Whenever I’m asked what my job entails, there’s a brief pause that exists between me and the asker. I always stop, answering slowly as I consider my audience: “Will they think I’m vain if I reveal that I share smartly-crafted objects and creative ideas for a living? Will they see and understand the value in the beautiful? Will they appreciate the importance of thoughtful design?” More often than not, I simply explain that I write on the Internet, leaving out the very premise that I so passionately believe in. And it saddens me.
Naturally, I’ve been focusing my efforts on a better answer. An answer that encompasses the multitude of reasons that I spend hours researching, uncovering and exploring the many facets of design. An answer that gives weight to the topic while giving validation to the numerous designers and talents I feature here weekly. And today, I’ve found it.
Designer Ingrid Fetell authors Aesthetics of Joy, a blog dedicated to exploring the very idea of design as it relates to our humankind’s wellbeing. It’s a must-read, if for no other reason than the passionate wisdom Fetell shares so willingly. She’s what I like to call a “thought-designer”: someone who doesn’t create for the sake of creating. Instead, she sends beauty into the world in an effort to better our surroundings. In an effort to better the world.
I needed Ingrid’s help in communicating exactly why design plays such an integral role in our society today, a society where we live fast and large and in excess. Her response was beautiful, true and wise. She writes:
“A closely held belief of mine is that it’s easier to change things than it is to change people. People may want to exercise more, be more creative, or share more with others, but we have ingrained habits that make these things difficult. Design can help by making it easier to live up to our aspirations: by making stairs a more accessible and enticing option than escalators, for example, or creating open spaces where people want to gather instead of being trapped in their cubicles. By shaping the objects, interactions, and environments we live around and within, design literally changes the world.”
And everyone is a participant in that change – from design writers to creative directors to suburban mothers. “Whether we have the title “designer” or not, we can all use the tools of design to create more moments of joy in the world,” Fetell writes. “Anyone who decorates their home, hosts a party, or gets dressed in the morning is designing something that is experienced by others. I think these moments can be the most powerful because they are intimate and real; they may seem small, but because of the way they touch people, they have ripple effects that create big change.”
These ripple effects are often left unexplored, but when discovered, nearly always stem from a functional design concept. Take, for instance, a recent excerpt from an interview with Bill Bryson, author of At Home: A Short History of Private Life (and a fascinating read, I might add):
“I never stopped to think about that, but you don’t have dining rooms in your home because at some point in history people suddenly decided they wanted a room dedicated to eating,” Bryson says. “When [upholstered furniture] finally began to happen in the late 18th century, guests, when they sat in these chairs, were tending to wipe their fingers on the upholstered furniture … The mistress of the household essentially decreed that it was necessary to put aside a particular room dedicated to the purpose of eating so that they weren’t spilling food and messing up the really good furniture in the living rooms.”
It’s historical references like these that do (and should) shape our current view of design. Fetell adds, “There’s a temptation to want to view design always through a personal or a cultural lens. These lenses are important, but they emphasize our differences. Evolutionary history reminds us that even if we don’t speak the same languages or eat the same foods, we share universal attributes as human beings, and this translates to design.”
To further illustrate the concept, Fetell offers the example of color. “Whether it’s the Thanksgiving parade in New York City or a New Year parade in Beijing or the Holi Festival in India, bright color and exuberant joy seem to go together,” she writes. “Tracing this pattern back in time, … it turns out [that] our color vision evolved in part to help us find ripe fruits among the forest’s leaves, so from the very beginning, color was something to celebrate.”
In other words, design is rarely an object. Design is an emotion, a feeling – a story that has existed long before our time. Jon Kolko, founder and director of Austin Center for Design, expands on the belief that design cannot be identified in singular terms. “Producing stunning creative output it only a tiny part of what it means to be a designer, yet aesthetics continue to be the only part that we herald as valuable,” he writes. “But it’s these other skills—empathizing, systems thinking, storytelling—that describe a successful career in design.”
Of course, this idea begs the question: Do the objects we surround ourselves with tell a story? Or are we simply consuming goods at face value, collecting and gathering and hoarding until the very meaning of the object itself is lost amidst the heap? “Humans are the only creatures to be able to have significant control over our environment, and design is the mechanism by which we do it,” Fetell writes. “Design can be thoughtful or it can be thoughtless, and much of the design we’re surrounded by every day is the latter,” Fetell writes.
“As more and more of our products are made by machines, we are increasingly living in a world of objects that were crafted entirely in computers, with more attention paid to manufacturing specs than to the hands that will eventually use them,” writes Fetell. “With each act of design, we are pulling resources out of the earth and concentrating them in objects. Design is what determines whether those objects have value or meaning, whether they support our intentions for how we want to live.”
And that, in a nutshell, is precisely why design matters. Design exists to assign meanings, create associations and support intentions. Yet it stops there; the next step is ours. Design can support our intentions, but it cannot choose them.
So for me, this blog – this exploration of design – serves as an intention for how I want to live. Slower, with greater meaning, and with an eye ever-searching for the beauty that exists in this world.
(I’d love to hear yours.)
All images via my favorite office supply shoppe, Present & Correct.