History of Design and Main Points of Design Today

Power of Design to support achieving “Zero to One” in startups and new business creation. In continuation of the previous article “What is a Startup?” we will now face a fundamental question: “What is design in the first place?”

To proceed to talking about design, we think that it is important to check again on the definition, origin, history, and role of the word “design.” In this column, though it may not be perfect, we will try to explain techniques of design and ways of thinking about design through defining the word in our way and looking back on the history of design.

(Written by Hiroshige Fukuhara and Shusuke Eshita, Sony Design Consulting)

> Previous Article: “Features and Issues of Startups”

What is “DESIGN” Exactly?

Generally speaking, we feel that the word “DESIGN” is not yet well appreciated. We consider design as a useful concept for everyone and an ability that everyone should obtain.

When a child grows up in Japan, there are few opportunities for the child to come into contact with the word “design” without making a conscious approach. One of the reasons for this phenomenon is that the word “design” is not used in today’s elementary school textbooks. In order to establish a system for children to receive certain level of education equally in every region in Japan, MEXT (The ministry of education, culture, sports, science and technology, Japan) issues education policies for schools and teachers. However, today’s curriculum guidelines do not include the word “design.”

In the late 1950s, from a viewpoint of “encouragement in design” as an important element for rapid economic growth, the word “design” appeared in textbooks. We imagine that, during the period of rapid economic growth, globalization and identity building of corporations are opportunities for growth, and design was an important element and was valued as a national policy. However, after 2008, the reason is uncertain but the word “design” disappeared from the curriculum guidelines. It is difficult for children to understand the word or its concept if the word does not appear during the course of the education, and, as a result, it is difficult for them to come into contact with the word or even more difficult to study about design.

In addition, “design” is an English word in the first place. It is hard to understand the whole aspect of a word if it is not in a native language. The word “design” in English has various meanings and it is more an everyday word that can be used widely. The meaning of the word includes, not only what we call “dezain” in Japanese, or designed patterns or drawings, but also planning of buildings, planning of projects, planning of ideas, planning of schedules, etc. as well as nuances such as purpose and intention. The word “design” may convey a special meaning for many Japanese people. However, in the English-speaking world, it is an “ordinary word” that can be used in many ways. For the native speakers of English, “design” is just a common, everyday word, and it is not difficult for English speakers to understand that planning itself is to “design.”

For Japanese people, on the other hand, we always feel that the use of “design” is likely to be limited in the fields of “crafts, visual, shapes and colors,” and there is a deep-rooted strong bias that it is “something that specialists do.” We think that this narrow perspective about the word “design,” which is a useful concept, has resulted in many opportunity losses.

For example, it can be said that many Japanese people “plan” but do not “design.” If we view “design” as something special as above, as a criteria for a person evaluating “someone else’s work,” it often ends up in arguments whether the person “likes design or not.” If the person feels “not interested” or “not a fan,” then his/her learning attitude to design may be shut.

Ordinary matters such as cooking, planning a trip, and remodeling a room can be all actually referred to as “design.” By understanding that such ordinary actions are “design” and recognizing that design is one of the essential concepts in one’s life, one can learn about design and make use of design on one’s own account. If you utilize design on your account and recognize design as something like the surrounding air, you will notice that there is nothing in the world that is not designed. Improving your sensitivity to design in this way is the “first step” required to start understanding design and utilizing design to advantage.

We are hoping that many people will understand in the end that “all actions of thinking about any processes are design.”

<Supplementary Explanation>

  Although there are various theories, the word “designate” existed before “design.” “Designate” means “to mark clearly, to choose someone or something for a particular job or purpose, to refer to someone or something using a particular name etc.,” and it is originated from Latin “designare,” which is also an origin of the word “design.” Also, the word “designare” can be broken down into “de- (to emphasize)” + “signare (to sign, to mark),” showing that the word means emphasizing “marking”, i.e., to clearly mark (*1).

  In addition, the word “design” can be broken down into “de” and “sign.” “Sign” means a “mark.” “Signum” and “signare” that appear in a Latin noun “designum” and a Latin verb “designare” respectively, both meaning “design” in Latin, are origins of “sign (mark). On the other hand, “de” in “design” means “expression,” and it can be considered that this “de (expression)” gives the difference between “design” and “planning.”

  In other words, acts of design connotes that an act of expressing a “mark,” an act of “representing a plan by mark,” an act of making something invisible visible, and an act of making something intangible tangible are the power of creating new and better plans and marks (in broader meaning, “de-” also includes “to aim for a perfect direction”).

(*1)  “de-” is used as to mean “removed or denied” as well as for “emphasizing the word.”

  The University of Glasgow’s “The Historical Thesaurus of English” has a database of over 650,000 English words categorized by meaning and age, providing historical development of meaning of words and so on. If we look at the history of English and seeing that English today was established after going thorough the Great Vowel Shift that took place between 1400 and 1600, the meaning of “design” in the early history must be “plan/plot/intention/purpose,” and those meanings still survive today.

Reference: “The Historical Thesaurus of English” https://ht.ac.uk/

History and Business Viewpoints of Design

If we talk about design seriously, we need to mention the history of design to a certain extent. However, we may get sidetracked if we go back too deep into the history. So, we will try here to make it short as we extract and explain some of the events in the history.

Arts and Crafts movement, represented by William Morris and others, that developed in association with the industrial revolution in the late 19th century is sometimes described as a starting point of design. However, the movement was intended more for “producing high quality product” and also had a nostalgic perspective. Therefore, it was still a craftsmanship (handicrafts) movement at that time.

It is appropriate to say that modern design started from the German art school “Bauhaus” established in 1919. As the founder of the school and an architect Walter Gropius famously said, “Das ultimative Ziel aller künstlerischen Aktivitäten ist das Bauen! (The ultimate aim of all artistic activity is building!),” products, graphics, and crafts are all unified as total work of art under a large concept of architecture.

After that, industrial design and graphics design developed not only in Europe but also in the U.S. The key point here must be the following famous quote by Thomas Watson Jr., who was named as a second CEO of IBM in 1956: “Design must reflect the practical and aesthetic in business but above all…good design must primarily serve people.” He also said around 1960, “Good Design is Good Business.” Here, he talked about design in a broad sense, and not as a narrow subject that is limited to expression. Although these quotes are not well known outside the company, they seem to be still deeply appreciated in IBM today.

Having said that, an incident that is to be paid special attention in terms of the history of design is that Thomas Watson Jr. invited Paul Rand as a design consultant for IBM in 1956. Paul Rand is known for his numerous corporate identity (CI) works. In other words, Thomas Watson Jr. recognized at that time that it was beneficial for business to utilize designer’s roles, functions, and effects in a business domain. This is a good and early example, from a historical viewpoint, in which skills and abilities of designers are taken in the broad sense and views, and utilized in business.

Reflection on “Attempt of Design” Over Quarter of Century

In 1980s, with the development in electrical communications and computerization of industries, “intangible design” began to draw attention. From then on, with the spread of personal computers and the Internet, interactions without colors or shapes, such as man-machine interface or user interface (UI), are recognized as a subject for design, and an establishment of the area of intangible design accelerated from around the year 2000 when a concept of “Experience Design” was introduced.

Established in parallel are the concepts of “User Experience (UX) Design” for developing the design of UI, and “Service Design” that handles the user interactions integrally as a business package. Concurrently with such movements, a concept of “Design Thinking” has been introduced and utilized in many new business creations. “Design Thinking” is a highly reliable methodology to quickly reach a goal by co-creating with and involving people who had not been referred to as designers before.

Based on such developments, we will now introduce three essential attempts of design utilization in startups.

Design Thinking

An architect Peter G. Rowe proposed “Design Thinking” in 1986. It was originally an attempt at figuring out “the content of a black box” - inspirations of architects and designers - which is a creative process for approaching the optimum solution through repetitions of sketches and trial-and-error.

In Japan, it was a book published in 2009 called “Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation” written by Tim Brown who is an executive chair of a design consulting firm, IDEO, that spread the term “Design Thinking” and introduced the concept of design to people who are not professional designers.

“Design Thinking” aims for co-creation in reaching a highly accurate solution by utilizing every expertise available on the basis of customer’s viewpoint, and it has been used in many processes of new business creation or improvement suggestions as an improving method where many people are involved in the project to find problems and arrive at solutions. On this point, Design Thinking has been remarkably important in that the designer’s thinking process has been systematized as procedures. However, a person who studied the systematized process does not automatically become a “designer,” and it is another issue if the person can always suitably practice the knowledge arrived at or not.

In addition, at least about a half of the contents shown here are quite normal processes for designers, and thus it is hard for designers to see values in them. On the other hand, the processes of design that cannot be verbalized easily are visualized here, and it is important that this has produced potential for design to be used more widely.

Speculative Design

One of the design trends in the 2000s is an approach called the “Speculative Design.” It was proposed by Anthony Dunne, who was at the time a dean of the Royal College of Art Design Interactions course, and Fiona Raby. It is an activity that perceives design as a means to visualize the future - a means to contemplate how the future will be - and questions society if the future can be accepted or not by using design, which is a visualized fruit, in search of morals and how the future should be.

We had an opportunity to exchange our views with a designer James Auger who was also the central figure of this movement. He explained that the future that is a subject of the speculative design is not a distant future, about ten years at the most, the speculative design activity is on the assumption of prediction of technological advancement, and the speculative design showcases combinations of realistic solutions. He concluded that, for these three reasons, the activity is not a scientific story, a fortune telling, nor an art, but a true movement of design.

The preceding organization of RCA Design Interaction course was a special course for interaction design in man-machine interface. From this point, it is possible to say that the speculative design is based on the interaction design, and, by sublimating the subject from man-machine to an idea open to industry and society, the speculative design is a movement having a close relationship with a visioning method in society where “how the future should be” is questioned to society through visualization by design.

Assuming, on the other hand, that a startup can exist as a business activity only if there is an important significance of existence in society, the startup is required to fulfill its significance of existence by questioning speculative thoughts to the society and by socially implementing such thoughts at the same time. Therefore, in spite of its difficulties, the practice of speculative design may provide many clues to startups.

VISIONING / VISION Driven Development

In the era of VUCA, the power to draw visions and imagine how things should be is becoming an important skill of liberal arts to be learned not only by designers but by everyone.

We often see that problems seen here and there are confused with issues to be solved oneself. If the issue is supposed to be a gap between a vision and the present situation, it is impossible to find a highly accurate issue unless you can draw, no matter what kind of form it is in, “how things should be.”

Technique of design is good at visualization, appealing to people’s sensibility, and has a lot of potential. First, you give a shape to something those various stakeholders share “likes.” You might find a new issue through deep thinking during the process of shaping the form, or the members having different expertise might be able to find issues themselves and solve the issues.

The starting point is not the method, but it is in the ideas to draw the vision. This is also common to design thinking. What is important is that each person with a mind-set fully exerts the power of imagination to create the future, and this has a high affinity with the mind-set of startups.

Draw “how things should be” = “vision” to start with - and a flow in which different expertise are gathered under this slogan to achieve the vision will be beneficial.

Everything has Design

Over the past 100 years, design has been discussed from different perspectives and, at the same time, every possible attempt of design has been made. In particular, the definition of “design” at its dawn forms the basis of the challenges made in all fields of design, and what is most important is its high viewpoint shining timelessly and still coinciding with today’s values.

There is no need for us to go back to the past. However, if we look back on the past path of design, we may be able to rediscover what we have forgotten about.

Coming back to today’s viewpoint, we should not treat design as something special, but we should think that design is something common that belongs to everything in nature and society. For this reason, we think that “all actions of process thinking is design,” and everyone should reconsider an act of “design” in wider meanings.

Written by Hiroshige Fukuhara and Shusuke Eshita, Sony Design Consulting
May 16th, 2022

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