A Definition of Design and
the Function Complex
The wheel's hub holds thirty spokes
Utility depends on the hole through the hub.
The potter's clay forms a vessel.
It is the space within that serves.
A house is built with solid walls
The nothingness of window and door alone
renders it usable,
That which exists may be transformed
What is non-existent has boundless uses.
All men are designers.
All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity.
The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired,
foreseeable end constitutes the design process.
Any attempt to separate design,
to make it a thing-by-itself,
works counter to the inherent value,
of design as the primary underlying matrix of life.
Design is com- posing an epic poem,
executing a mural, painting a masterpiece, writing a concerto.
But design is also cleaning and reorganizing a desk drawer,
pulling an impacted tooth, baking an apple pie,
choosing sides for a back-lot baseball game,
and educating a child.
Design is the conscious effort to impose meaningful order.
The order and delight we find in frost flowers on a window pane,
in the hexagonal perfection of a honeycomb,
in leaves, or in the architecture of a rose,
reflect man's preoccupation with pattern,
the constant attempt to understand an ever-changing,
highly complex existence by imposing order on it
- but these things are not the product of design.
They possess only the order we ascribe to them.
The reason we enjoy things in nature is that we see an economy of means,
simplicity, elegance and an essential tightness in them.
But they are not design.
Though they have pattern, order, and beauty, they lack conscious intention.
If we call them design, we artificially ascribe our own values to an accidental side issue.
The streamlining of a trout's body is aesthetically satisfying to us,
but to the trout it is a by-product of swimming efficiency.
The aesthetically satisfying spiral growth pattern found
in sunflowers, pineapples, pine cones,
or the arrangement of leaves on a stem can be explained
by the Fibonacci sequence (each member is the sum of the
two previous members: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 .. .),
but the plant is only concerned with improving photosynthesis
by exposing a maximum of its surface.
Similarly, the beauty we find in the tail of a peacock,
although no doubt even more attractive to a peahen,
is the result of intra-specific selection (which, in the case cited, may even
ultimately prove fatal to the species).
Intent is also missing from the random order system of a pile of coins.
If, however, we move the coins around and arrange them
according to size and shape,
we add the element of intent and produce some sort of symmetrical alignment.
This sym- metrical order system is a favorite of small children,
unusually primitive peoples, and some of the insane,
because it is so easy to understand.
Further shifting of the coins will produce an infinite number
of asymmetrical arrangements which require a higher level of sophistication
and greater participation on the part of the viewer to be understood and appreciated.
While the aesthetic values of the symmetrical and asymmetrical designs differ,
both can give ready satisfaction since the underlying intent is clear.
Only marginal patterns (those lying in the threshold area
between symmetry and asymmetry) fail to make the designer's intent clear.
The ambiguity of these 'threshold cases' produces a feeling of unease in the viewer.
But apart from these threshold cases
there are an infinite number of possible satisfactory arrangements
of the coins. Importantly, none of these is the one right answer,
though some may seem better than others.
Shoving coins around on a board is a design act in miniature
because design as a problem-solving activity can never,
by definition, yield the one right answer:
it will always produce an infinite number of answers,
some 'righter' and some 'wronger'.
The Brightness' of any design solution will depend on the meaning
with which we invest the arrangement.
Design must be meaningful.
And 'meaningful' replaces the semantically loaded noise of
such expressions as 'beautiful, 'ugly', 'cool', 'cute',
'disgusting', 'realistic', 'obscure', 'abstract',
and 'nice', labels convenient to a bankrupt mind when confronted by Picasso's 'Guernica',
Frank Lloyd Wright's Falling-f water, Beethoven's Erotica,
Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps, Joyce's Finnegans Wake.
In all of these we respond to that which has meaning.
The mode of action by which a design fulfills its purpose is its function.
Design for the real world