I’m fascinated by words. Word origins and derivations reveal an essential meaning often missed in common usage.
Take the word design.
I love design. What it is, how it is done, what it produces, and what it contributes. As a designer, the origins of the words design and designer tell me who I am.
Design first appeared as an English verb in the 1540s from Latin designare – meaning to designate, devise, appoint. The Latin designare is a mashup of signare “to mark” with the prefix de, meaning “out.” Mark out.
Why did we only get a word for the way we create the world 500 years ago, when we’ve been doing it since the beginning of time. What does design have to do with designation and marking out?
Consider the dates and places where these terms originated: the height of the Italian Renaissance when trade wealth flowed. Powerful merchants and bankers were enthralled by the triumph of intellect over worldly limitations. Structural technologies were pushed to achieve elevated experiences of order and effortless power in public buildings and religious palaces. Marking buildings out became increasingly distinct from actually building them. The Renaissance architects – notably Fillipo Brunelleschi in the 15th century and Andrea Palladio in the 16th – innovated not just the architectural forms of the Renaissance, but architectural practice. They developed new architectural technologies to achieve dramatic new forms. They worked for rich and powerful patrons – most famously the Medicis in Florence – who paid them well to create churches and palaces, appointed and marked out to give expression to their patrons’ wealth, power, and sophistication.
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It took a full century after design first appeared as a noun referring to the objects of design – as in “the design of the Florence cathedral” – for the word designer to appear as an agent noun meaning “one who schemes.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary¹ designer was coined in the 1640s.
The dawn of the industrial revolution showed crafts-people being organized into manufacturing halls² in mid-17th century Europe – and early disruption of the order of guilded craftsmen. Rather than passing the pattern for a chair or a saddle from generation to generation, formulating patterns for the expanding middle class was given to a new specialist – the one who schemes³. The un-named designers of 1640 stepped tentatively on the path of industrial design professionalism that would later be walked by the likes of William Morris, Raymond Loewy and Jony Ive. They were prototypes for designers of the modern era.
This is amazing. I mean think about it… a new social order and an emergent discipline – design – mapped and preserved in 2 simple words.
Design, how it is practiced and what it produces, is constantly evolving. The objects of contemporary design are no longer only tangible. Buildings, chairs, and pots have been joined by intangibles such as interfaces, brands, and experiences.
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has acquired Pac-Man, the @ symbol, and a vial of synthetic sweat for its permanent collection of design.
Design thinking has broadened the role design plays by expanding our capacity for collaborative creation and complexity. Design is returning to its roots: designating what is to be designed. Standing for humanistic innovation. Design is constantly being re-designed.
¹ All etymological references are drawn from Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary at etymonline.com. This is a generous and scholarly work, born of the love of words.
² You can read more about manufacturing halls, these prototypes of the mechanized factory (sometimes called “manufactories”) in Adrian Forty’s essential history of design, Objects of Desire, Chapter 2: “The First Industrial Designers”.
³ The roots of this word “scheme” shed light on a whole other aspect of design, and the designers role, that I’ll come back to in a later article.