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Why the definition of design may need to change

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Was the drawing, or design, as used in Italian architecture during the Renaissance, gave us the word design. Or so was the enthusiastic explanation I received as an architecture student in the late 1990s. The story is, of course, more complicated.

Although between the years 1300 and 1500 an important change occurred according to the meaning of the word design, this change had less to do with the language than with a fundamental change in the manufacturing process. The relationship between drawing and design did not become a word, and it did not even expand its meaning. On the contrary, it reduced the meaning of the word as it was used before, so that it may now be important to reverse it.

The Latin root of design, sign, it conveyed to Cicero a much broader and more abstract set of meanings than is usually given today. These meanings ranged from the literal and the material (such as plotting), to the tactical (conceiving and achieving a purpose), to the organizational and institutional, as in naming strategy of people and things (where the root, design-, is still visible). All these meanings have a broad meaning to impose a way of perceiving the world in its institutions and agreements.

However, language change began when drawing was used to directly model construction in the 13th and 14th centuries. Therefore, this design concept eclipsed almost all others.

An early example of this continuous transformation is a scroll from the year 1340. Folded, crumpled and pierced with nails, the parchment records a contract between a patron and three builders to build the Sansedoni Palace, in the center of Siena (Italy). At the bottom of the page, there are the legal and financial agreements related to the construction of the palace in the scroll bar. In the upper half, it shows an elevation drawing of the facade, not yet built, with notes and details on its dimensions.

Long before 1340, the builders had already registered their intentions through drawings, which were traced on the floor, on the wall or, over time, on more portable surfaces. However, these inscriptions were secondary and adjacent to the construction process. But the gradual prosperity of economies like that of Siena in the thirteenth century enabled the great masters to balance simultaneous projects. Therefore it was necessary to trust the authority of a drawn document (s design, in multiple concepts of the word at that time) to control the tasks at work. Indeed, part of the function of the Sansedoni scroll was to outline the role of the fourth unnamed builder, who would remain on the spot to direct the works while the three signatories to the contract were busy elsewhere. Parallel to this transformation, he was a master builder instead of the an architector an architect, who would propose and record the design of the building, whose authority the documents and drawings gave.

“The decline of the post-industrial meaning of design is correlated with the decline of the planet’s finite resources, whether the quarried stones piled up to create a Sienese palace, or the rare metals that secure icons like the iPhone.”

As a result, architects can sometimes take a proprietary attitude towards word design. If such sentiments are justified, it is the architects who first practiced design in the contemporary sense. That is, as a strategic, drawing-based way of shaping objects and environments that are separate from their direct manufacture. However, if architecture was at the forefront of design as an independent profession, it soon had company. While architecture students the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris they produced sketches, or prototype sketches, as specified in their syllabi and as part of the design process as we now call it, the factory chimney rising further from Paris would make a big change in the economics of the physical world, and in the idea of ​​design. within it.

As early as the 16th century, drawings and models of household porcelain pieces traveled between Europe and the Jingdezhen kilns of China, helping to specify decorative forms and patterns (we call them designs today) that needed to be created for niche markets. In the XVIII century, Josiah Wedgwood, a British pioneer, who used artists and master potters for illustrations and models. The intention was to enable the large-scale and consistent production of pottery, in Wedgwood’s own words: “To make such men’s machines that they cannot fail.” As well as eliminating the margin of error for workers, it also eliminated their individual interpretation. It was the resulting mechanization of production that separated the work of design and manufacturing, with profound consequences for the definition of design, both as a word and as a social structure.


Although this design concept has spread to our entire society and economy today, we can take one industry as an example. Model T design henry ford, dating back to 1907, allowed gasoline cars to be more than custom toys for the rich. There was also the innovation of Alfred P. Sloan at General Motors, in 1924, when he introduced the design as a symbol of new annual models and different prices and status for mechanically similar vehicles, from the Chevrolet to Cadillac. Waste of commercial force.

Although a “designer” of a bag or sunglasses may convey a superficial brand image, rather than a material value, we appreciate design as one of the few activities that can be carried out in the complex realities of navigable modernity. It’s no coincidence that companies want to make transformative and accessible products, for example Tesla, Apple and even IBM in its day, the beauty of the surface finish was heralded as a (presumed) expression of general technological sophistication. Although they also benefit from the commercial value of style and status.

Despite all the technological transformation in the world, almost every new building is still based on a set of drawings and specifications that would have been recognizable in 14th century Siena. This also means that the design of the word, as it is commonly used, remains consistent with the century-old definition, even if it goes far beyond the meaning of the construction. Which, ironically, moves away from drawing as the only method of design. In recent years, architecture and its related professions have begun to embrace digital tools that facilitate design over drawing. For example, technologies such as 3D printing and robotic building assembly dissolve some of the traditional distance between generation and manufacturing.

At the same time, this progress coincided, perhaps not coincidentally, with the commercialization and adoption of the so-called design thinking, whose practitioners often work away from the drawing board. The irony of this practice is that tools derived from the drawing sense of design (for example, methods of sketching, diagramming, and reorganizing relationships graphically, with Post-its or otherwise) work to good when applied to problems. abstract than the immediate physical or visual environment.

However, it is not just the design consultants who should succeed that should push us back to a wider vision of design thinking. The decline in the post-industrial importance of design correlates with the decline of the planet’s finite resources, be it the accumulated quarried stones to create a Sienese palace or the rare metals that comprise iconic items such as the iPhone. While design can be a source of well-being, it can also share the responsibility for the current ecological crisis: Each new goal may not be much better than the last.

If designers are going to the bottom of the design today, through prototyping and direct manufacturing, we would also win by asking the design to travel upwards. This includes the discussion groups and surveys that go into creating a product, the legal and development decisions that go into building it, the resources and decisions that the world design depends on.

From the continuous reuse of materials in a circular economy, through a shift in the approach of architecture towards adaptive reuse, to the redesign of food away from an unsustainable meat approach, we must not only reshape things, but also culture and the institutions that creates with them. Not only does this work recover the dē-signo in its original sense: not only the search for a more beautiful form, but also the configuration of a more beautiful and sustainable world.

Nicholas de Monchaux is a professor and director of architecture at MIT.

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