The Shape of Design

by Frank Chimero


What is the marker of good design? It moves. The story of a successful piece of design begins with the movement of its maker while it is being made, and amplifies by its publishing, moving the work out and around. It then continues in the feeling the work stirs in the audience when they see, use, or contribute to the work, and intensifies as the audience passes it on to others. Design gains value as it moves from hand to hand; context to context; need to need. If all of this movement harmonizes, the work gains a life of its own, and turns into a shared experience that enhances life and inches the world closer to its full potential.

The designer is tasked to loosely organize and arrange this movement. She is the one who works to ensure this motion is pointed in a direction that leads us toward a desirable future. Marshall McLuhan said that, “we look at the present through a rear-view mirror,” and we “march backwards into the future.” Invention becomes our lens to imagine what is possible, and design is the road we follow to reach it. But, there is a snag in McLuhan's view, because marching is no way to go into the future. It is too methodical and restricted. The world often subverts our best laid plans, so our road calls for a way to move that is messier, bolder, more responsive. The lightness and joy afforded by creating suggests that we instead dance.

Dancing requires music, and we each have our own song. These songs are the culmination of our individual dispositions. It is a product of our lines of inquiry about the work that we do, and a demonstration of the lens we use to see the world. The first portion of this book concerns itself with these inner movements. We each carry our own tune, and if we listen to ourselves, the song that emerges is composed of the questions that we ask while working, the methods we choose to employ in our practice, and the bias we show by favoring certain responses over others. Each song is the origin of the individual's creativity; it is a personal tune that compels us to make things, and feel obligated to do so in a way specific to ourselves.

The second part of the book looks at the milieu of design: the cultural context of the work we create, the parties involved in its making, those groups' relationships to one another, and the expected outcomes of the designer's efforts. Design has a tendency to live between things to connect them, so this is analyzed in more detail to find patterns. It looks to weigh the value of fiction, the mutability of artifacts, and the multiplicity of responses available in design. The purpose of all of these assessments is to look at the space around design to identify the moving parts, so one can begin to strategize how to make this movement sway together and respond accordingly as things change.

The last part of the book focuses on the primacy of the audience in design. It assesses methods to create more meaningful connections with them to unlock the great opportunity of this fortuitous arrangement. What can be done if we speak truly and honestly to the audience of our work? Perhaps this changes the success metrics of design to more soft, meaningful qualities, like enthusiasm, engagement, and resonance. Reframing the practice as something more than commerce and problem-solving lets us focus on fundamental issues about utility. It requires us to raise simple, difficult questions about our work, such as, “Does this help us to live well?”

The Shape of Design is a map of the road where we dance rather than a blueprint of it. It strives to investigate the opportunities of exploring the terrain, and it values stepping back from the everyday concerns of designing. It attempts to impose a meaningful distance in order to find patterns in the work and assess the practice as a whole. One can observe, from this distance, two very fundamental things about design that are easy to miss in the midst of all of this movement.

First, design is imagining a future and working toward it with intelligence and cleverness. We use design to close the gap between the situation we have and the one we desire. Second, design is a practice built upon making things for other people. We are all on the road together. These two things dictate our relationship to the world and our bond to one another. They form the foundations of the design practice, so our work should revolve around these truths.

The practice, simply, is a way of thinking and moving that we use to enhance life. It is available to anyone. We listen to our song, watch how things move, imagine the arrangement, then act. We dance together backwards into the future, giving influence and taking it, forming and being formed. This is dance of eternity, and the shape of design. I hope to see you singing on the road.