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August 17, 2009

Where is the line between design and "designy-ness"? A recent essay got us thinking about how consumers identify real innovation beneath a cosmetically enhanced product. Join the debate.


Last week Rob Walker (the New York Times' Consumed columnist) put a link up on twitter to this essay by Rob Horning at the online journal of cultural criticism, PopMatters, with the pullquote: "Designy-ness is an ideological sheen on consumerism." He called on design bloggers to take up the provocation, so we thought we'd start a conversation here, and invite you to discuss among the Dwell community what distinguishes actual design from aesthetically elevated consumerist fodder.

Horning begins with an assertion that many of us have considered before: That the line between using design to produce functional improvements and using design to manipulate the appearance of a fundamentally unchanged product has grown blurry (greenwashing, anyone?). But he doesn't argue, precisely, that the latter is not design, but rather that the act of gracing an object with the recognizable "touch" of a designer has itself become what many consumers perceive as design (or call it "designy-ness")—"the good becomes a mirror in which we see reflected our own good taste."

This train of thought could certainly lead to a discussion of what "green design" has come to mean. To some degree Horning's sentiments echo those of many rigorous designers who would attest that truly sustainable design is inherently unglamorous, found in the rejiggering of production lines, the reuptake of waste streams, and the chemical reformulation of materials. Glamorizing consumer products by applying a "green sheen" (indeed, an ideological one) generates nothing less than an equal and opposite result: unbridled acquisition of more bamboo tealight holders.

Many of those designers currently champion "heirloom design" as a sustainable solution to overconsumption and disposability. Products that are designed to last, to be cherished and handed down through generations, represent an age-old perspective on material possessions that looks awfully good now that all of our resources are in alarming decline. Of course, most objects aren't hoisted into the orbit of timeless design based on endurance alone. Perhaps there's a place for skin-deep beauty when wildly innovative functionality or tremendous durability constitute an object's character.

But Horning doesn't head down the environmental road. While there's an implicit awareness that more consumption yields more waste, he concludes with the concern that "designy" goods may lead to the corrosion of individuality, as we rely on market-approved symbols of good taste and refined design sense to dictate what we collect. "We think we are curators of our own personal museum of tasteful, design-y goods, but in the end it’s someone else’s institution and we are just the guards."

It's not exactly a rosy outlook on the future of society's relationship to design. I'm left wondering whether increased access (read: affordability) to what is perceived as "design" (you know, as opposed to every other physical object found on every other shelf in every other store, which somehow escape being defined as "designed objects") has any societal benefit, or whether Horning is correct in speculating that it does little more than redeem commodification.

Much like the word "sustainable" no longer seems to register in people's minds as meaning "able to be sustained," perhaps "design" no longer evokes the many hidden processes that lead to an intentional melding of material, structure, function and performance. Did it ever? Is it possible to facilitate an interface between objects and the average consumer public that would hold intact the whole system and history of design?

As designers and design thinkers, what's your opinion? Please share in the comments. 

Image: ex novo

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