End of Design (as we know it)

Peter Jones Transformation Design

So suggests Phillippe Starck, as reported by Allison Arieff in the NYT. Maybe this is a good thing to acknowledge – Design “as we know it” is what we would call Design 1.0. Making things cool and beautiful for consumers to buy and cherish. The design revolution of late capitalism has been largely consumer status-based, in my opinion, and is not reflective of a new American aestheticism. Design “Within Reach” epitomizes this for me – it is certainly not within the reach of an average consumer, yet, so the function of  design” remains that of strangemaking (as van Patter likes to call it). Selling distinction and uniquenesses.

In the future, promises Starck, “there will be no more designers.” And by extension, no more stuff! Now, that’s a surefire way to reduce one’s carbon footprint. (Will Starck now join the Designers Accord?) As is Starck’s prediction that the designer of the future is “a personal coach, the gym trainer, the diet consultant.” So not only will we consume less stuff (because no one is designing it), we’ll consume less food, too. Brilliant!

Design 2.0 is the most recent shift – to what we see as intentional, designed improvements, often cleanly functional and usable, that facilitate performance in life and work. Everything from Oxo kitchen tools, Aeron chairs, BWM cockpit displays, the best websites. The 2.0 trend has been with us since Tom Peters’ missives of the mid-90’s, and Don Norman’s popular books of the same time – which called attention to the qualities of the designed environment in everyday life, and the value of improving products and services to satisfy users and customers. While Design 2.0 overlaps the consumer-oriented design of 1.0, Design 2.0 serves the balance of function and usability, and less about the artifact as fetish object.

These waves of design practice and object, all called Design of course, strike me as explained by McLuhan’s media theories. As we culturally and cognitively saturate a media type, a new one grows up around it and subsumes it to accommodate the higher bandwidth necessary to manage the ever-increasing complexity. McLuhan’s Tetrad concept shows how a technology trend obsolesces and replaces the one before it, but then becomes “retrieved” later as a re-envisioned or even mythological expression. The Tetrad shows up in  the inquiry into Design by asking:

  • What does any (artifact or system) enlarge or enhance?
  • What does it erode or obsolesce?
  • What does it retrieve that had been earlier obsolesced?
  • What does it reverse or flip into when pushed to the limits of its potential?

Design 1.0 is replaceable by Art and personal craftsmanship, which is a retrieval of pre-Design 1.0 culture. Having artists in my families (mother Betsy and wife Patricia), I’m surrounded by the personal design of unique artifacts, and designed objects are selected sparingly in our homes. We have no desire for Design 1.0, except for certain “mythological” artifacts.  Design 2.0 becomes invisible after a good run of experience with it.  We expect all websites to be as usable as Amazon.com, and MP3 players to be as cool as the iPod. It is the baseline. Design 3.0 runs ahead of us … and is that which is transforming the object of designing.

But not the practice, just yet. Design 3.0 is best considered a verb, and is not a new field of design. More a different way of being about design, which leads thinking, which then leads practice. Keep checking back, this is likely to change.