Why do we design?

It is a question I imagine most of us have asked ourselves, or been asked, on at least one occasion, but why do we follow a process of design? We are all creatives with some link to the study of design so I will presume that we have all studied the actual design process from brief to prototype but, as educators, how do we convey what can be a complex and varied process to the young minds in our care? More importantly, how do we express just how important that process is and how do we ensure it is relevant to them?

There is this common approach that design is about ‘solving problems’. Indeed, we often talk about identifying a problem to solve. I am as guilty as the next D&T teacher of using this as a starting point but, more recently, I have been rethinking my own approach to this in the hope that it will also get my students to think about it too. In a nutshell, I concluded that it (design) really doesn’t have to start with a ‘problem’.

Design, holistically, is the process of advancing from one situation to another. Often the first situation is not an ideal one, devoid of a pleasing or functional resolution or that simply needed putting right or improving somehow. The second situation (which may only be the second of many) sees a number of those issues resolved, improved or addressed. Essentially this is what design does but that first situation could be the identification of an opportunity where design skills or processes could lead to some improvement even if it means improving your bank account.

All this is a lot of bluster unless it can be used in an educational sense, so we use the acronym ‘NOW’ to illustrate that there are essentially three reasons that a process of design is undertaken; Needs, Opportunities and Wants.

To make it easier to understand for my own students, we discuss Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and I ask them to consider what they, as consumers, actually need. The responses are as generic as you might expect. Food, water, sleep, world peace. I then ask them what they want, and this is a very different list which is clearly a reflection of the design and consumer driven society most of the western world live in.

In exam level classes, we have the phrase ‘Things we need we require, those we want, we desire’ to help them remember this approach. We even talk about the marketing mix and the fact that products can genuinely bring pleasure and happiness. Students find this a little amusing at first until they are reminded of the time they unpacked their first Nintendo, Xbox, iPhone, Macbook [delete as appropriate]. A well designed product is something that genuinely makes us happy, not because we may necessarily ‘need’ it, but because factors such as advertising, marketing, social groups and peer pressure have convinced us we actually need them in our lives when we really just want them. When we finally receive them, we experience that warm rush of satisfaction and joy. It is something very hard to recreate but we seek to experience it again by buying or receiving more new products. For some, just like a drug, it can become an expensive addiction.

When we make a list of these ‘wants’ provided by the group, it becomes very clear that manufacturers design products that capitalize on these wants and desires. Students start to get it. Sometimes, very occasionally, it’s like a veil has fallen away and they can see that a manufacturer has ‘duped’ them into upgrading their perfectly good device or item of clothing by playing on these ‘wants’. They can then begin to understand the difference between needs and wants and, for the more able of older student, this can completely change their attitude to design and why we actually do it. Let’s just say we may need an apple, but we want….an Apple 😉 (that point works better with pictures of course).

And this leaves the final approach; ‘opportunities. This is where the subject can really appeal to the business minded student, those who aspire to be more ‘entrepreneurial’ in their approach to design. While it may mean they are considered less ‘philanthropic’ than those who take a more ‘humanitarian’ approach to design, is it any less valid a use of design? Seeing an opportunity to design a new product to introduce to the market or to improve on an existing product is considered good business. Just watch a TV show like ‘The Apprentice’ to see how the candidates are encouraged to identify gaps in the market to introduce new products or services…and to make as much money as they can.

Thinking back to that earlier description of design, the process moves us from one situation to another more beneficial or lucrative situation. Design may well be, as Richard Seymour once said, about ‘making life better for people’, it’s just not always the lives of other people or those that genuinely need it. It can equally be about making your life better with a new house, car, yacht or plane from all the money you are making.

I personally believe design should be a process we teach with the aim of making the world a better place but, if we are being honest, it wouldn’t be quite so exciting for students, or consumers, if we only provided what society needs. It’s the things we want, the products that make us happy, more attractive and more productive (or lazier) that we desire and, as long as society is focused on these things, companies will continue to seek opportunities to sell us products that feed our consumer appetites.


2 thoughts on “Why do we design?

  1. Love your ‘NOW’ approach – this makes so much sense to me as an alternative to having to find a problem – will definitely be using! Thanks 🙂


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