In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
Genesis 1:1 to 1: 4 New International Version
Look around you. Everything you see has been designed. The book, or tablet you’re holding. The table you’re sitting at. The chair you’re sitting on. The room, or the patio, or the cafe, you’re sitting in was conceived by someone before it was made just the way it is. Every little thing in it was designed – it’s purpose was considered. It’s function was contrived. It’s materials, colors and textures were composed. Was the tree you see through the window designed? With it’s majestic trunk, reaching branches, gnarly bark and chlorophyll green leaves? It may have been nature’s own at one time. But the hybrid species you see, where it was placed in the garden, and the garden it was placed in, was designed – a kaleidoscope of color or a drought tolerant homage to a planet heading into a warming trend. Your aging cat curled up at your feet? He was designed over generations of breeding, formed to be a domesticated companion, good for keeping mice under control and warm your lap on cold nights.
The objects of design are everywhere, yet we give little thought to how they were designed, or by whom. Every single one of those objects was designed by someone. A designer. A team of designers. Generations of designers who over time defined, formed and developed – created – the world we live in in a constantly unfolding process of co-creation with Nature.
Not all of them thought of themselves as designers – very few did. The words “design” and “designer” only entered the English language about 500 years ago, from a Latin word that means “to designate, to devise, to appoint”. The Latin designare is a mashup of signare “to mark” with the prefix de, meaning “out.” Mark out. Design only began to be taught as a distinct discipline in the universities and academies of Europe in the late 19th century investigate this site.
Very few objects of design are created by a formal design process. Yet every single one of them came about as a result of a process by which a creative challenge was set, ideas were imagined and put into unique forms with their own integrity. Prototypes were made, used and experienced. Then, a second, or a third or a thousandth version was created incorporating what was learned from experience, each time by repeat of the same creative cycle – challenge, idea, form, experience. Over and over and over again, reaching for something that is more pleasing and satisfying. Until someone has a better idea and the process starts all over again moving towards a new form. Forms evolve as realizations of our imagination. New technologies are harnessed. New materials are found. And human culture reached new heights of expression to produce a never ending cascade of emergent forms. This, in a nutshell, is the design process. It is a never ending social conversation about what the world we live in should consist of, and what shape it might take. It is as rich and varied as the human spirit and as bound and constrained as the laws of nature and the capacities of the people for whom it is being created.
You, my reader, are a designer too. This morning when you got dressed you ran through your own version of the design process and gave form to the ensemble of clothes you’re wearing now. You considered the creative parameters – the clothes in your closet, the plan and practicalities for the day ahead, the weather, your mood. Maybe you got dressed, undressed and dressed again, trying different items, different combinations, until you felt right. Maybe you added elements – a scarf or an earing – to bring in a touch of color or whimsy. You have created the form that is you. You are the walking culmination of that design process – you are both designer and designed object.
This is the story of design. More precisely, this is the story of designing – the process by which we create the world we live in. How we create the unique and distinct forms we experience every day.
From the beginning of time we’ve been telling ourselves stories that help us make sense of the world. My sister, two years older than me, told me the biblical creation story when I was very young, along with the story of the birds and the bees. She told me of a world that was created in six days by a god named Elohim who liked what he saw so much that he took a break on the seventh to rest and behold what he had made. She told me that Elohim created man, named Adam, and from Adam he formed woman, called Eve. Adam and Eve lived innocently amidst bounty and beauty in a lush garden called Eden where everything they desire lay at hand for the picking. Succulent, nutritious fruit hung heavily on the trees. It was paradise.
Eve soon realized that life might be more interesting outside Eden where, she had been warned, she and Adam would need to fend for themselves and would be mortal. They’d need to know a thing or two about survival by distinguishing between chaos and order for themselves. They ate the fruit of the tree of consciousness and imagination. And presto, they were able to shape the stones and the clay of the ground in ways that were pleasing to them. They made tools that gave them advantage over predator and prey. They harnessed fire to cook food on and stay warm when it got cold. They made shelter to stay dry and safe. From the flesh of the fruit of consciousness and imagination came knowledge of language by which they could tell their stories to one another and to teach their children to gather herds of goats and cattle, till the soil and make houses and cities to live in.
Ok, my sister didn’t say a word about consciousness and imagination, nor any of the stuff that followed from it. But it is what I wondered about as I lay face down for hours in the dirt in the garden, my Eden, marveling at the streams of ants busily carrying twigs and sand boulders to build their nests with. I wondered this while sitting in the top branches of our fecund loquat trees which I would climb while I waited for my sister to come home from school. I kept a watchful eye as the tree grew it’s fruit until the juicy loquats were ripe enough to pick and devour until my tummy was full. I wondered this as I gazed at majestic Table Mountain, the blue hued granite backdrop to my childhood in Cape Town, at the southern tip of Africa. The mountain straddled two oceans, the icy Atlantic and warm Indian, which crashed together at a point half a mile below it’s perfectly flat top.
If Elohim created the universe fully formed, including people, the animals, the flowers and the trees, the oceans and the heavens, by speaking it into existence, as I had been told now by a number of people who all seemed to be in on the same story – then who created everything else. Who was the creator of language? Who invented art? Where did architecture and technology come from? From whose imagination did toys, bicycles, houses, cities and soft serve ice-cream in a wafer cone manifest, and by what design?
I got it that Adam and Eve made clothes to cover their shame, and cultivated food to stave off the hunger of winter. But how would they know what to make and what form it should take?
When I was a little older I found clues when I visited the the Western Automatic Turning Company, my father’s factory on the flat plains below Table Mountain. I watched machines that towered overhead, oily and loud, cutting steel and bronze with sharp blades that made shavings curl into dancing spirals. What was left behind was a polished sculpture, precise and hard, that would be a piece of a stove, a car or a mortar. I watched multi-ton presses crashing steel molds closed and ripping them apart a minute later, steaming and hissing, to spit out hot plastic in the form of clothes hangers, bottle caps and drinking cups. I stood mesmerized hour after hour as a machine operator transformed a ribbon of steel into countless convoluted springs, sending a stamping die crashing down with a mere tap of her foot. In this muggy arcade of milling machines, lathes, extruders, injection molders and forging presses, with the odors of melted plastic and electroplating chemicals in an industrial cocktail, I began to understand that it was people that made the world, piece by piece. All kinds of people who I grew to know and care for, with families, hopes and passions, who told me their stories while they tended their machines and made me laugh. But I was still left wondering. Who told them, the people who operated the machines, what to make, and what form it should take?
A few years later, when I was nine, a construction crew came to build a new section onto my house. Again, I stood and observed them for hours as they dug trenches, built concrete forms for pillars and walls and lay row upon row of clay bricks, with wet plaster oozing as they pressed each brick into place. From them I learned to hammer nails and mix concrete so I could help them and feel the pleasure of creation. A wall grew up where there was none, then a room, then a building that took the precise form of the drawings that we repeatedly looked at at, and took measurements from. I was enthralled by what seemed to me to be magic. The drawings I unfolded and rolled out on the makeshift table we built on the job site were transforming before my eyes into a room. Soon, I would play in that room and felt safe and secure in it. I didn’t know it then, but in that moment I fell in love with the process of design.
Years later I left the southern tip of Africa, headed for England to learn how to design. I wanted to learn to perform the magic of transforming pieces of my imagination into places and things that allow people to play and feel secure. I wanted to learn to give form to things and environments, to learn to make the drawings that could be transformed into object and buildings. By then, South Africa was at war and it’s people, the people that I had gotten to know in my father’s factory, who taught me to mix concrete and built my room, were suffering. My world was broken and needed remaking. I wanted to be part of creating the world that we live in. And I wanted to make it better.
Everything we experience, see and touch was created by human beings through a creative cycle that has gone on for millennia. The world we live in did not come fully formed and complete the way Elohim spoke his design into existence. It has unfolded as a constantly evolving expression of the human spirit, generation after generation, following a course not that different from the evolution of Nature. Rather than mutations and natural selection, the world of human creation evolves by a process of trial and error that we call Design.