'Design Is One of the Most Powerful Forces in Our Lives'

A new book from critic Alice Rawsthorn explains how graphic, product, and interactive design help—and sometimes unintentionally hinder—humans.

“Do you ring a doorbell with a finger or a thumb?” That’s the kind of question Alice Rawsthorn, design critic for The International New York Times, asks when she thinks about design—all design—and the major role designers have in altering our lives.

Her answer, however, reveals a lot about how she thinks of design’s evolution. “The older you are, the likelier you will be to press it with a finger, probably your index finger,” she writes in her latest book of essays, Hello World: Where Design Meets Life. “If you are younger, you may well use a thumb, because it will have been exercised so thoroughly by typing text messages and gunning down digital assailants on game consoles that it is likely to be stronger and nimbler than any of your fingers.”

Rawsthorn cites this and other mundane behavior to show how technology has impacted design and how graphic, product, and interactive design are key in almost everything we experience today. It’s no wonder, then, that when Rawsthorn speaks, people who care about design’s influences listen. I recently exchanged emails with her to learn more about her mission to get the public to think more critically about design.

“Design is one of the most powerful forces in our lives, whether or not we are aware of it, and can also be inspiring, empowering and enlightening,” she explained to me. 16th-century Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde for example, “invented” the common equals sign when he had tired of writing the words “is equal to” and sought a less onerous way of conveying their meaning. “Choosing a pair of parallel lines of equal length was an inspired solution, and a brilliant example of [graphic] design's power to solve a practical problem,” she wrote. “There are countless other examples of adroitly designed symbols, not all of which were designed from scratch. The digital incarnations of the hashtag and @ symbol are equally successful examples of design appropriation, rather than invention.”

Rawsthorn added, “It always astonishes me that so many people still fail to appreciate those qualities.” Maybe that includes editors at major publications that cover design routinely as part of a larger commercial eco-system. But Rawsthorn’s method is to look at intention and function first and then the commercial benefits second. “As a writer,” she continued, “I find design endlessly fascinating, because it is richly contextualized and constantly changing, forcing me to continually reassess my understanding of it.”

As the title of her book touts, the essays in Hello World: Where Design Meets Life evoke cautious optimism in the ability of designers to do the right thing. “Design should always be in the service of a better life, but, unfortunately, it does not always achieve that objective,” Rawsthorn noted. “We can all think of examples of design projects, even the best intentioned ones, which threaten to make our lives worse rather than better.

“One of the most notorious examples is the design of the ballot cards for the 2000 U.S. presidential election in Palm Beach County, Florida,” Rawsthorn explained. “The design was changed in the interests of clarity and legibility, but proved so confusing to voters that it may well have changed the outcome not only of the vote there, but the entire election.”

Design can empower people, and for Rawsthorn, always striving to make design empowering is the ideal. But she concedes that disempowerment, like the case of the hanging chad, is also a consequence of unintentional factors. “I have yet to meet a designer who wants his or her work to be dysfunctional, dispiriting, demeaning, or disempowering, but sometimes it is,” she said. “Not that it is always their fault. Some design projects prove to be damaging because of the way in which they are applied. The computer virus was originally designed as a self-replicating form of software that could be installed remotely without the user’s knowledge, but it was not intended to be malignant. Quite the contrary. Sadly, though, it proved to be open to abuse and to create destructive viruses.”

Presented by

Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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