Design Philosophy

I recently finished reading a book where Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews the designer Enzo Mari.

Enzo Mari has had a long and rich career spanning art, product design, and exhibition design, and the interview dips into all of these areas. However most people know Enzo Mari as a product designer, and are keen to hear his thoughts on the subject.

One thing which really struck me was the following paragraph:

“Design has something to do with utopia. When I begin working, even today, I don’t try to create objects that are stupidly necessary; I want to create models for a different society - for a way of producing and living differently.”

Designers have a strong hand in creating the future. The mass produced objects they design can influence both our future actions and environments.

Designers are often spoken of as optimists, and in the context of this discussion it’s easy to see why this character trait is essential.

When we think of design, we might think of a designer belonging to a certain style. For instance, their designs might be identified as being of modernist style. But what we’re talking about here is something deeper than stylistic convention - it’s a broader philosophy which not only influences what the project looks like, but fundamentally effects what it is.

When designing a product, some of what’s required is optimisation (reducing aerodynamic drag, increasing strength to weight ratio etc.) and the rest is what we consider design. Design is the realm where optimisation no longer applies. We cannot optimise emotion, aesthetics, and other factors in the same way as physical characteristics of the product.

In the realm of design, there is no single correct choice. We might think there is, but this is informed by our biases. In reality there are a huge number of possible choices whose selection is almost entirely influenced by our personal design philosophy.

Consider this example. Two designers are tasked with creating a chair. The first designer has a personal philosophy which emphasises sustainability. The second designer has a philosophy which emphasises opulence.

The design decisions which each makes will fundamentally alter the end product. Let me give an example of other key features of a design philosophy.

  1. Sustainable vs. Unsustainable
  2. Emotional vs Emotionless
  3. Usability vs Aesthetics
  4. Locally vs Globally produced
  5. etc.

Sometimes our design philosophy is dictated by the company that we work for. For instance, if they make high end watches we’re unlikely to go for a more craft aesthetic.

But what about when we’re deciding on our own design philosophy, free of constraints? Our design philosophy becomes a reflection of our own beliefs and biases, and in this way design becomes like art - a form of self expression.

A strong understanding of ones own design philosophy is important, because ultimately our design philosophy is what we stand for, and what our products represent. This is the core essence of any brand.

Once we’ve realised the importance of design philosophy in design it creates the opportunity for wild experimentation simply by transitioning to a different design philosophy for the duration of a project. For instance, if we commonly work with a design philosophy which emphasises simplicity which leads to Apple-like products, what if we consciously adopted a different design philosophy as a means of experimentation which emphasised more emotional and craft elements to the design.

We might find that by adopting this other design philosophy it informs our understanding of our true design philosophy. With the above example it might lead us to the conclusion that emotion is more important in our future work than what our current design philosophy was resulting in.

To quote Enzo Mari once more:

“I suggest looking outside the window: if you like what you see, there’s no reason for new projects. If, on the other hand, there are things that fill you with horror to the point of making you want to kill those responsible, then there are good reasons for your project.”