Why the definition of design may need to change

The Latin root of “design”, dē signo, gave people like Cicero a much broader, more abstract meaning than we commonly give the word today. These ranged from the literal and material (like tracing), to the tactical (to invent and achieve a goal), to the organizational and institutional – as in the strategic “labeling” of people and objects (with the root “design” visibly embedded remains). . All of these meanings share a broad understanding of imposing a form on the world in its institutions and arrangements.

However, the use of drawings to direct construction in the 13th and 14th centuries led to a linguistic shift, with this understanding of ‘design’ eclipsing almost all others.

An early snapshot of this ongoing transformation is a parchment from 1340. Folded, crumpled and perforated with nail holes, it documents a contract between the client and three master builders for the construction of the Palazzo Sansedoni in central Siena. In its lower part, the parchment records the legal and financial agreements surrounding the construction of the palazzo; in the upper half it shows an elevation – a drawing – of the unbuilt facade, complete with annotations and dimensions.

Drawings had necessarily recorded the builders’ intentions long before 1340 – recorded on the floor, the wall, or eventually more wearable surfaces. However, such inscriptions were secondary and alongside the building process. But the increasing prosperity of economies like that of Siena in the 13th century made it likely that prominent builders would be balancing several simultaneous projects, making it necessary to rely on the authority of a drawn document – a “design” in many senses of the word is then used – to regulate the activities on the construction site. Indeed, part of the role of the Sansedoni parchment was to outline the role of a fourth, unnamed builder who would remain on site to oversee the works while the three named signers were otherwise employed. In addition to this transformation is the maestro the construction site was replaced by the architector architect who created and recorded the design for the building – with authority bestowed principally through documents and drawings.

“The diminished post-industrial importance of design is inseparable from a concomitant diminishing of the planet’s finite resources, be it the quarries stacked into a Sienese palazzo or the rare earth metals that anchor icons like the iPhone.”

As a result, architects can sometimes take a proprietary stance on the word “design.” If there is any justification for such feelings, it is that architects were indeed the first to practice design in the contemporary sense – as a strategic, drawing-based form of designing objects and environments separate from their direct manufacture. But if architecture, as a profession and degree in its own right, paved the way for design, it would soon have company. While the architecture students at the École de Beaux-Arts in Paris were tinkering designsor preliminary sketches as dictated by their curriculum and as part of what we now call the “design process”, the factory chimneys rising further from Paris would represent an even greater shift in the economics of the physical world and the idea of ​​design within it mark it.

As early as the 16th century, drawings and models of porcelain household items traveled between Europe and the kilns of Jingdezhen in China, helping to specify forms and patterns of decoration – what we would now call design – for specific markets. By the 18th century, the British pioneer Josiah Wedgwood had employed both artists and master potters to create illustrations and models. The intention was to enable sustained large-scale pottery production – in Wedgwood’s own words, “to make such machinery of Men that cannot err.” But it not only eliminated the workers’ margin for error, it also ended their individual development. And it was the subsequent and literal mechanization of production that firmly separated the work of design from manufacture – with profound consequences for the definition of design, as a word and as the fabric of our society.


While this design concept has spread to our society and economy today, we can take a single industry as an example. It was Henry Ford’s Model T whose simplified 1907 design enabled gas-powered automobiles to become more than just custom-made toys for the wealthy. But it was Alfred P. Sloan’s equally important innovation at General Motors in 1924 to introduce design as a hallmark of new year models and different price and status points for mechanically similar vehicles from Chevrolet to Cadillac—a lavish commercial feat.

While calling a handbag or sunglasses a “designer” may convey superficial branding rather than material value, we deeply value “design” as one of the few activities that can make the increasingly complex realities of modernity even navigable. It’s no coincidence that companies that want to make products that are both transformative and accessible – Tesla, Apple, even IBM in their day – proclaim an elegance of surface finish as a (supposed) manifestation of an overall technological sophistication, even as they exploit it as well the commercial value of style and status.

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