Design as an Attitude
When I was a student in design school — nearly a decade ago now, — I constantly heard about how designers ‘wanted a seat at the table’. All too often, I heard — from my professors, from the practitioners I knew, from the design blogs that I read — that graphic design was relegated to decorating, the styling added on at the end of a process. But a lot has changed in these ten years: today it seems everyone wants to be a designer. Design thinking is sold as a solution to everything from dentistry to death; corporations and cities are hiring Chief Design Officers; Apple’s miraculous turnaround — famously ninety days from bankruptcy to the United State’s first trillion dollars company — is often attributed to Steve Jobs’s emphasis on design; and redesigns — whether its popular apps or corporate logos — are frequently covers in major publications. Design has permeated all areas of culture as all of us are now our own brand managers crafting a careful image across social media. Maybe the general public finally understands — and sees value in — what designers do. So if designers now have that seat at the table, the question becomes: what do we do with it?
In her new book, Design as an Attitude, the noted design writer Alice Rawsthorn attempts to give us a roadmap, providing both a survey of contemporary design practices — making sense of the increasing range of disciplines within the field — and showing alternatives to commercially-driven design. Rawsthorn takes her title from László Moholy-Nagy’s seminal book, Vision in Motion, where the polymathic designer writes “designing is not a profession but an attitude” and she argues that attitudinal design is an answer to what designers should do in their newfound position. As Moholy-Nagy defines it:
The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community. Ultimately, all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life.’ In a healthy society, this design for life will encourage every profession and location to play its part since the degree of relatedness to their work gives to any civilization its quality.
Using this as her guide, Rawsthorn gives both a historical and contextual tour of contemporary design from design for social good to emerging practices in human centered design. She casts her net wide. Her subjects range in scale and medium from architecture to user-interface design, speculative design to social good. (In an especially interesting section, Rawsthorn decisively cuts through the tired flat versus skeuomorphic debate pointing out neither is especially better than the other, with both rooted in a nostalgia that fails to imagine new ways to interact with technology.)
In the industrial age, design was standardized and commercialized, elevating it and removing it from the arts and crafts. Attitudinal design, for Rawsthorn, is a post-industrial design practice; one that builds upon and expands outside its historically commercial context to engage in social, political, and cultural issues. Designers now have the resources and tools to work independently, using their skills to wrestle with the challenges in the larger world. But if the book has a fault, it is here: it can already feel dated. Collected and adapted from essays Rawsthorn has written over the last three years for Freize, it can be hard to square her optimism in design with our contemporary moment. There’s no mention of Trump or Cambridge Analytica or Brexit or fake news. She glosses over issues of big data or artificial intelligence or the power of Silicon Valley. Are these problems design can solve or are these problems caused by design? She has chapters on race and gender, but most of Rawsthorn’s focus is on design for developing countries, climate change, design for disabilities — all important issues that designers must tackle, don’t get me wrong — but they are the same problems ‘design thinkers’ have been talking about for the last decade. All too often design is seen as a universal force for good — design can change the world! — but the consequences are too often ignored. Attitudinal design, then, must wrestle with these consequences, fully aware of the byproducts of our work, both the good and the bad.
Design is an Attitude provides a guide for those of us interested in working outside a traditional commercial, capitalist system. Rawsthorn is a worthy guide tracking the major developments in design practice today, highlighting the ways design has transcended its initial mandate. But we mustn’t rest on our laurels — we must continually challenge existing systems and confront the new challenges of our present moment, and the challenges that will arise in the future. We have a seat at the table now; we can’t assume our role and our work is automatically good. “Design will only be empowered to play a more prominent and potent role in our lives if it demonstrates that is deserves to do so,” Rawsthorn writes in the introduction, “by being deployed wisely and sensitively with the ‘generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness.’” It’s a worthy goal. Are we up for the challenge?