'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.
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“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.”

Many designers are hard-wired to control their environment, so Rawsthorn accepts that design is often steeped in a yearning for power. “But that does not necessarily make it [malignant],” she noted. “Take an information design project, like a road signage system or a subway map, which is intended to be entirely beneficial by helping us to make sense of our surroundings and guiding us safely and efficiently from place to place, ensuring that we arrive at our chosen destination on time and unharmed. We are controlled by the design of the signage or map throughout that process, but in a benevolent way.”

Whether or not design is benevolent, Rawsthorn is careful not to use the word art to describe it. Her splendid essay "Why design is not—and should never be confused with—art" echoes what the modernist graphic designer Paul Rand said about art as a consequence, not an intention. Rawsthorn believes the notion of “Art = Good, Design = not so good” is an archaic idea; it is, “thankfully, an increasingly derided assumption,” she wrote. “I firmly believe in the individual's right to identify their work as they wish, whether as design, art, craft, anthropology, or whatever. That said, I find the old-fashioned assumption that design is somehow inferior to art to be deeply damaging.

“If you believe in design as a powerful and productive medium that can help to build a better life, it stands to reason that we need the best possible designers to do so,” she continued. “We are not likely to get them if design is seen as so marginal a discipline that its practitioners are eager to reclassify themselves as artists. Also, the richer, more diverse, and [more] inclusive design becomes, the more compelling it will seem, thereby enabling it to attract the high caliber of designers that society needs.”

Hello World covers design as an inclusive practice, so I was interested in how she defines the strength and weakness of today’s logos and marks. “Like all design endeavors, some logos are inherently good, and others inherently bad, depending on the quality of their design,” Rawsthorn wrote. “The specifics vary from case to case, but broadly speaking, if a logo communicates the desired message clearly, ideally engagingly, and—critically—honestly, it can be deemed to be well designed.” Whenever she sees one of Rand’s logos for IBM, ABC, and UPS, for instance, she finds them “invariably clear, engaging, and honest.

“Whereas, when I see the sunflower symbol, with which BP sought to convince us that it is a sensitive, environmentally responsible oil company," she explained, "I think of the tragic consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”

Rawsthorn acts as design’s agent provocateur, throwing little bombs that unsettle the status quo. Take, for example, the modernist chestnut that form must follow function: I asked her to explain her contrary position that “form no longer follows function,” if indeed design's goal is functionality? “Form can still be considered to follow function for many analog objects, especially ones that are pure forms—like chairs, spoons, or knives—because it is helpful if their physical appearance gives us clues as to how to use them,” she responded.

“But it would not only be unhelpful, but impossible for the form of tiny digital devices like smart phones or tablet computers to follow, or articulate their multiple functions. Instead," she explained, "we find the same clues in the design of their user interfaces and the operating software that enables us to use them. As these digital products become ever more powerful and versatile, design has an increasingly important role to play in enabling us to use them confidently, efficiently and, if we're very lucky, enjoyably.” 

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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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