The question of what design is


02 September 2016


Nina Paim, Corinne Gisel & Depot Basel

Graphic Design

Nina Paim & Corinne Gisel

The question of what design is, is a fuzzy and fussy one. Is “design” what designers make? Is “design” what designers do? Or is “design” something that we all do? Everyone seems to have a different answer. So in the end the simplest answer might very well be: all of the above. What we understand as “design” or what we call “design” depends on the perspective we look from. And our outlook is always colored by what surrounds us.

As designers our view of design is decidedly influenced by our education and our day-to-day professional reality. At school we mostly learn about how to deal with form and material. At work our clients mostly ask for new versions of predefined formats: handbags, chairs, interiors, logos, posters, websites – the list goes on.

And it is generally this list of design products, the prized aspects of aesthetics, and the names of famed designers that make it into the public consciousness. Both for non-designers and designers alike, it is most formative how design is portrayed in mainstream media, the design press, design exhibitions, design awards, or also places like Depot Basel.

Originally being graphic designers, we realized that there is a need to confront the latter – the public sphere – in order to challenge the former – the narrow definition. Both of us are moving away from simply giving form to things to trying to shape the discourse of design. I as a researcher and writer, Nina as a researcher and curator.

But this cannot be a lonesome endeavor. Discourse can only be shaped by several voices joining into a conversation. Thus, when Depot Basel invited us to make a poster stating, “Design concerns each and every one of us,” it sparked a chain reaction. This seemingly simple statement stands at the outset of a whole host of questions and deliberations. One poster became two, and could have easily become more.

This poster series is therefore just a snapshot of the many questions that we are dealing with in our struggle against personal and public preconceptions of what design is or ought to be.

Which definition shall we follow when we write about or present design? Whose interests are we representing? Are we there to legitimize the design profession? Or are we there to exactly go against that? If we do that, whom are we doing it for? Do we really need to tell people that they all do design acts? What good does that do? Is it an educational necessity for a functioning democracy? Is it helping along a democratization of design? Is it useful for business or policy making at large? And does anyone really know what the essence of “design thinking” is? When does it become an empty recipe? When is the word “design” just a label? And is a label necessarily a bad thing?

Because, if design is viewed as being both in every thing and no thing at all, when do we start and when do we stop calling something “design”? When does design efface itself in its ever-widening definition?

Text: Corinne Gisel

Corinne Gisel