Defining the Utility of Design
I recently went through some of my old work and reread a piece I wrote on my past influences in graphic design. The piece in its entirety was slightly arbitrary, having needed to meet certain requirements put forth by a professor, but the introduction I wrote for it seemed more modular than the entire piece and might be of interest to some other people. I also wanted to have it somewhere public where I could reference it in other work. It’s reproduced below:
Design is an elusive activity to define. It carries the ambiguity and beauty of art while simultaneously exists for a very discrete purpose: to convey information. However, I've often wondered if one of these traits held more importance than the other? For a long time I didn’t know, but now after having reflected on my past work and influences, the answer has become slightly clearer. I can’t recall anything that has ever been designed without intent. For every project I’ve undertaken or observed in my life, it seems there can be found at some point a person saying, “I should design this, because…” What follows this clause can either be one of two types of reasons: the selfish, saying “I should design this, because it will be fun and self gratifying”; and the selfless, “I should design this, because I want to impact other people in some way.”
Applying this hypothesis in practical terms splits the repository of the world’s created works into two clearly unique halves: that which was designed without the intent of conveying a message and that which was designed with the intent to convey a message. The former is simply art for arts sake, which we all do constantly in life, wether we identify as artists or not. But it is the latter reason – designing messages – that is the more conversationally relevant, because conveying a message requires both a speaker and a listener, and it is thus a social activity. I would argue that such an activity is the only type worth talking about, as any other topic which isn't social in some respect is completely internal to the speaker and thus of no use to anyone else; in other words, there are no people in the world that would benefit from such a lecture since it is by definition only of importance to the speaker.
Taking a step back and looking at the consequence of such an argument, we can return to my original question — which is more important, the aesthetic or function of a design. At this point, I can safely say that it is the function of a design that is more important, at least when talking about design that is trying to convey a message. And as I said earlier, design that is trying to convey a message is the only worth talking about, so it will be the only type of work discussed in this essay!