In March 2008 Paola Antonelli curated MoMA’s critically acclaimed exhibit, “Design and the Elastic Mind.” The show, which Seed had the honor of helping to catalyze, explored the myriad ways in which design has become an essential tool for visualizing, understanding, and manipulating the natural world, from the micro to the macro. In our desire to see that conversation evolve, to follow the ideas that emerge from it, and to showcase their application around the world, Seed introduces here a new column by Paola Antonelli on design and science.
Several groups, ranging from economists and bioengineers to Christian creationists, have claimed the word “design” as their own. They might have an etymological right to do so, but they also contribute to the ambiguity surrounding one of the most important and least studied fields of human applied creativity, the process of making things for other people. From chairs to interfaces, from food-delivery trucks to conceptual scenarios on the impact of nanotechnology — design takes into account people’s needs and concerns, helping them live better within the broad context of the world; it maximizes the available means to achieve the most satisfying outcome, and produces culture in the process.
That’s the ideal design process: a unique model of thought and action perfectly suited to times of great challenge and great opportunity. In an ideal world, social responsibility would be a prerequisite for design, and designers would vow to produce beautiful, useful, positive, responsible, functional, and economical things and concepts that are meaningful additions to — or sometimes subtractions from — the world we live in. Indeed, design deserves such thoughtful consideration. Designers stand between revolutions and everyday life. They’re able to grasp momentous changes in technology, science, and society and convert those changes into objects and ideas that people can understand. Examples abound, from the intimate and local to the immediately global, such as the first interface designs for the internet or the nutrition facts labeling standards, to name just two.
Design today has to deal with a timely set of priorities and responsibilities: a concern for the environment, an evolved sense of responsibility toward other human beings, new technical advancements in manufacturing and distribution, new ideas about what constitutes privacy and ownership of things and spaces, the immateriality of new forms of design, the interactivity that many objects allow, and the resurgence of local cultures in response to the global market, to name just a few. Yet all design goes back to the same economy of goals and means, an economy that is also an ecology, and which could become the basis for a strong theory. Design is looking for a unified theory — or maybe just for a theory tout court — for, in spite of its permanence and inevitability, it is still a rather unexplored region of human creativity.
The first obstacle is one of designation. The act of making things has forever existed, but it was not always called design. Until very recently — and, one could argue, even today — design has been paired with more established disciplines, from fine arts and architecture to engineering, or cabinetmaking, even illustration, in order to align it with more traditional categories. But design’s field of action, whose breadth is wonderfully articulated by the Italian motto dal cucchiaio alla città (from the spoon to the city), also embraces websites, interfaces, and other sometimes-impalpable visual and functional constructs. It is confusing to detect what all of these different outcomes have in common. “Design” as a noun is stretched in so many directions, the only way to grasp its meaning is by abstracting it to its most conceptual skeleton, its basic construct. Science can teach design how to find its own core. The points of contact between science and design are countless. My Seed colleagues and my team at the museum had a chance to count dozens over a year of monthly salons at MoMA, in which we gathered an intimate audience of designers and scientists and invited them to speak on themes such as beauty, scale, truth, visualization, information, and process. Out of all of these topics, collaborations were built, and the mere exposure to each other’s thought processes was an eyeopener to many. This gratifying series underscored the making of “Design and the Elastic Mind.”
Design is culture, and so is science. Both science and design — forward motors, providers of perspective, guardians of beauty and truth in all of their shades and manifestations — are essential to progress. And a public awareness of science and design is a necessary tool to empower the positive collective feedback that we trust will help set the right substrate for creativity and innovation.
This column will focus on innovation and consider objects as gateways to information and services; as means rather than mere commodities. It will take into account the way they are designed and built; the economy of means evident in their production, distribution, and use; the way they address complexity by celebrating simplicity; the respect and honesty they display in their use of materials; the way they address their entire life cycle. It will explore institutions that foster design’s thirst for interdisciplinarity and teamwork and look at examples of enlightened entrepreneurship.
A new pack of designers, entrepreneurs, anthropologists, and consultants are working worldwide to bring beauty and common sense not only to the design practice, but also to policymaking, management, and, very simply, to life. As an increasing consciousness of the finite nature of our resources discourages the overproduction of things, designers are turning to immaterial applications of their skills, ranging from interfaces to services. They do not oversimplify the complexity of the design process with prefab recipes, nor do they discount the importance of beauty and delight. Their projects are all informed by their circumstances and are uplifting, even when they tackle topics like prison life, aging, or obesity; they do not simply work, they give people a sense of hope and strength.
Designers find themselves today at the center of an extraordinary wave of cross-pollination. Because of their role as intermediaries between research and production, they often act as the primary interpreters in interdisciplinary teams, called upon not only to conceive objects, but also to devise scenarios and strategies. To cope with this responsibility, designers need to set the foundations for a theory of design and become astute generalists. At that point, they will be in a unique position to become the repositories of contemporary culture’s need for analysis and synthesis, society’s new pragmatic intellectuals. As scientists increasingly embrace this role of the designer, and also recognize in designers like-minded innovative thinking, science will become design’s most precious ally.
Originally published February 10, 2009