14 August 2018

Design Evolution

Written by Published in Design
Drawing of artists’ model Fanny Eaton by Walter Fryer Stocks (c.1859) Drawing of artists’ model Fanny Eaton by Walter Fryer Stocks (c.1859) ©Image: Wikimedia

Several thousand years ago, the word ‘paradigm’ meant ‘supermodel’

It is increasingly obvious that our responses to climate change are failing. We need comprehensive lifestyle change, but government methods are too indirect to achieve this. The good news is that designers are evolving a bigger repertoire of skills that could be harnessed for the common good. Unfortunately, recent additions, such as ‘user experience’ (UX) design, game design and ‘interaction design’ emerged to increase profits in a few industries. It would be great to bring them together with other specialisms, as complementary parts in an integrated whole.

If design is to evolve beyond its current state it needs to re-design itself. This is difficult to achieve in a world in which it is ‘normal’ to audit everything as dots on a spreadsheet. Fortunately, designers have the imagination to see through the granular logic of money. They can look between the dots, or join them up in a way that confounds economic orthodoxy. But this is a combinatorial mode of creativity that needs more development. It represents an important step towards a new paradigm.

One reason why I love the word ‘paradigm’ is that, literally, it means ‘supermodel’. Several thousand years before we came to believe that human minds could be ‘original’ our ancestors saw artefacts as copies of ideas that came from God. The ancient Greek word ‘deigma’ (δειγμα) referred to the production samples used for marketing and quality control. Factory managers would have kept the very best version as a ‘paradeigma’ (παράδειγμα) – a supreme template that was as close to perfection as possible. 

The notion of ‘paradigms’ has also been used to describe the nature of grammar. It is easier to notice the vocabulary than the grammar of the language we are using, even though both help to divide the ‘thinkable’ from the ‘unthinkable’. Visual paradigms work in a similar way. Although London seems to be breaking rules for the shape of new high-rises on its urban skyline, we may forget that the new shapes depend on the underlying grammar of concrete, steel and glass that was devised in the 19th century. 

London Skyline panoramioDesigning new forms is not enough – we need a new paradigm. Image: Wikimedia

Although ‘design’ has been around for thousands of years, ‘design thinking’ only became a hit with non-designers after the turn of the last century. This may have been because of a few best-selling books reminding us that design can be used to turn a profit. Some corporates became so excited that they made their own versions of ‘design thinking’ and added them to their problem-solving repertoire. This, in turn, ruffled the feathers of some designers, who felt misunderstood, if not sidelined.

This conflict is not new. It reflects a long-standing tension between the logic of science and the logic of design. When Aristotle pondered the strangely elusive practice of design, he concluded that it is the ‘ultimate cause’ of the way we live. This is a spooky idea, because it suggests that the imagined future somehow reaches back to us to shape today’s lifestyles. The conundrum of the transition from caterpillar to butterfly is even spookier. When the caterpillar sees a butterfly fluttering above it, is its caterpillar mind equipped to imagine flying?

We face a similar challenge, today. It was only recently that design evolved beyond the monkey-mindset of mining, form-giving and thoughtless disposal. This is why we forget that value emerges from synergy, rather than from quantity. And, as synergy emerges when things come together, relations are more important than things. Fortunately, there are more relations in the world than things, so we can do more with less by re-combining the things we already have.

A combinatorial approach would also help us to find new business models that cultivate and harvest local diversities. Adding ‘languaging’ to the design thinker’s toolkit would be a start. At least, it will help design thinkers to ‘re-language’ outdated business models and habits. By thinking beyond the paradigm of one-off products, services and inventions we can create synergies that inspire further synergies. If designers can develop this relational approach, the future will be bright.

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