Design is Design is Not Design

Design can be anything. I’ve written that before and the idea comes up again. The Gwangju Design Biennale in South Korea  fully embraces this idea and has six exhibits, all of which abstractly define design. The event is described as, “Moving beyond the established distinctions of the design industry, the six sections of the 4th Gwangju Design Biennale explores the dynamic of design that is placed, un-placed, and displaced, design that is named and un-named, and the communities that are woven through these relations.”

One of the exhibits, “Un-Named Design,” is to “challenge the myth of the designer.” Meaning, is there such a thing as a professional designer? That question is addressed in the article, “If Everything is Design, What Then is a Designer?” It’s written by a designer in Sweden, and concludes that one of the distinctions between design as a general activity, and the design of professionals, is that while design as a process can be seen as a general human activity, design as a profession relies on an understanding of aesthetical practice. Maybe South Korea’s attempt to show that everyone is a designer, and the Swedish view that there are in fact design professionals who have a stronger grip on the entire concept of design, lies in design differences between the two countries. The curator for the “Un-Named Design” exhibit, Brendan McGetrick, mentions in an article that, “The beauty of being in Asia is that a concept like design is much less claustrophobic than in the West, where everyone has an idea of what design is.” I feel like maybe that distinction should be made because while it’s interesting to delve into design as more than furnishings, clothes and engineering, the “Un-Named Design” exhibit actually even throws away the whole idea that design needs to be driven by aesthetics. McGetrick said that while selecting for the category they looked at things like politics and science, “things that we thought were interesting and creative, but were just not necessarily aesthetically driven.” Interesting, but is that really design or is it something else? Maybe it’s another innovative process but not necessarily design. Shouldn’t aesthetics be required for design?

The whole concept reminds me of something similar happening in the world of journalism. There’s the idea that anyone can be a journalist because everyone can capture a significant event on his or her phone, and everyone can write a blog or tweet. But does that make them journalists? Is there more to journalism than just telling the news? Similarly, is there more to design than just making something new? I think that the aesthetic element is necessary to make something more than just something that everyone can do. A good piece of writing requires story-telling skills, and it requires pulling readers in. Good design also pulls people in. It makes them wonder why they can’t stop looking at whatever was designed.

The idea that there is no designer, and that everything is a form of design, is interesting, and the fact that the Gwangju Design Biennale doesn’t exhibit any traditional forms of design makes its point. But I can’t help but agree with the Swedish article that says there is a special quality and element to something designed rather than just formed and integrated. Aethetics are necessary.


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