Why the definition of design may need a change

The Latin root of “design,” sign, Sent to the likes of Cicero a wider, more abstract set of meanings than we usually give the word today. These range from the literal and material (like tracking) to the tactical (to create and achieve a goal) to the organizational and institutional—like the strategic “coaching” of people and things (where the root ” design” remains visibly attached) . All these definitions share a broad definition of the imposing form of the world, its institutions and arrangements.

But the use of drawing in direct modeling of construction in the 13th and 14th centuries began to change the language, with this sense of “design” surpassing almost all others.

An early snapshot of this evolutionary change is a parchment dating from 1340. Folded, rolled, and riddled with nail holes, it records a contract between the patron and three leading builders for the construction of the Palazzo Sansedoni in the center of Siena. Across its underside, the parchment records the legal and financial arrangements surrounding the building of the palazzo; in its upper part it depicts an elevation—a drawing—of the unbuilt façade, complete with annotations and dimensions.

Drawings, of necessity, recorded the intentions of builders long before 1340—traced on the ground, walls, or eventually more portable surfaces. Such inscriptions, however, are secondary, and adjacent, to the building process. But the growing prosperity of economies like Siena in the 1300s made it likely that famous master builders would balance many simultaneous projects, so it was necessary to rely on the authority of a drawn document—a “design” in many senses of the word. then used—to manage the activities of the building site. In fact, part of Sansedoni’s parchment paper was to outline the role of a fourth, unnamed builder, who would remain on site to oversee the works while the three named contract signatories were busy elsewhere. With this change, the maestro on the building site replaced by ARCHITECTSor architect, who produces and records the design of the building—whose authority is given primarily through documents and drawings.

“The reduction of the postindustrial sense of design is inseparable from a corollary reduction of the planet’s finite resources, whether the quarried stones stacked to form a Sienese palazzo or the rare earth metals that anchoring icons like the iPhone.”

As a result, architects sometimes have a proprietary attitude to the word “design.” If there is a reason for such feelings, it is that architects were the first to practice design in the contemporary sense—as a strategic, drawing-based way of shaping objects and environments separately. in their direct manufacture. But if architecture is a pioneer of design as a separate profession and course of study, it will soon have a partner. Meanwhile architecture students at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris did designsor preparatory sketches, as specified in their curriculum and as part of what we now call the “design process,” the factory chimneys farther from Paris would mark a greater change in the economy of the physical world and the idea of ​​interior design. this.

As early as the 16th century, drawings and models of porcelain household utensils traveled between Europe and the Jingdezhen kilns in China, helping to define the shapes and patterns of decoration—which we now called designs—to be made for specific markets. In the 18th century, British pioneer Josiah Wedgwood deployed painters and “master” potters to create illustrations and models. The intention was to allow the steady, large-scale production of pottery—in Wedgwood’s own words, to “make such Machines on Men which cannot be Err. ” But in addition to eliminating the workers’ scope for error, it ended their individual expression. And it is the subsequent and literal mechanization of production that firmly separates the act of designing from making—with profound consequences for the meaning of design, both as a word and as a structure in our society.


While this concept of design is now spreading in our society and economy, we can take an industry as an example. It was Henry Ford’s Model T whose simplified 1907 design allowed gasoline-powered cars to become more than custom-built playgrounds for the rich. But it is the same important innovation of Alfred P. Sloan of General Motors, in 1924, to introduce the design as the signifier of new annual models and different prices and status points for mechanically similar cars, from Chevrolet to Cadillac—a wasteful commercial tour de force.

So while calling a handbag or sunglasses “designer” may imply superficial branding instead of material value, we nevertheless value “design” as one of the few activities that can more complex realities of modernity that everyone can navigate. It is no coincidence that companies seeking to create products that are both revolutionary and accessible – Tesla, Apple, even IBM in its day – proclaim a beauty of the surface finish as the (perceived) showing a general technological sophistication, although they enjoy the commercial value of style and status as well.

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