What is design? Design is one of those things we encounter every day all day without realizing it. We take design for granted more than we do everything that our parents do for us. Take for instance the chair you’re sitting in as you read this.  Someone came up with the perfect design for us to be able to sit in and maximize comfort.  The first chairs were from nature. They were the logs and the rocks that our ancestors sat on.  When they went on to design chairs they took what was best about those and eliminated the bad till they were successful.  The design followed from nature’s design as many elements do.  Not all elements of design follow from nature.  Some are born from the great imaginative minds of human beings.  We designed the skyscrapers that slice clouds in half. We came up with language, symbols that on their own would be arbitrary have meaning and give off sound. As you read this you hear voice or if you are familiar with me you can hear mine but that is because someone designed these symbols with a spacial relationship so that they could be repeated in a way that lets them mean the same thing over and over so that they can be taught.

Design starts with the simple and moves to the complex.  The beginning of a masterpieces begins with a stroke of the brush or the drawing of a line.  Great masterpieces begin with geometric shapes arranged together. We begin as kids without realizing it. My first wagons I drew were a line with two circles between them becoming wheels.  What it comes down to is that design comes from the ability of man to shape his environment to suit his needs.  Like Daniel Pink said, Designers are Alchemists.

So how can design help me? Besides allowing me to understand the elements of design that other people have it allows me to bend the world and create design of my own.  It allows me to make a cover for a book I want to be published.  It can mean that I establish something as a sign post for a revolution.  I could design the next peace sign or high five.  I could invent a new smiley face to show happiness.  I could design something equal to the american flag to symbolize freedom to cause people to rise up. Or I could design a new chair to make sure I am comfortable when typing to you!

Comfy chair


7 thoughts on “Design

  1. I really like the example of a chair for design. It exemplifies how design can be very simple (created by necessity and meant for function) but it also can be artistic and innovative. It depends on individual vision and imagination. I wondered while reading this if you saw design as something meant to convey a message. My understanding from the St. Clair article was that design is considered in relation to its perception. Perhaps we view the chair above as meaning only to be comfortable and to hold the person sitting in it. What if in fact it was designed with a very singular purpose in mind, such as cradling the lower back of a man enjoying a cigar and port in his favorite men’s club while discussing politics with his fellow grey-haired clubmates?
    I think you capture some very grandiose ideas with your opening paragraph, but I think I wanted more substance behind your views on design. A number of St. Clair’s ideas would really have fortified your arguments, especially if you had tied in some of his ten elements of design. Proportion would work well in describing the design of a chair, as well as pattern or unity, harmony.

    • I think a large part of who I am revolts against the utility and usefulness of any creative endeavor. I am happy to have a chair that is designed for my comfort and enables me to work but when I see a new chair that looks uncomfortable that smashes conventional designs to aspire to something new it lights a fire of creativity within me. So to answer specifically no I don’t design has to convey a message despite often doing it. I think the merits of design like any form of expression has the ability to stand alone on its own merits.

    • You’re really getting into the value of design, Meredith. Very impressed with your insightful suggestions for how John can build a solid theoretical foundation under his creative ideas. Especially enjoyed how you painted the picture of the “singular purpose” of John’s chair. I can see it in the men’s club.

  2. HI, John!

    First, I want to note that your chair discussion reminded me of some images I used to share with my elementary students about chair design. Have you ever seen a chair that looks like chocolate pudding? I can’t remember the name of it, but it was fun. Anyway, your post prompted a lot of thoughts for me and it started with, “Not all elements of design follow from nature.  Some are born from the great imaginative minds of human beings.”

    You preceded that by saying that many elements follow nature, but I still have to ask…Would nature not act as the foundation for the great human thought you reference shortly after? I would argue that the minds of human beings innately and unconsciously mimic and modify what they observe in nature. In turn, people create objects that extend our original spaces like the skyscraper you mentioned.

    Another remark that really got me going was, “Design starts with the simple and moves to the complex.”  I can understand the logic behind this, but what do you think about the complexities of the planning aspect of art making? What about the “before?” I believe that a masterpiece or any piece begins with thinking, which evolves throughout the creative/creating process. In the case of your wagon drawing, what inspired you to draw the wagon? Was it for an assignment or for fun? What did you draw with? Was that selected by instruction or personal choice?

    Finally, the alchemy comparison you briefed upon caught my attention. It is certainly plausible to value the chemist in the artist, but I would not limit that to the act of making art exclusive of mental construction. Something I have always shared with my students is that thinking is the key to making art and much else in life. Art production, in my opinion, can be informally categorized into three main processes, planning, execution, and evaluation; these do not actually stop for one another either. In short, it is a fluid, potentially cyclical yet unpredictable process rather than the linear start to finish that you suggest. Can’t wait to “hear” your response from my uncomfortable chair!

    • I think that nature does serve as the foundation for much of design but there is the inexplicable that is so different that could not be born from any other place besides the human imagination. What inspired me to draw the wagon was a love of horses and cowboys. It was just for fun. I drew with crayons and it was instructed by what was on hand and their ability for adding color. I don’t think in my discussion of design being alchemy I mean to imply that it is all mental. I may now be contradicted myself or at first I may be unclear. What it truly serves to do is to illustrate the ability for humans to transform one or more elements into the other focusing more on the magical tilt of alchemy than the scientific.

      • Thanks for your response! Based on the response you provided, I would say that your work’s purpose (utility) was personal and for enjoyment. It could also serve as a narrative about your favorite things.

        My comment about alchemy was, “I would not limit that to the act of making art exclusive of mental construction.” I think you may have inadvertently overlooked the word, exclusive. I was actually saying that your idea sounded more about the physical aspect of art making in comparison to the mixing of alchemy.

      • Gotta hand it to you, John. You sure know how to stir the pot 😉 I love that your reflective essay has created this level of discussion — lots of intellectual curiosity and passion coming through here.

        After reading everyone’s thoughts about that infamous chair, my question is how is design different from writing? Seriously, in terms of the principles you discuss here that only some is inspired by nature, that it begins with the simple, and the world-changing potential. I’d like to see how a writer compares his craft with design as you’re beginning to understand it.

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