Means & Ends

Tell someone you're a designer, and the question you'll probably get back is, "What kind?" It can be bothersome, but it's not an unfair question. Even as designers, we tend to associate "design" as the end, not the means. We orient design toward the thing created at the end of the process. A goal; a fixed point that we can clearly aim for.

When oriented toward the end goal, design is the thing produced. The logo is the design. The building is the design. The (insert noun) is the design. But does this fully describe what design could or should be? Might there be opportunities missed by not considering the act? What happens when the logo is the logo, the building is the building, and the means by which those things are created, is design?

Framed as the means, design becomes an attitude; an expression of a point of view. A lens, not a goal. A cause, not a course. We don't provide THE answer, we merely offer AN answer. This has profound implications for how we operate as designers, and perhaps more importantly, pedagogically.

In school, building the capacity to select the correct multiple choice answer by demanding the memorization of information is a tool for shaping a predictable, industrialized workforce. Now, what is worth remembering is Google-able. We don't need to be educated on how to be successful widget-makers because the making of widgets is increasingly automated. Instead, what we are being asked to provide is less measurable. What we have to say and how we say it matters. How we frame an objective, how we get to a solution—these are crucial skills. We ought to be equipped with the capacity to tell stories rather than to merely provide information. The execution of the “thing” is based on our ability to tell the story of why it came to be.

Retooling design does not replace the emphasis on the craft of a thing. It simply admits that we have embraced new tools that separate style from the ideas and constraints that generated them. Advancements in technology have always shaped the aesthetics of design—whether brick to steel or hot to cold type. With the internet, technology evolves the vocabulary of design yet again. "Designs" are now divorced from their original context, fed to us by algorithms, and reduced to content. We simply cherry-pick what we fancy, and hope we can get away with it. We live in a time where brutalism, the "cult of the ugly," Memphis, Matisse cut-outs, and “modernism” all co-exist en vogue. Style becomes the means for communicating a solution—forcing us to reconcile our principles—rather than eliciting an obstinate response. The dogma is no dogma, and we can use that to our advantage.

Orienting ourselves around the act suggests that problems do not solely need to be solved by discrete things. The scope of possibility might also include intangibles such as “brand voice” or emotions. Or, as Italian architect, Ernesto Rogers declared, “a spoon to the city.”

The impending collision of demographics, automation, displacement, and inequality in the coming decades will require a facility for navigating design as both a means and an end. After all, when we design a discrete thing, we might also design something less embodied as a consequence.  

Removing certainty and preciousness, embracing ambiguity, and framing design as the means opens up disciplinary boundaries toward collaboration for designing better ends. This is likely the only way for design to maintain significance in a highly volatile era.

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