made. Every chair and cellphone is hardcoded with the knowledge/power of right now that we are all subject too. This is where we finally get to speak of designers.

A designer is one who applies design. This presents a paradigm; the designer is both the coder of power and the person being coded. In our modern pseudo-panopticon, we are all policing each other and imposing power on one another, and so we are all imposed. As much as we may seem the guard at watch, we are also the prisoner under surveillance, and so none of us escapes power’s grasp. This is all even truer when we remember that although “designer” is a title in a club of trendy 20-somethings called “design”, a designer is also actually every single thinking, understanding being. We are all every one of us designers. The only difference between us and great designers is that they are self-concious; they understand that it is their job to not only code our values into their work, but identify those values. So while they are imposed upon by the foggy smoke of power and this force is deciding what is important in their work, they are also speaking for the fleshy mound that is people and the new emerging power that is generating through discourse. The designer is both subject of power and subject of people. The missing link between abstract forces and very real humans.

What this changes is everything; this realization broadens the entire field. Before knowing this, a designer was concerned with the most attractive organization of an object, but this idea of a ‘most attractive organization’ changed every year if not more often, and the designer couldn’t explain what made it so. Every designer was simply regurgitating what everyone already thought was the most attractive organization. A great designer, someone of importance saw deeper into our values and dredged out of us the future. It wasn’t an original thought, it was a subconscious thought, and until it is fed back to us through power, by the designer coding it into their work, we did not know we liked it. We didn’t have a way to describe it. But when we saw it we all understood it, and it was good. If we look at Charles’ Eames Solar Do-nothing Device, we see what I’m talking about. A device running on solar power who’s sole purpose is to entertain. It takes design to a field of more than function, and the simply conception of it opened so many possibilities. Paola Antonelli described designers as culture generators – and she was more right than she would ever know. Designers hold the responsibility of putting our values into new work, but also must realize that they are at the same time subject to this power. Not every idea is a good idea. Not everything should be taken for granted. People are silently crying out for something new all the time, and a great designer finds this and bears it to the world.

In my position paper I wrote at the start of the year, I described design as manipulation. This was close but really only half true, because we have to acknowledge that every manipulator is simultaneously being manipulated. So how much change can you really inspire in people if you’re just a subject of the same influence that these people are? That is the key to a great designer. Ultimately design is delusion – we think we are original but in reality our subconscious is feeding itself back to us. A great designer looks deeper into what culturally is changing; what is emerging through discourse, and makes the most thoughtful action towards progress. A designer will never be removed from the feedback loop, but if the designer can identify it, he can have a huge part in making it better for right now. After all, design only lasts as long as there is a problem that needs solving.


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