Adrian Forty on Design

“Nearly ever object we use, most of the clothes we wear and man of the things we eat have been designed. Since design seems to be so much a part of everyday life, we are justified in asking exactly what it is, what it does, and how it came into existence. In spite of all that has been written on the subject, it is not easy to find the answers to these apparently simple questions. Most of the literature from the last fifty years would have us suppose that the main function of design is to make things beautiful. A few studies suggest that it is a special method of solving problems, but only occasionally has design been shown to have something to do with profit, and even more rarely has it been seen as being concerned with the transmission of ideas. This book developed out of my realisation that, especially in its economic and ideological aspects, design is a more significant activity than has usually been acknowledged.

“Particularly in Britain, the study of design and its history has suffered from a form of cultural lobotomy which has left design connected only to the eye, and severed its connections to the brain and to the pocket. It is commonly assumed that design would somehow be soiled if it were associated too closely with commerce, a misconceived attempt at intellectual hygiene that has done no good at all. It has obscured the fact that design came into being at a particular stage in the history of capitalism and played a vital part in the creation of industrial wealth. Limiting it to a purely artistic activity has made it seem trivial and relegated it to the status of a mere cultural appendix.

“Just as little attention has been given to design’s influence on how we think. Those who complain about the effects of television, journalism, advertising and fiction on our minds remain oblivious to the similar influence of design. Far from being a neural, in-offensive artistic activity, design, by its very nature, has much more enduring effects than the ephemeral products of the media because it can cast ideas about who we are and how we should behave into permanent and tangible form.” Adrian Forty, from the introduction to Objects of Desire

This passage by Adrian Forty is both typical and atypical of his writing. The first paragraph has a beautiful directness and simplicity that easily goes unnoticed. This is one of my favourite characteristic of his because he is able to take complex material and present it in a way that is accessible. The premise of the book is put forward without needing difficult language or theoretical jargon, yet, the questions and issues at stake are extremely serious and complex. If the first paragraph is typical of his writing in general the second paragraph has to be the most fiery piece of writing I have come across by Forty. All of a sudden there is a kind of pent up anger being released, and no wonder, given the claims he is making. This was written in 1980 and published in 1986 and times have changed. I can vouch for the fact that design history (especially architecture history) was really that straight-jacketed back then. But although we have had some historians and critics fill in the gaps that Forty has identified I think that largely his criticism still holds. I also think that a lot of the nods to cultural inputs into design are just so much lip-service. Architects and educators mention ‘users’ all the time now and go on about ‘inhabitation’ but the methods and results don’t really demonstrated that it is taken seriously.

The most important paragraph, for me, is the last – particularly the last sentence. If we agree that design is involved the “transmission of ideas” and that this is then cast into “permanent and tangible form” then the seriousness of discipline becomes clear. One can then understand the anger that emerges when it is treated as a “mere cultural appendage”. The sloppiness around design in general and architectural design specifically betrays the very serious implications of form. Forty continues after the quoted passage to discuss the problem of confusing design with art and of focusing on the creative act as the most significant aspect of design. Our obsession with creativity, invention, and pushing of boundaries, especially during a student’s education simplifies what is an immensely complicated affair. All design projects come with clients who not only have particular needs but also preconceptions about how the problem should be addressed.  All design projects also come with budgets which significantly restrict the range of possibilities (and not necessarily for the worse). All projects, if they are going to be realised, have to deal with regulations, fabricators, and suppliers. You as the designer must work with colleagues, employees and consultants. The most creative thing that an architect does is negotiating all these areas.

“Whatever degree of artistic imagination is lavished upon the design of object, it is done not to give expression to the designer’s creativity and imagination, but to make the products saleable and profitable. Calling industrial design ‘art’ suggests that designers occupy the principle role in production, a misconception which effectively severs most of the connections between design and the processes of society.”

To be clear, Forty is writing about industrial design, not architecture, but architecture is certainly closer in spirit to industrial design than it is to art. Seeing your work, expression and design contribution as part of the “processes of society” and as emerging from the limits of those processes is a more honest way of understanding what we do as designers. It would make us aware of the difficulty and complexity of design but also treat it as serious business. Small achievements could then be seen with an elevated sense of accomplishment.



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