2016 PERSONAL DESIGN RESEARCH Definition of rather vague terms about ‘design’

Ever since I started teaching at the School of Architecture at Sydney Technical College around 1949, then University of Technology and finally University of NSW I have grappled sporadically with trying to find out how a designer’s analytical mind and process in the solving of problems could be inserted into the general educational curriculum.

I have gradually come to believe that the topic of ‘design’ is a much misunderstood term in the Australian lexicon, being confused with ‘art’ and ‘industrial arts’ and now ‘technology. It is a word that is used as a noun or a verb (sic) in common parlance yet as I understand the word it is not clearly understood by the educational community and consequently not taught as an integrated topic with daily life which is changing rapidly because of technology.

Also, I suspect that because the word ‘design’ has become more commonly used in the last 60 years1, its ubiquitous or pervasive nature has brought about a watering down of its understanding to the point of becoming almost meaningless which is contrary to what one might expect.

Design in society covers a very wide field – the profession itself and its future, its clients and society in general, the way we educate our children toward better living, even our Australian culture seen in relation to our contribution to others on this finite planet.

The following two essays have arisen during the collation of my Portfolio and deal with only two aspects of design within our society. They only scratch the surface of my concerns – maybe I will write more when I have more time ……

Firstly, I believe that world events require us to reconsider our terminology around design :


1       What do we really mean by design ? designing ? designer ? designed ?

This is not a critique of the recent review of the school curriculum by ACARA the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (2015)….but having absorbed most of what was in the report about the teaching of art, design and technology I feel the need for comment. The ACARA reviewers do not seem to be sufficiently abreast of the changes that have happened between design in practice and how students should develop an awareness of design thinking. If they are to become more aware users and consumers of design they will need to understand what design has come to mean in the lexicon of society.


I have come to believe over the years that when we, as designers talk about design others whom we are addressing may well have different mental images based upon their education and perceptions. I believe that many of these perceptions are well out of date and/or misinterpreted in today’s context.

The following statement is an attempt to clarify this widespread problem :

Design as a verb (to design) is a process which can be done by two types of people :

1          by a non-designer, untrained in the design process, likely to lead to a less than successful ‘design’
because of lack of knowledge of the relevant areas of enquiry, backtracking, unsound conclusions         etc.

2          by a professional designer trained in analytical, logical process, relevant materials and   techniques etc, which is more likely to lead to a successful outcome.

‘Designing’ firmly established itself during the 20th century as a recognised profession, skilled in an essentially holistic process with numerous developmental aspects of necessary actions, all of which have desirable or undesirable consequences with differing degrees of acceptability.

Every creative opportunity is different, and it appears from the outside to be a very messy, almost impossible process, balancing aesthetics with pragmatism, but the professional designer has been trained to recognise the pitfalls which smooth the path toward good design.

Are there such qualities as good and bad design? The OED regards art as skill and many aesthetes claim there is no such thing as bad art (in that if there is no skill then ipso facto there is no art. If we agree with that premise then surely it should also apply to design as an applied or specific form of art, ie. the skill is of a similar kind and if the skill is lacking then the final product is also lacking ie. not good.

However, there is a significant difference between art and design in that a designed product has to satisfy a specific physical function and if it does not then it is not a good design, no matter how good its appearance or aesthetic qualities might be. So it is possible to have a useful, designed product that works well but is perceived as visually ugly. Such a product should be regarded as a failing the ‘design’ test in that it should satisfy both practical and aesthetic needs. Art, on the other hand is almost always an aesthetic or sensory experience with no physical or useful function which has to be satisfied.

I had the good fortune to take a professional course in Bristol, UK in 1965 which made quite an impression on me. The course was directed by Ted Matchett, an aeronautical engineer, who gave us his definition of design : (the critical aspects are underlined)

Good design is always the optimal result of the sum of the true needs in a particular set of circumstances.

I have yet to find a more precise and inclusive definition…and it is the professional designer’s implied responsibility to apply a process which thoroughly considers the unambiguous meanings of the underlined words. Anything which does not may then be regarded as ineffective and unacceptable by a process of elimination. The term designer should thus imply responsible professionalism in all aspects of the practice of designing.

Design as a noun (an object). The designed product should thus imply the optimal (or best possible) result. An object that has been designed by a professional designer deserves to be called a design (used as a noun). It implies quality – but many objects do not qualify.

It is unfortunate that the word design is most commonly used or seen as a noun and is applied to virtually everything – a pattern, an object, a style. It is partially the result of our educational system in which the subject matter of Art has subsumed ‘design’ with little recognition that the profession of design has matured in practice and become a mental discipline that is now challenging the (supposedly) unquestionable positions of literacy and numeracy. We as designers have much more to offer in that we also have to concern ourselves with unquantifiable human perceptions and feelings – our responses – to achieve optimal results. Science and art have together contributed much in these fields since the days of William Morris in the latter half of the 19th century.

In the educational curricula, literacy and numeracy make little or no contribution to the understanding or integration of these qualities to human well-being so a study of design thinking is well overdue. It would seem that there has been little essential change to the curriculum toward an understanding of the role of design in everyday life – old outdated concepts still persist.

Australia particularly needs to lift its game in this field and we badly need to educate society – our clientele – about the benefits of recognising these values inherent in professionally designed products and we need to do it now as it is becoming urgent in our trading relationships with other countries.

This is a 21st century challenge to educational practice that confronts the Design Institute of Australia – to bring our language about design up to date and modify the recent ACARA statement use of ‘design’ in the review of the National Curriculum. I fear that we have lost the opportunity to do this as the review seems to have been concluded (Jan 2016), having approved an unsatisfactory statement on the inclusion of design thinking in the national curriculum.

I hope that this dissertation on art and design will be seen as a starting point toward creating an awareness of design thinking in society. I would welcome any discussion on its statements, for which I take complete responsibility.

Derek F. Wrigley
25 Feb 2016

1 A search of any telephone directory will show that entries starting with ‘Design’ are significantly more numerous than they were in 1956 when the Industrial Design Council of Australia was formed in Canberra with centres in all major Australian cities.