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Comments (43) Posted 03.03.09 | PERMALINK | PRINT

Gabrielle Esperdy

Less Is More Again — A Manifesto



A Duralex Picardie tumbler, photo by Gabrielle Esperdy

The time has come to update William Morris and Adolf Loos for the 21st century. A hundred years ago Loos told us to suspend the use of ornament so that design could catch up with modernizing culture. A half century before that, recoiling from the aesthetic horrors of the Great Exhibition, Morris told us to stop using machines so that design could return to its origins in craft and hand production. When Morris died in 1896, the industrial revolution was a century old. When Loos died in 1933, the machine age was at its peak. 

Today, the revolution is digital and the age is informational, but design confronts a similar crisis. We have amazing electronic tools at our disposal; culture has modernized at staggering, computer processed speeds. But the tools are abused and cultural change is stupefying. We embrace technology because it is there and embrace change for change’s sake. Our buildings, objects, and graphics suffer as a result. Things are over-designed because new tools must be exploited; here, design says “look what I can do!” Things are poorly-designed because new tools provide templates and shortcuts that are mistakenly substituted for design itself; here, design says “look how easy it is!”

Design Less 

To rectify this situation we must Design Less! We must subject ourselves to a period of privation in which we refrain from designing and suspend the very practice of design itself. This clarion call is not a longing for some idyllic pre-digital past, nor is it an angry Luddite-like rant. Rather, it is an inevitable evolution of the theories of Morris and Loos. And it is an evolution that is perfectly in sync with our era — think of Terminator 2: Judgment Day and countless other science fiction doomsday scenarios in which the computers take over. Let us aid and abet them and allow the machines to design for us. They are doing it already; now we are making it official. Is this nihilistic? Perhaps, but it may be necessary if we are to save our buildings, objects, and graphics from themselves. Until then, we must await the arrival of a Sarah Connor of design who, fully-loaded with guns blazing, will put us in control of our machines once more.

Designless

The time has also come to diagnosis design’s place in the global economic meltdown. Like art, design is the superfluous thing, apparently unnecessary in the “I’m a sucker for the working man” ethos of the new austerity. The design world must unite in the face of a world without design. Designers must control their most basic urge — to make the world a better place — because either the world doesn’t need improving or the world thinks it can improve without help from designers. We can accept this scenario with a look of glum resignation, but a knowing smirk might be more appropriate. The nay-sayers may welcome a world free from designers, but the world will never be devoid of design.

The designless world simply does not exist; and it never has. The gatherers who built the seasonal dwelling at Terra Amata; the hunters who drew in the caves at Lascaux — they were designers. As were the literally countless men and women since then, who have created or adapted almost every single thing that surrounds us in this designed world. Perhaps, like Morris, we can blame it all on the Renaissance: it’s Alberti's fault for separating theory and practice and it’s Vasari’s fault for creating the artist as hero. Walter Gropius was on to something when he urged designers to return to the crafts. He understood that the cult of personality and individuality was damaging design’s reputation and undermining its very place in the world. He thought that by returning to making — by heading down to the factory floor — designers might regain what had been lost. The world would become more designful by becoming seemingly designless.

This has, in fact, come to pass. Whether we are sitting at our computers, shopping at Target or Ikea, or walking down the street with our handheld devices, we are effortlessly, endlessly, unavoidably, inevitably, and mindlessly consuming design. Or to put it another way, we are consuming a thing — a website, a font, a screen, an icon, a t-shirt, a store, a sidewalk, a car, the list goes on and on — that someone, somewhere, sometime designed. If this is the designless world we welcome it and, with apologies to William Shakespeare, first thing we do, let’s kill all the designers.
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Comments (43)   |   JUMP TO MOST RECENT COMMENT >>

I trust the author is going to make a drastic example by falling on her sword and stop educating some many more designers!
miss representation
03.08.09 at 06:37

You can design all the less you like. That will leave more for me design and make paying my mortgage easier.

Thanks.
Stephen Macklin
03.08.09 at 07:26

I wouldn't mind less design, but how about a little less Twitter? Mindless BS content is just as bad as BS design. I was very sad to see the T-word in the "Observed" column today. Such a stupid bandwagon to jump on.
Jw
03.08.09 at 07:31

This hopeless writing is a case of "should be writing less."
Ng
03.08.09 at 07:57

Or perhaps, like Behrens, we should shut up and embed our manifesto in our designs instead of yet another reactionary text.

Or, if we must write a manifesto, perhaps we should take a queue from the contemporary age and include some specificity with our polemics.

What "things" are over-designed? Are a few star-chitected buildings and over-priced objects representative of an entire field? Perhaps "things" are "poorly-designed" because there is so much more to design nowadays? Or, perhaps, things aren't poorly designed; perhaps technology is used for a purpose, and perhaps reactionary histrionics bore me silly?
Evan Sharp
03.08.09 at 08:04

Cemetery disco: Morris, Loos, Alberti, Vasari, Gropius AND Shakespeare are all spinning in their graves.

Meanwhile, would someone at Design Observer care to proofread this, fix the grammar and, er — wait, why was this incoherent rant even passed for publication in the first place?
Georges
03.08.09 at 08:15

Maybe our challenge as designers is to focus more on using the new technology in an appropriate manner for the user experience or the audience we are trying to connect to. Twitter has its place as a communication medium but older analog tools like letter press printing are still relevant and more engaging in some circumstances. I think Flash is one technology that has amazing potential and is often used badly—but let's not kill the designers yet.
Leslie
03.08.09 at 09:40

The proposed approach towards designing less—getting rid of all designers—is obviously paradoxical, but I think I understand and I agree. More often than not, it is the non-designer who wants to add more to an object, message, or piece of communication—something that needs to be designed. As students of design, we were taught how to remove the proverbial ten pounds of shit. But without training, the novice with software inevitably has the urge to try something, anything really. And that anything usually leads to whatever that particular software has to offer, for example excessive drop shadows and beveled edges. Designers fumble around in the beginning, but eventually learn by trying new things and observing, and being taught what works, what communicates. We separate design from technology. By removing all designers, the world would ultimately add and add and add until nothing would be usable, understandable, there would be too much information, and too much design to comprehend.
It's an interesting concept, and I thank you for sharing this view. It reminded me a little bit of Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. If you have every read it, I think you might understand that comparison. In this instance, it would be the designers who would return to clean up shop after everything has crumbled.
John Rudolph
03.09.09 at 12:06

What's wrong with excess?

There's a puritanical element in much design writing - Perhaps a leftover from the 19thC muscular christianity.

Can't we do better than a one size fits all solution

Next thing it'll be a ban on black forest cake

MR JC
03.09.09 at 12:07

Write less, design more…
Reserves
03.09.09 at 02:24

For more constructive - and less provocative - ideas about less design, don't hesitate to read Ben Terrett's I'm a Designer, Use Me Better and check Philippe Starck on TED.
The subject is important, so don't hesitate to dig more than this writing.
Loïc Boyer
03.09.09 at 04:02

I hope the follow up to this touches on the contextless.

Its impossible to agree or disagree with almost anyone of these notions. We say we want to update Morris and Loos, but what about them needs to be updated? Their visual approaches, their social theories, both? I'm not sure from what's said. We love Gropius for making us shut up and and make, but he was just as complicit in the Terminator-ization of the Industrial Revolution as anyone. I could argue that we should update Post-modernism and just leave it as that, nut I think if we've learned anything, is that in this complex world we live in now, there's no way to make it plain in 250 words or less draped in vagueness, much less one person do so. I'm hoping from here on out we can obsess over DIALOGUES the way the past century obsessed over Manifestoes.
Derrick Schultz
03.09.09 at 04:34

Design is dead! Long live design!
Bjorn Akselsen
03.09.09 at 04:55

I think this is a great piece. Whether I agree or disagree is irrelevant to the argument. Surely we need to have our notions/beliefs challenged regularly or we become complacent sheep, no? Otherwise we just keep on ploughing the same rut until we become blinkered fanatics – have a look at religion and see where that gets us.
Keep it up DO.
NB: Although it has no bearing on their professional attributes we also need to contextualise our heroes – Loos died a penniless paedophile, Eric Gill used to rodger his daughter and his dog. Not criticizing, just observing.
Piers
03.09.09 at 06:00

In the absence of good design there is only bad design not no design at all.
Adrian
03.09.09 at 08:23

I think the article is very true and valid. 'Kill the designers' should not be taken literally but as a metaphor. Yes, we really do need ask that very basic question before doing any thing,"Does this thing really need designing?" In their enthusiasm to design, designers sometimes make things worse than they were before. Design needs to move from the superfluous, to the more basic needs of man. We should design better public transport systems, better school curriculum, better amenities, better cities, architecture that needs less energy, the list is endless.

As you rightly pointed out, a million tools exist today, so designers are simply using them without questioning whether they really need to. Design should be solving problems, not making society and ourselves into a consumerist society, which we have already become. Design is about fulfilling genuine needs, not creating a hundred more needs. If design is to make life on earth better, which I believe is the original intention of design, then the very nature and definition of design needs to change and adapt to the new challenges we have set for ourselves. In some ways design got us in the mess we are in today, but only design can get us out.
designscene
03.09.09 at 12:02

@Jw I too read this with an eye to Twitter and FB. "We embrace technology because it is there...New tools must be exploited; here, design says 'look what I can do!'" Social media's popularity just because it's there?

And to the article, I think the world IS moving to becoming more "designful." I see a mindfulness to design, and not over-design, particularly online. But rather than "kill all the designers," who do you think has the talent and skills to use these new tools? Great design may look effortless but it is not.
summerbl4ck
03.09.09 at 12:46

Humans shape things, a design-less world can only exist where we haven't been.

The writer is trying to sound so cool that the message is unclear. This very article is over-designed and communicates less. What exactly is the message?
jon
03.09.09 at 01:18

Yes, although less IS more, I think it's just all about the appropriateness to the subject matter.
sy
03.09.09 at 06:33

Yes I agree with Designscene's comment.

I think part of the idea that this article is trying to convey is that perhaps today's designers depend too much on the technological tools available, which can limit their creativity to the limitations of these tools, or over embellish their designs because these tools allow them to do so.


darknight00
03.10.09 at 12:44

Its an interesting yet drastic thought. To justify our presence, our existence as designers is to compare ourselves to the cave painters and the dwelling makers. Being a designer from a, developing country, I see the excesses of design, tonnes and tonnes of plastic waste, stacks and stacks of fancy food in the malls, that come in the wake of consumerism.

Life was simpler earlier, people were less greedy.

All the same, the developed world, seemingly, already done with its overconsumption, is trying to find answers. A proclamation like this article invites interesting viewpoints, which is probably not any manifesto, but a step in an evolutionary cycle...
HumbleMumble
03.10.09 at 02:26

Unfortunately, Twitter is not BS. I wish it were. It's as BS as the iPhone or Facebook. We all have to get used to it (or its successor.)
rick fox
03.10.09 at 09:47

Rant or not, the article falsely assumes ALL design is done strictly by trained (let alone "competent") designers. In today's world of excess and me-too-ism, anyone and everyone with a breath of creative urge is already a practising designer - whether graphic, industrial, web, interior, etc. I have yet to see a profession so weak-kneed and poorly defined as what we generically call "design" today.

The excess junk out there is due to this field's "free for all" approach and lack of selectivity and barriers to entry. We can only wish our built and printed material for consumption today was ALL done by truly professional designers. And it's getting worse.

Read Hal Niedwieczki's 2004 book "Hello, I'm Special" for more on this. Hell, EVERYONE is a creative today, didn't you know!
Canada
03.10.09 at 10:37

Designing is so challenging because of our broad selection of skills and tools require us to be more experimental, but society and the Design world demand us to be minimal.
Jonathan Ferrer
03.10.09 at 11:45

I am totally against the idea of putting a hold on design. The world would be so boring if there were no designers to make things appealing to observers. I am not worried about a loss of design though. Design will never go away, humans are naturally creative and they will always strive to make their environment pleasing to them. It could be a graphic designer making a new billboard, or an architect creating a new stunning building. Design is everywhere and in everything and there is no way to get rid of it. Even if the people who are doing design work today stop, someone would step in to fill the void. Design isn't going anywhere anytime soon. I did enjoy reading the article and I think it is a good thought to voice. I always enjoy the posts that make me think. Thanks for the article and let me know how many people would have read it if this website didnt have any designers.
Adam
03.10.09 at 02:21

Designers fear democratization of design tools, often citing examples where templates or ornamentation attempt to pass for thoughtful and clear communication. This is more of an internal dread of the other "D," Decoration, and fear of the accompanying soullessness that may result. Our remedies against such excess, whether or not the proposed threat is currently on the rise, typicaly center on educating our cultural tastemakers (journalists, educators, other designers) on the issues involved.

On the other hand, I can't help feeling that elevating the confluence of a series of shorter-term trends into a full-blown crisis feels a bit elitist in its tone. Perhaps this is the inherent challenge of being an industry of professional outsiders. We can't solve problems without finding them first.

In this regard, we're not too dissimilar from the Orkin man offering homeowners a free termite inspection.
Enrico
03.10.09 at 02:48

With apologies to Gertrude Stein, what was the question?
Carla
03.10.09 at 03:20

Design is problem-solving.

If we kill all problem-solvers the would would be a barren rock devoid of all life, for every creature, from single-cell organisms to humans use the tools at its disposal to create and to solve problems.
Thomas Gaskin
03.10.09 at 05:51

Weird. I can't believe I'm the only commenter who thought the post was sarcastic. I'd have to hear from the writer themselves that it was not to convince me otherwise.

How am I the only person who thinks this?
JT
03.10.09 at 06:32

I agree with Adam, at this point in society, we are surrounded, or even smothered by design. Everyone is a designer in today's terms - creating a solution/working around a certain problem... I feel that this is causing a larger problem... bad design etc.
Naomi Otsu
03.10.09 at 06:53

How could we ever live in a designless world? Our clothes, our food, our cities, our streets, our work, our schools, our churches, our shoes, our underwear, everything has been designed. There is some sort of order established by someone else. Therefore if we lived in a designless world, we would be living like wild animals, no rules, no order no structure. It is essential that our lives have some type of design incorporated.
Marie C
03.10.09 at 07:36

Can't there be some sort of equilibrium? Can't we, as designers take all the fun and glorious technology at our fingertips and be able to use it in a manner so NOT to over design? There's so much crap design in this world that it's up to us to fix it. I hate how anyone and everyone just thinks they can get a computer, put adobe on it and there you go they're a designer. It's so much more than that.
We need to be able to design and redesign the poorly designed in order to make the world a better place..a designless world is completely out of the question.
Lindsey M
03.10.09 at 11:12

I agree with Lindsey M. We need to have a balance. We cannot do away with design, but we can do away with a lot of crappy designed objects which are not doing anything for us except exploiting resources, and making us more and more into a consumerist society. the developed world has reached the saturation point, with hundreds of 'things' that nobody really needs, and are in fact just helping destroy the planet.
designscene
03.11.09 at 08:22

Well said, John Rudolph! I completely agree and see it the same way. Couldn't have said it better myself.

" The proposed approach towards designing less—getting rid of all designers—is obviously paradoxical, but I think I understand and I agree. More often than not, it is the non-designer who wants to add more to an object, message, or piece of communication—something that needs to be designed. As students of design, we were taught how to remove the proverbial ten pounds of shit. But without training, the novice with software inevitably has the urge to try something, anything really. And that anything usually leads to whatever that particular software has to offer, for example excessive drop shadows and beveled edges. Designers fumble around in the beginning, but eventually learn by trying new things and observing, and being taught what works, what communicates. We separate design from technology. By removing all designers, the world would ultimately add and add and add until nothing would be usable, understandable, there would be too much information, and too much design to comprehend.
It's an interesting concept, and I thank you for sharing this view. It reminded me a little bit of Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. If you have every read it, I think you might understand that comparison. In this instance, it would be the designers who would return to clean up shop after everything has crumbled."

03.11.09 at 04:56

People (should) design - not computers -
The next time someone (an newbie architect, a design-software-reseller) tells me the computer 'does it for you' - listen - because I plan to scream, loudly.
Virginia
03.12.09 at 12:07

If I understand the article correctly, it actually isn't about design at all, it's about our need to consume less, and grow less or more cleverly. Can't be such a bad thing, can it?
simon@greentarget
03.12.09 at 12:09

Desserts rule. I'll go to war over them.

Paul
Creative Agency Manchester
03.12.09 at 12:59

It is a good essay but I thınk auther's attitude is quiet romantic rahter than reality
denise
03.13.09 at 06:02

I don't feel this is a romantic notion at all; we are part of a cycle of obsolescence created by industrial companies in the early part of the twentieth century to induce greater consumption.
I feel a little like HAL in 2001 but the problem is not just the novice designer but also the consumer who seems addicted to novelty and believes their every whim should be indulged. Products need to be useful, economical and beautiful, not constantly novel.

"I'm talking to you internet."
Sluggo
03.13.09 at 12:11

There are many valid arguments that could be made about the detrimental impacts of professional designers. This article presents none of those arguments.
archie
03.14.09 at 03:27

A form of Manifesto is a dead form. And less was more, my dear author, 100 years ago.
Good design is always about joining the content, the wearer, the audience. "How" is a question of creative leap and sensibility. No theory can supplement that.

Would you shake down human natural desire to create for some cheap, artificial puritanism?

I have no words.
maja
03.15.09 at 08:23

"A bad design is irrelevant. It is superficial, pretentious" A design servers a function.

I believe the writer may have confused the concept of ornamentation with design.

Interestingly as a student, this is the subject of my upcoming thesis. Talking about the cyclical nature of ornamentation with the arrival and integration of computers. At the moment I believe we are heading into another puerile state of 'less is more', which (if history repeats itself) is always a prediction of a new medium.

In the 1990s Roger Black noted that magazine design in the 1980’s was being replaced by a new concern for simplicity .‘We are experiencing a revival of the sixties, helvetica and grids instead of torn paper and randsom-note typography.’ He also states that this backward move ‘towards functionalism is an important preperation for the future, when designers will be called upon… to guide readers/viewers through texts whose structure is not yet known.’ As in, we as designers are unconsciously preparing for the arrival of new mediums, new forms of space, different dimensions of representing information, perhaps its already here. We've seen iPhone and more and more elaborate ways of advertising on spaces are being concocted every day. A need to reduce graphically is inevitable if we are to engage with new technologies. Holograms anyone?
Tim Phelan
04.10.09 at 08:29

very nice post, i certainly love this website, keep on it

02.28.12 at 03:10


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabrielle Esperdy is associate professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
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