Design’s Dueling Dualities

Design is in a continuous state of flux. The more design evolves, the wider the pendulum swings between polarities: tradition versus modernity, old-school versus cutting-edge, slow-and-steady versus quick-and-dirty. So much design chatter today is like a perpetual tug-of-war, with fierce advocates, clever arguments, and strong emotions on both sides. 

The dualities below have become all-too-familiar. Some are in direct opposition, while others are two sides of the same coin or points on a continuum (and, to clarify, these are characterizations of each view, not necessarily my personal view on all these issues).

Design is specific

It’s a specialized area of practice with a particular set of skills, methods, and tools, and a discipline supported by research and literature.

…but design is general too!

It’s a universal problem-solving activity, forming with intent, turning existing situations into preferred ones.

Design is the job of trained designers

The world needs designers and their unique creative skills, borne of rigorous art school training, years of experience, and raw talent.

…but everyone is a designer!

With design thinking methods and design tools readily accessible, anyone can learn what what designers do and do it themselves. And anyone who participates in the design process and contributes to an intentional outcome is a designer.

Design deals with intangibles

Designers work extensively with concepts and abstract ideas, bringing them into a more cohesive form. In recent years, designers have become more broadly engaged in the creation of processes, services, experiences, and strategies.

…but design is all about artifacts!

Designers make stuff: logos, books, websites, toasters, museum exhibits, cars, and other conventionally “designed” goods. The output of design is what defines it.

Design creates structure

Designers establish the logic upon which design systems are built and apply organizing principles and hierarchies that govern subsequent design decisions. (“Architecture vs Design” is yet another duality for another post.)

…but design deals with surface!

Designers, still tied to their historical role as artists, are typically responsible for applying a look and feel to physical and digital creations (e.g. wrappers, packaging, covers, skins, interfaces, etc.) only after someone else does all the figuring out.

Design disrupts

Design is the “secret” to “innovative” products, services, and businesses that “disrupt” markets by solving problems or capitalizing on opportunities in new and unexpected ways.

…but design standardizes!

Design seeks common languages, systems, and schemes to unify and build familiarity while minimizing variation and reducing complexity.

Of course, not all dualities are cause for dispute; seeing design as one thing or another can result from too little knowledge or too few frames of reference, without any particular leaning or preference attached. Non-design professionals often only have popular culture, the media, and personal experiences to go on, which can narrowly frame understanding of design and design practices. 

Difficulties arise when people (both within and outside of professional design) adopt a singular point of view or pick a side and vigorously defend it, especially when it is under perceived threat and regardless of how much opinion or fact is at play. But design discourse doesn’t have to remain polarized. In order for debate to shift more towards productive dialogue — and away from the same old cycles of arguments — there needs to be a middle ground. There’s a gradient of differences between design’s dualities, along axes of time, means, purpose, and outcome, but we are too busy focusing on endpoints and opposites.

The design conversation needs to move forward in sync with the field itself. For that to happen, we need alternate ways of seeing, thinking, and understanding:

  • How do we start to appreciate the spectrums of design thought and practice, history and futurity (yes, that’s a real word)? How much of the bigger picture of design can we map and understand?
  • How do we honestly begin to acknowledge what we know and don’t know about design, and start contextualizing and distinguishing opinion and fact? Can we pursue understanding before arriving at conclusions and solidifying our own thoughts? Can we actively share knowledge across design and non-design communities to expand and enrich understanding of what design is, where it came from, and where it might be heading?
  • How do we openly come to terms with our own personal attachments to design — as livelihood, as a community we belong to, as identity? Why do we care so much? What’s really at stake?
  • How do we step outside ourselves and see design anew? How do we question and probe design free from our own biases? Is it even possible?

As design continues to morph and expand, and as change speeds ahead, more dualities will likely emerge. One last duality will decide the future of design discussion: Will we cling to “this or that,” or will we embrace “yes, and…”?

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