The History of Design

Dick Buchanan: There are two great currents of design thinking that come out of the ancient world:

  • Making Stuff/Fabricating Things. Comes from crafts and more formalized activities such as architecture and engineering. These became fragmented during the Industrial Revolution.
  • Organizing People. How you gather and manage groups of people into organizations.

An organization is defined as a group of people seeking a common goal through a structure of divided and coordinated activities (a form), supported by various resources (artifacts, tools, rooms, information, etc.).

From these two great currents emerged Three Great Design Practices:

  • Engineering. The creation of roads, sewage systems, aqueducts, and other acts of civil engineering. It also has a lot to do with moving troops long distances and over obstacles.
  • Management. Managers have uncanny connections to designers: both seek to turn situations that are not so good into something better.
  • Design Proper. The great proliferation of design types, defined by what is made: fashion design, interaction design, industrial design, etc.

Each type of practice is fragmented, but all three are starting to coalesce. In engineering, natural science (physics, math, chemistry, and recently biology) define its foundation. Management has coalesced around the social and behavioral sciences: sociology, psychology, and economic. The foundation of design proper is art and has been for centuries.

Design firms are no longer finding their work confined to producing one type of product. Recent design practice calls for people who can more and more cross over traditional design disciplines and even cross into the other two practices, engineering and management. As Clement Mok says in the "Time for Change" article, maybe we should rethink the fragmentation of design itself. Instead of defining ourselves by what we make, think instead about the problems we solve. It's not about the medium we work in.

Dick suggests we reorganize design into The Four Orders of Design:

  • Communication. The creation of signs and symbols, with its roots in mass communication and mass production.
  • Construction. Concerned with the creation of things. Traditional industrial design.
  • Interaction. Concerned with actions and behaviors and things that change over time. People relating to people, mediated by products. Emerged around 1970 in response to computers.
  • "Organization" or "System" or "Environmental." This area of design is so new there isn't even a proper language for it yet. It's concerned with thoughts and organizing thoughts into environments, organizations, systems, and even cultures.

Originally posted on Sunday, January 16, 2005

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