“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.”