On the Exis­tence of Design

But if it is so important, why does ethics not alrea­dy exist in design? The simp­le ans­wer is that ethics was not nee­ded wit­hin design until qui­te recent­ly becau­se until qui­te recent­ly the acti­vi­ty known as designing did not play a pro­mi­nent role in human affairs.

The most fun­da­men­tal ques­ti­on regar­ding design—an onto­lo­gi­cal ques­ti­on, as it were—is this: why is the­re design at all and not just non­de­sign? Cer­tain­ly it is his­to­ri­cal­ly obvious that design has not always been and the­re­fo­re need not necessa­ri­ly be. In natu­re, for instance, the design pro­cess does not occur. Accord­ing to modern sci­ence, natu­re brings forth by blind deter­mi­na­ti­on or ran­dom chan­ge. Hence the­re ari­se deba­tes about whe­ther human bein­gs as desi­gners are part of natu­re, and whe­ther the sci­ence of natu­re is able to be uni­fied with the human sci­en­ces and huma­nities, not to men­ti­on theo­lo­gy. (The idea that God crea­ted the world “by design” is a uni­que con­fla­ti­on of Greek ratio­na­lism and Judeo-Chris­ti­an-Isla­mic reve­la­ti­on.) Even on an Aris­to­te­lean account, to be “by phusis, natu­re” and “by nomos, con­ven­ti­on” (if not design) con­sti­tu­te two dis­tinct ways of being.

To be “by design” in any pos­si­ble (weak) pre­mo­dern sen­se deno­tes no more than affi­ni­ty with that uni­que human rea­li­ty nomos, con­ven­ti­on or cus­tom, and nous, mind. Con­ven­ti­on rei­fied or in phy­si­cal form is labe­led arti­fice, that which has form not from wit­hin its­elf, like a rock or a tree, but from ano­t­her, like a sta­tue or a bed (see Aris­to­te­les, Phy­sics, II,1). Pri­or to the deve­lo­p­ment of design as ratio­na­li­zing minia­tu­re making one could speak only of men­tal inten­ti­on or sta­tic com­po­si­ti­on, thought or final mate­ri­al pro­duct, not any spe­cial or uni­que phy­si­cal acti­vi­ty. The acti­vi­ty was sim­ply making.

Ver­na­cu­lar human acti­vi­ty, espe­cial­ly ver­na­cu­lar making and buil­ding, inso­far as it is restric­ted to tra­di­tio­nal crafts, pro­ceeds by inten­ti­on but not necessa­ri­ly by or through any sys­te­ma­tic anti­ci­pa­to­ry ana­ly­sis and mode­ling. Plato’s shut­tle maker loo­ks to the form or idea of a shut­tle and ther­eby does not have to design it (Pla­to, Cra­tylus, 389a). Inde­ed, many cen­tral socie­tal con­ven­ti­ons and arti­facts (e. g., tra­di­tio­nal vil­la­ge cus­toms and archi­tec­tures) are, alt­hough human-made, not even the direct result of human inten­ti­on.[4] (In the ver­na­cu­lar world, the “designing” actor is one who pro­ceeds with sche­mes, devious­ly, impro­per­ly.) What is most cha­rac­te­ris­tic of non­mo­dern making acti­vi­ties are tri­al-and-error full-sca­le fab­ri­ca­ti­on or con­struc­tion, intui­ti­on and appren­ti­ce­ship, and tech­ni­ques deve­lo­ped out of and gui­ded by unar­ti­cu­la­ted or non­dis­cur­si­ve tra­di­ti­ons and pro­ce­du­res. Reflec­tion in rela­ti­on to such making focu­ses more on the sym­bo­lic cha­rac­ter of results than on the pro­ces­ses and methods of, say, effi­ci­en­cy in ope­ra­ti­on or pro­duc­tion. To speak of design in crafts is to refer to some­thing which is not yet, which occurs lar­ge­ly in uncon­scious or pro­vi­sio­nal forms—that is to say, design without design. Yves Def­or­ge in one attempt to wri­te about such “design befo­re design” calls the­se phe­no­me­na “ava­tars of design.”[5]

Design as a pro­toac­ti­vi­ty is mani­fes­ted ori­gi­nal­ly in the arts in the form of sket­ches for pain­tings. The unfi­nis­hed cham­bers of Egyp­ti­an tombs reve­al that drawings some­ti­mes pre­ce­ded finis­hed murals. But for Gior­gio Vasa­ri (1511—1574) and his con­tem­pora­ries, diseg­no or drawing and pre­pa­ra­to­ry sket­ches are the necessa­ry foun­da­ti­on of pain­ting. The need for argu­ments in defen­se of this posi­ti­on reve­als its spe­cial his­to­ri­cal cha­rac­ter. And the­re are at least two obser­va­tions that can be ven­tu­red about such anti­ci­pa­to­ry acti­vi­ty in the artis­tic realm. First, it exhi­bits a con­ti­nui­ty with that to which it leads. The tomb drawings are even the same size as the final mural that will fol­low; the Renais­sance sket­ches deve­lop skills that are repeated an can­vas or wall. Second, con­spi­cuous by its absence is any quan­ti­ta­ti­ve or input-out­put ana­ly­sis. At the time of the Renais­sance, howe­ver, design also appears in a first dis­tinct­ly modern form as the geo­metric con­struc­tion of per­spec­ti­ve, as a cor­re­la­te of modern sci­en­ti­fic natu­ra­lism, and as the pre­cur­sor to engi­nee­ring drawing.[6]