On defining design…

Olivetti typewriter by Ettore Sottsass. Image courtesy of Design Museum

Olivetti typewriter by Ettore Sottsass. Image courtesy of Design Museum

My eye was caught by the valedictory sentiments of outgoing Design Council CEO David Kester, in particular his advice to any prospective replacement to have handy a concise definition of design. His was ‘New Thinking Made Real’ – a neat soundbite if vaguely Orwellian (as all good soundbites tend to be).

It got me thinking, what would my design mantra be? My cocktail party gobbet? I toyed with “Problem solving through applied thinking” and “Improving lives by innovation” before realising these would do as much for a firm of management consultants or government social policy. I tried the self-effacing, “Design: more than meets the eye,” the romantic, “The making more elegant of things” and, with a nod to Alan Bennett, “Design: it’s just one iteration after another.”

I give up; count me out of a career in the Quangos. The peculiar thing with design, and something I have written about before, is just how neurotic it is about defining itself. There is still that lingering sense that design must justify itself to the broader world; explain what it does in a neat formula in order to be taken seriously.

The problem is that design is, by its nature, a contested term, and, as a profession, encompasses such a range of sectors, disciplines, and approaches that any attempted definition is inherently problematic and risks being glib. Having said that, I’ve already gone on for four paragraphs and there’s no time for that at the gala reception.