Design’s Big Ideas

Authors and leading authorities on the theory, history and criticism of design, Charlotte and Peter Fiell, discuss how its big ideas can move design-thinking forward

Above: Lithographic poster (1910) by Peter Behrens for AEG, advertising the company's metal filament lightbulbs

Design is foremost a problem-solving process that seeks practical solutions to all sorts of different types of needs, concerns and desires. And while the vast majority of designs are the result of this particular approach, there are others that are just manifestations of sheer creativity, conceived for the delight of producing something new or beautiful for its own sake.

Whatever the underlying intention or motivation behind a design, it always begins its life as an idea.

There are also certain types of designs where the primary function is to act as a channel for conveying concepts and opinions.

How should one define ‘design’? Probably the best definition is that it is the conception and planning (forethought) of an artefact, environment or system as well as the physical outcome of the process – i.e. the idea realized in physical or digital form. The meaning of design is also very wide-ranging, covering everything that is man-made, from pottery and textiles, to consumer appliances and transportation, to medicines and gaming environments. The practice of design likewise straddles the worlds of art and engineering, and where exactly a specific design will fall within that crucial intersecting area between aesthetics and science largely depends on what it is that’s being designed.

Designed artefacts are also physical testaments to their creators’ ideas – their thoughts, opinions and aspirations – and are often the only material proof we have of someone’s life. Despite this, however, all too often when we are considering a design we only assess its here-and-now physicality and how well it fulfils its intended function, without really thinking about the people or processes that brought it into being nor the ideas that lie behind it. Consequently, one of our goals when writing 100 Ideas that Changed Design was to delve beneath the surface of designed objects in order to explore the multiplicity of ideas that have compelled designers throughout the centuries to come up with alternative, and in some cases better, design solutions.

Nothing shapes the creative essence of an era more than the collective ideas shared by a society at that specific moment in history. This explains why over the decades, different design ideas have come bubbling to the surface in response to the ever-changing economic, political and technological landscape. When we look at an object from the past or even the present, we can read it as a tangible sign of its times, an encapsulation of the ideas and ideals of the society that brought it to life.

Designs also embody the spirit of the time in which they are created, for no designer has ever worked in a cultural vacuum.

Whatever direction design may take in the future it will, with absolute certainty, be based on key ideas. It is crucial to know what the really big ideas are, in order to move design-thinking forward in a meaningful way – from older ideas such as Portability, Modularity and Customization to newer ones such as Parametricism, Smart Machines and IOT (Internet of Things) – because ultimately we are in need of more intelligent design-thinking to be able to solve the biggest problems we are currently facing – from global warming to clean energy and aging populations. We also need innovative design ideas to ensure that design remains the vital civilizing force it always has been, richly enhancing all aspects of our daily lives.

  • Posted on by LKP
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