The failure of design

Closeup detail of Eames Chair, in blue monochrome

I've been thinking about what constitutes good design, and find that it is a difficult question to answer.

Design would appear to be the new mantra, in business and in the 'lifestyle industries', to use a ghastly phrase. 'Good' or 'serious' design is assumed to always add value, and it is assumed by designers, and increasingly the educated general public, to be always highly desirable to it's alternative. However, what this alternative might be is by no means clear, and in that I detect something interesting.

Designers will tell you that the opposite to 'good' design is 'bad' design, where something has been shaped or put together in a way that responds poorly to its intended purpose and meaning. That seems reasonable, but I am not sure it holds up to scrutiny. What if the opposite to 'good' design is something far more incidental? Could the opposite of 'good' be not so much bad as 'whatever' - a genuine randomness that results from the inevitability of form in objects despite the absence of authorised, orthodox design intentions? Good design can be judged against a whole host of factors which might include the intention as stated, the function as demonstrated in use, or the aesthetics and shape. How would we judge 'bad' design? For that matter, why do we feel compelled and authorised to judge it?

They Mythical Modernist has a ready answer to this. The MM might argue that when it comes to things made by people, 'all is design, and all is designed', whether we like the results or not. If this is true then it is reasonable to judge all objects and forms by the same standard, and if we do that it stands to reason that we as 'good designers' would decry the poor standards of the design of most objects and buildings we encounter.

There are a couple of problems with this. This claim of the omnipresence (or omnipotence?) of 'design' is a kind of megalomania that has everything in common with the modernist definition of urban design as the imparting of 'right form' to whole neighbourhoods and cities. Then there is the problem of applying the 'same standard' to good and bad, or unintentional design. How is this standard determined?

The standard of 'right form', also known as 'serious design', is determined by common agreement - leading example and its enthusiastic approval - and codified into a visual syntax or codex policed by the high priests (the 'leading' designers), whomever they might be. This forms a kind of gold standard against which most things can be measured, and in the measuring some things are deemed as 'good' and some as 'bad'.

One problem with the gold standard of 'good design' is that it inevitably changes over time. Nevertheless at any given time it is considered immutable, a yardstick against which we can separate 'serious pieces of design' from their poor cousins. Any architect would admit that a 'really good building' of thirty - or even ten - years ago would look dated and be considered inappropriate now. Strangely, this is not seen as a flaw in the method of determining good design: it would seem that the codex has a convenient 'out' clause, where older projects can be authorised by virtue of their dated context.

Despite some very obvious structural cracks, it is plain to me that some designers, architects in particular, believe that the 'good design' standard has some gravity and authority. They firmly believe (or perhaps assume) that the world overall would be a substantially better place if only it was designed by them and their colleagues. There is not much evidence to support this view. The most beautiful and engaging places I have seen ended up that way largely without architects, with the possible exception of key buildings of particular significance. In fact the profession as it is currently defined is very young, and many buildings we attribute to architects were actually conceived and designed by dilettantes and artists. Architects and other designers also seem to overlook the megalomania of this idea: should our entire environment really be wholly determined by one tiny and not particularly representative segment of our society? Does that even look right as an idea on paper? I think not.

Despite the fact that we are bound in by ugliness on all sides, I don't think that giving the whole equation to the architects is the answer. I can only think of a handful who do work I like, for a start. Fortunately for us the world is a diverse and complex place, and so far orthodox design has failed to encompass all of human life. That's a good thing, because I suspect that the seeds of our future world - the lightning bolts of brilliance and breathtaking change - will not first be seen on the pages of a glossy design magazine.