An irregular, irreverent, post-modern account of the surreal, the ordinary, and the bizarre happenings on and around the Felia lavender farm in Crete

Friday, November 30, 2007


So this is headed up DESIGN but what do we mean by design? I know what I mean but I also know that the idea of design and designers as a class of people have been derogated over recent decades so shall we start by dispelling the most common misconception and defining our own terms?

Designers do not just make things look good (or bad depending on your particular take on the designed object). Design is not focussed narrowly or exclusively on the look of the designed object -  fashion design is as close as you get to that obsession with look but remember that even fashion designers focus on fabrics too. Admittedly design in the eighties, or rather, the objects marketed as "designer items" during that era of empty gloss did rely heavily, and sometimes exclusively, upon the mere look and feel but for that we can blame the sales and marketing mafia that held sway. And some of the soi disant designers of the period.

Let me clarify or illustrate from personal experience. The first objects that I designed in my working life were pieces of software code. Most software code has no look or feel. Nobody save for the guy who gets to maintain it cares too much what it looks like when printed out and in use it has no look at all - it is merely an arrangement of bits in a segment of computer memory and the computer doesn't care at all but make no mistake good software code is designed.

In fact, until much later in my career I designed almost nothing that had a look. I designed code. I designed computer systems large and small. I designed database schemata. I re-designed other peoples' code.  I re-designed other peoples' database schemata. Until I began designing online conversations, and later human computer interfaces and web sites, did any of the things I designed have a viewable dimension and at first I did not design the visual elements of those. Perfume designers will know what I mean. The bottle may well have been designed by a different person to the perfume itself.

So, the way I tell the story, design is not primarily a visual discipline. So what is it? For me design is an intellectual discipline.

Design is a problem solving discipline. Design is primarily concerned with solving problems. A design, a good design, is a solution to a particular problem within a set of constraints. The ideal design is the best available solution to the particular problem within the constraints of the problem space. Hold on to th idea of constraints - we'll come back to them and the important  role they play in design.

When I used the phrase "best available design" it was in the full knowledge that it would evoke the question "what do you mean by best?". In design two of the most important criteria in judging the worth of a solution, assuming that the designed object fulfills fully the function mandated by the brief, are elegance and simplicity.  There is a famous quotation that is often attributed to Albert Einstein but that I came across as being from Gustave Eiffel (he of the Paris tower): "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler."  Given that what has been designed is likely to be made then it should be obvious that simplicity is a great attribute for any design. As to the attribute of "elegance" you must understand that I use elegant as it is used in the scientific discipline where it signifies "pleasingly ingenious and simple". Not ingenious in isolation but ingenious AND simple.   

The reason I refer to scientific usage in my definition of elegance is because I believe that design is a discipline that shares much with mathematics. Were you to listen to mathematicians for any length of time you would doubtless be surprised, as I first was, by how often they refer to beauty. Mathematicians believe that mathematics, good mathematics is beautiful. Often when presented with a new proof a mathematician will make his or her first judgement as to whether it might be true on whether the proof itself is beautiful - if it isn't beautiful it probably isn't true. Push the mathematician to explain beauty and he or she will often use the words elegant and simple. Consider Occam's Razor. - a regularly observed scientific heuristic. 

Enough for now ... maybe more tomorrow ...

Blogged with Flock


  1. how very good to see you still haunt this place - how in hell are you?

  2. I'm doing great, thanks! Moved to Canada in the summer and trying out my hand at a freelance career (as much as anything becuase jobhunting with the need for a work permit is tough ;)

    I'm happy to keep up with your blog, I miss a lot of the contact I had at the flue! It's no substitute for the chat, but helps me keep up with things a little.