27 January 2013

Art vs. design

A few days back I got drawn into a Twitter discussion about art and design. It sprung from this exchange:

Alan Cooper ‏<@MrAlanCooper>:

@doriantaylor An architect lives at the junction of people, purpose, and technology. So does an interaction or user experience designer.
Dorian Taylor <@doriantaylor>:

@MrAlanCooper I mention it because I see contemporary starchitects doing today what people like Macadam did: “finance my white elephant”.

I then tweeted:

Design as vainglorious art, not problem-solving craft. Grrr.

.... which sparked a bunch of discussion producing an unreadably bushy Twitter thread, which birthed a Branch thread which is still going at the time I write this. These are some comments from me in that thread which I want to hang on to:

Art & design draw upon highly overlapping skills, but pursue radically divergent ethics. Art is expression for the artist; design is problem-solving for the user.

Design culture tends to be unclear on this distinction, to the detriment of good design. There are a bunch of cultural forces supporting this problem, notably the creation of art & design schools in the mid-20th century.

Emphasis there added after the fact, because it got some love on the thread and circulation on Twitter.

What is the effect of the celebration of “designers” like Ron Arad, whom Dave Malouf alluded to above? I would call “designers” like Arad more artist than designer.

It confuses non-designers into thinking that design is styling. That design is contrary to function. “You're here to make it pretty. You're here to make it ‘cool’.” That's bad for me, bad for them, and bad for our expectations about product design in general.

I also suspect that it screws up a lot of students at A&D schools. They get the idea that they can get to do expressive, personal art and make a living at it as designers. Certainly there are such people, but that generally ain't the job.

In the ’90s, I went with a bunch of IxDs to a talk by Bill Moggridge.

He started telling a story about a sort of helmet thing worn by people with sleep apnea to help them breathe while they sleep. An IDEO team of industrial designers did a bunch of research into the disease and the technology in order to design a better helmet.

We IxDs felt a pang of ID envy. What a cool project!

Then Moggridge said, “Of course, the designers were disappointed to be assigned to this project. They would much rather have been given free reign to design a new chair.” And presumably come up with some eccentric chair-themed sculpture.

It's the “of course” that kills me. “Of course” designers don't want to solve interesting problems?

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