On Seeing Design as Redesign

Peter Jones

Peers in design practice understand the name “Redesign Research,” and get it. At least I think they do. Clients get it as well. And a slogan since 2001 that “All Design is Redesign.” I have found few other designers willing to join me on this – perhaps people think its a marketing slogan, but it really describes a de facto design philosophy. Simply put, design is a set of skills and perspective on problem-solving the wicked problems of ill-formed contexts with structures and materials. The target of design work/thinking is a problem space involving (usually) human activity in a context of work or everyday life. These contexts are pre-existing and carry with them people’s pre-understanding about what’s relevant and useful. Therefore, most design seeks to improve the interactions and materials in these pre-existing contexts. We aim to redesign FROM and TO a space of needs, uses, desires, and affordances. If the context is poorly-framed, you end up with services that fail, marketing with no connection to reality, and products with no markets. Designing to a useful or playful context is redesigning the activities in that context. Designing as redesign, in this sense, is powerful and intentional designing.

Design is not about original invention – most inventions are poorly designed and require incremental improvements to adapt an original vision to a context of use. Such products will fail adoption if the designers miss the opportunity to design for usability and effectiveness. Design is not about innovation either – innovation involves significant disruptive invention or targeted improvements in a meaningful context of activity – their form, materials, usability, and aesthetic values are designed aspects, but not the innovation itself. Innovation is not alway redesign – but design is.

Design Addict published an article earlier this year: On Seeing Design as Redesign: An Exploration of a Neglected Problem in Design Education by Jan Michl. Originally published in the Scandinavian Journal of Design History (2002). Here’s where Michl makes a compelling case for “all design is redesign:”

But although in one way it is correct to say that designers start from nothing, in another sense it is equally correct to maintain that in practice they can never start from scratch. On the contrary, it can be argued that designers always start off where other designers (or they themselves) have left off, that design is about improving earlier products, and that designers are thereby linked, as though by umbilical cord, to earlier objects, or more correctly to their own or their colleagues’ earlier solutions – and thus to yesterday. In other words, what the word design holds back is the entire co-operative and past-related dimension in designing that makes designers’ individual creative contributions possible. Nor does the word design satisfactorily capture the fact that design activity is never really complete with the final product because all products are by nature makeshift solutions, and as such can always be improved.

Then there’s ReDesign Design as well …