Design plays a central role in cultural reproduction. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, for anyone.
Want to hear a really pretentious definition of design? Probably not, but I have to listen to this stuff almost constantly and misery loves company, so here it is: “Giving form to culture.”
I hear people actually say those words from time to time, and it never puts me in a particularly good mood. My main beef with that definition is that after a year in a postgraduate design program and too many hours spent between stacks of anthropology textbooks, I still can’t figure out what “form” and “culture” even mean.
My other beef is that the above definition is delusional. It seems to be gesturing toward the all-too-common notion that designers have some kind of sociocultural superpower: by shaping the physical objects that mediate and regulate people’s behaviors and interactions, they are shaping society itself! It’s a classic credit-hogging move on the part of the design world’s plentiful narcissists, who would like you to believe that material culture emerges fully formed from the depths of their magical sketchbooks.
The reality is that most designers work under some pretty heavy constraints: There’s a client or employer who gives them a mandate and makes the final call on what will actually be manufactured, printed or constructed. There are precedents set by existing designs that simultaneously inspire and circumscribe the designer’s work and limit the range of possibilities that clients and users will find acceptable. Finally, designed objects, spaces and images are frequently reinterpreted and repurposed by people who have no idea what the designer had in mind. In short, design is subject to the same limitations as any other so-called creative practice, and designers are no more authors than, well, authors are.
But despite the limited influence that designers themselves are able to exert over culture at large, design as a practice plays a central role in cultural reproduction.
Read full essay here.