The Obsession

with process

by Felix K.


Current descriptions of the process in design are determined by two conceptions of the roles that the designer assumes and which diametrically oppose each other. Both descriptions produce their own myth, which in turn influences both the self-image of the designer and his creative activity. In this article, I would like to characterize these ideal concepts as the respective extreme of a spectrum, address the process obsessiveness of the designers, and, of course, offer a more moderate, third way, which locates the design itself in an unfamiliar position of the process.

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But before we can start this discussion, we have to go back to the initial question. As already mentioned, the ongoing debate on the design process is determined by two roles of the designer who stand for a certain self-understanding of the profession. The first of these roles, attributed to designers themselves and their designs, is the role of the design genius, which they have borrowed from the visual arts. Until recently, this understanding could still be described as antiquated. In art, too, this idea had already been laid down some time before. In design there are still the great names of the past century, for example Paul Rand, who according to the legend never designed more than one draft since this one draft was the best one possible.

In today’s design practice this would be unthinkable. In the recent past, however, it has been shown that contrary to a pragmatic communication design practice a development can be observed that could be roughly summarized under the heading of the author’s design. In addition to the emphasis on the attitude and the responsibility of the designer, this concept naturally conceals the idea that a master of design is booked for his individual and outstanding style in order to apply it to a wide variety of products. Accompanied by the discourses of the creativity impetus and under the pressure of individualization, we have brought the disposition of the artist genius back into the design profession through the back door. How is a design justified in this constellation? If you take it exactly, not at all. Because the designer, who is actually an artist, does not have to design. He as the one among many has been kissed by the muse and she was really thorough in that. His inspirations are ingenious, the design flows out of him and every brush stroke sits perfectly. The genius is a gift given to him – though not by God – but possibly by the genes (no one can be quite certain here). No education in the world can ever teach him what is deeply hidden inside him, which he only has to develop himself. His approach to design is unique and he alone is able to revolutionize the entire discipline. Together with this elitist concept, the behavior of a smokers’ corner avant-garde, a literary “too cool for school”, is already looking for a way out in the faintest breath of a briefing. The other, less gifted designers, whose training has already been classified as too narrow minded and who can not look beyond the regular boundaries of their own world anyway, can take on these profane tasks. The transfiguration of the designer to the artist’s genius drives up the prices to be paid for individual pieces and author’s designs, but remains incompatible with an everyday practice and can not be taught by any design education of the world. The design is idealized in this case mythically by the ingenious inspiration and removed into unintelligible heights.

The Eye Bee M Poster, designed and signed by Paul Rand.

The second concept, which, as already announced, is the opposite of the artist genius myth, which categorically excludes any ingenious gesture and talk of inspiration. It is the interpretation of the role of the designer as that of a planning engineer. Even if the word genius is somewhat contained in the word “engineer”, the two have little in common. The designer as an engineer usually only approaches a draft when he has gathered enough information and data to justify each one of his planned steps. He likes to use psychology, the decipherer of the mind, and mathematics, the constructor of worlds. The first allows him to anticipate every reaction of his target group and once he has understood it, he even makes them react responsibly. The (psychologically) targeted use of colors would be an example. The second of the two salvages allows the designer to divide the useful and the superfluous, to build his design exactly according to a logical equation, so that his designs do not only seem to be one hundred percent symmetrical, they actually are. Such a cybernetised design process is, of course, the ideal dream of ​​any market research institute. Nor is it surprising that the designer engineer tends to develop schemata for his design processes, which can almost automate them and make the designer himself obsolete. As I said, almost. This planability and automation is reflected in the Western concept of design modernity, which was in search of the universal rules of design to create an international world design. The idea of ​​this world improvement through design, of course, laid the foundations for what are now international markets and production chains. Absolute computability in design goes hand in hand with economic calculation and rationalization. On its triumph, it then leveled any cultural difference and prepared the indifferent stage for global brands. To speak of a mythologizing of the design process seems almost contradictory. However, if you isolate the role of the designer, you will find exactly what the dialectic of the Enlightenment wanted to describe. Just as the liberation of the spirit by rationality and logic ends again in a prison of mathematical and economic constraints, and as a world conquest can easily become a conquest of the world, the designer also falls into this self-imposed functionalism. The role of the designer is mythologized when he considers himself beyond the cultural context and does not recognize this dialectic.

So these are the two extremes that the discursive charging of the design process shows us. In one, we become an elite artists’ club that dreams away from everyday world and in the other standardized traders of the economy. Where the one design process remains immediate, the other is rationalized so that it could be executed practically by everyone; Recent examples of automated, code-based logodesign confirm this.

Der MarkMaker wurde von Emblematic programmiert.  Dieser generiert per Code ein Logo, dass der User dann nach und nach noch verfeinern kann. MarkMaker

Logo generated with the MarkMaker

I would say we have come to a point of consideration at which it is worth taking a step back and finally begin looking for a third alternative. This should take into account the unpredictability of creativity, without arousing ideas of superiority and exclusivity. It should be accessible to everyone without being equally indifferent to everyone. It must be able to be founded logic without losing the emotional and subjective reference. No easy task, but one that I might be able to solve with a little trick. To do this, instead of taking a step back, I will venture to jump into the draft. A jump ahead of any test layout, before any variation of color and even before the first sketch. This entire work process – whether it is genius or pragmatic – has nothing to do with the actual design. It is only the processing of the impulse, which constitutes the actual design. For this design process is the physical examination of one’s own thrownness. Let me explain …

With this idea of ​one’s own being thrown into the world I refer to Heidegger’s concept of being. To explain this in full length would go beyond the scope of this post. That’s why I only want to refer to the thrownness and the »Entwurf« and explain this in my own words to make it fruitful for the design. In short, the thrownness of every existence describes that none of us comes out of nothingness into a neutral world. Our life is determined before our birth by a past which we have not chosen ourselves. This includes ecological, economic, social and cultural networks, the interests and influences of both our closest relatives, as well as those of the President of the United States, who actually also has a significant influence on our existence. In this world we are cast down and determined by it at the beginning of our lives, without any influence on it. But what we are very likely to have is the way in which, in the course of our further life, we behave to our own thrownness and to the world. Here our own perception, both of the world, of ourselves and of our position in it play a decisive role. Only the awareness of this position allows us to seize certain options in this world and to reject others. Only when we are able to reflect on our own being-in-the-world we gain an insight into the future and past, which allows us to act. By reacting to the world and doing this by our own individual characteristics, we throw ourselves out of our thrownness (»Entwurf« meaning literally to de-throw oneself). We design/de-throw ourselves. This design is not only taking place on a purely conscious level. Although we know about our own limitations and conditions, they are not always present to us. Not all actions are controlled and not all knowledge can be explored. This is all part of the design. The design is the point where we extend our own feeling to the world in which we physically merge with our tools and trigger a chain reaction in which we are affected and return the impulse. Every time I cross the boundary between Me and the world in some way, I design myself out of my own thrownness.

What do we get out of this concept of the design, which puts the design draft or de-throwing before there’s any action taken, away from the fetishisation of the process and the – in my opinion, overvalued – fixation on the unfinished and the alternatives? I am certainly not a friend of schematic drawings and work instructions. Some people think they can help with the work, but I find that there are as many approaches as there are design tasks. To design is to work with the world. This is always a new work that will always look different than any other. In addition, it is the work of a particular person or team. So it does not take much to look at the design process separately from the task and to generalize it. Each scheme is in some way a simplification, an abbreviation that does not exist in reality.

But a specific and particular design processes also has its problems. Emphasizing simply that there are so many other ideas and variants for the design, instead of showing the supposed creativity of their creator, they might represent the indecisiveness of the said creator. The design process is one in which sovereign decisions have to be made, even if it is a process between client and designer. “It could have been completely different” can then quickly become “Actually, we are not so sure of the end product”.

What is the advantage of having an untranslatable design process together with the final design product? On the one hand, it makes it quite visible: different ideas, different designs led precisely to this one, final product. These can not be repeated for any other arbitrary task, they are specifically responsible for the result, which is finally implemented. On the other hand, a design that realizes itself as a definite difference from a non-infinite, but undetermined number of possibilities, points in its own determinateness precisely to the other unrealized possibilities. These are the variations of the design process. It can again reinforce the tension ratio that each design automatically builds up to its non-necessity by actually realizing it. The showcase of the process can thus promote an open design concept, as well as inspiration, new impressions for new design drafts and new expressions for other designers. One should not exaggerate this process, or question one’s own sovereignty through the display of countless variations. Only the definite difference of the finished design product can maintain the tension to the indeterminacy of the possibilities. The process and the variations are always part of the final solution, the additional reference to them and the deliberate display should only make the openness of the design aware and strengthen the determinateness of the chosen solution.

The showcase of the design process is a two-edged sword. INK acknowledges this but cannot overlook the positive effects for the purpose of education. The process points to the openness of the design solution and also underlines its non-necessity. However, he does not weaken the sovereignty of the final implementation. To share our process with others is, above all, to inspire other designers and ourselves to always approach different tasks and go through the world with open eyes. Our own personal design can also be influenced in the same way.

By Felix K

Felix Kosok is a research associate at the University for Art and Design Offenbach. The topic of his dissertation is the interdependence of design and democracy. He is particularly interested in the critical influence that design can have on society.