Definitive Design


designs that
defined the
modern world

By Stephen Bayley

Great design is about more than good-looking products. It has the power to shape how we experience life.

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What influences the appearance and character of the things that surround us? Design. It might be the biggest subject in the world.


Design is a defining activity of contemporary life. Like movies and rock, it is unique to contemporary civilization. Indeed, Karl Marx knew that the epic activities of the world involve not weapons, but dry goods. Then again, weapons have been designed. Still, most of us care more about our kitchen than about the Battle of Stalingrad.

And the very best designs change things forever. But what is it? Design may be important, but is also muddled. Thirty years ago someone decided that expensively branded carbonated H20 was "designer water" and the word seemed consigned to semantic oblivion, as toxic as "celebrity".

The problem is, design is not one subject, but several. Through familiarity, mis-use and abuse the word has been attenuated to a condition of near meaninglessness. For example, people often say "everything has been designed". That may be true: chairs, cars and buildings do not come into existence by accident, but if so it robs the concept of any lingering trace of meaning. That must mean everyone is a designer. It can't be so. As Jonathan Ive of Apple, the most valuable designer in the world today, says, design is about that special care and attention that go into successful products.

The English word comes from the Italian disegno which means drawing, but in both languages it means "intention" as well. Design is drawing with a purpose. It is about making ordinary things more practical, but more beautiful too.

But although the idea may go back to the Renaissance, our contemporary notion of design is a result of the Industrial Revolution, when mass-production made the multiplication of ideas a reality and consumer culture replaced high culture as the dominant force in human affairs.

Design has its place in the history of other grand innovations in human opportunity. First, the systematic Organization of Thought which began with Gutenberg's movable type of 1450 and developed into Claude Shannon's Information Theory of 1948 which made the computer age possible.

Second, the Industrialization of Energy, starting with Newcomen's very first "engine" of 1712 and evolving into Nikola Tesla's AC current of 1888 where, for the very first time, power could be distributed away from its source.

Third, Consumer Desire. As soon as any economy passes subsistence, as the West's did in the nineteenth century, people buy things not to survive, but to express themselves: want overtakes need.

A part of the designer's task is to deal with needs and anticipate wants. Design has to be practical, but there must be poetry and vision too. Gazing at the miracle that was the Citroen DS at the 1955 Salon de l'Automobile in Paris, the philosopher Roland Barthes sighed that it was "the best messenger of a world superior to Nature". You could say that design is just that: an artificial culture that makes good the deficiencies of the natural world. Nature never designed a suitcase.

Design is not the same as technological innovation: when the Wright Brothers took off in 1903, it was aeronautics. Nor is design to be confused with inspired invention: Laszlo Biro's ballpoint pen was the result of restless tinkering and a peculiar fascination with oil-based ink. But what designers do is interpret technology and inventions, making them useful and attractive to consumers. Thus, an exuberant pink Cadillac of 1959 might be dubious as a technological exercise and certainly employed no inventions, but as an exercise in consumer design it was supreme.

Ultimately, design make us feel good about ourselves and our world. The great designs dignify existence and confirm, if confirmation were needed, that life is more than a temporary conjunction of hydrocarbons in the relativist chaos of a terrifying Universe with its nasty Black Holes.

Le Corbusier declared that design is "intelligence made visible". That's certainly true, but intelligence can take many forms...

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