every picture owes more to other pictures painted before than it owes to nature. E.H. Gombrich, art historian, 1954
We talk of design day in and day out but is design really the right word for what designers do? This article  is based on a sense that we lack a perspective encompassing more than the individual designers creative activity and more than merely the most recent designers contribution in other words, more than the term design is able to embody. We also need a perspective that will capture the fundamental incompleteness of all design activity, the fact that, contrary to what the word design is normally seen as implying, no solution will ever be the ultimate solution.
When I say we lack and we need, I am not only thinking of us design historians or art historians who in one way or another are linked to schools of design. I am thinking of all those teaching design who feel that in many situations the notion of design is too narrow to describe, discuss and illuminate the activity taking place under the name of design and perhaps equally insufficient to promote the understanding of a designed object. The fact that the English word design has now been taken into use in practically speaking every industrialised country and is becoming as international as the Latin word forma, makes it seem that the idea of design as a sole designer's creative activity leading to an ultimate solution is becoming more firmly cemented.
I do not mean to say that we can or should manage without the term design. The word is indispensable in that it captures two central aspects of the activity of designing, i.e. that it is always separate individuals who devise their new solutions, and that it is the intentions of these individuals, and their own creative contributions, that are realised in the solution at which they finally arrive. In a way, insofar as the designer sits down in front of a blank sheet of paper or a blank screen, it is correct to say that he  is starting out from nothing; if the designer does not start working, the work will not be done. At the same time the word design articulates the fact that designers activities result in concrete designs, i.e. objects with fixed, finite forms, whether we are talking of drawings on which to base production or of the final product itself. What the concept covers well is in other words the individual aspects and discrete results of the design process.
But although in one way it is correct to say that designers start from nothing, in another sense it is equally correct to maintain that in practice they can never start from scratch. On the contrary, it can be argued that designers always start off where other designers (or they themselves) have left off, that design is about improving earlier products, and that designers are thereby linked, as though by umbilical cord, to earlier objects, or more correctly to their own or their colleagues earlier solutions - and thus to yesterday. In other words, what the word design holds back is the entire co-operative and past-related dimension in designing that makes designers individual creative contributions possible. Nor does the word design satisfactorily capture the fact that design activity is never really complete with the final product because all products are by nature makeshift solutions, and as such can always be improved. 
The dominant position of the notion of design constitutes a serious problem in an instructional and educational context where there is a strong need for straightforwardness and transparency. The situation is scarcely improved by the fact that the design world has no external corrective to the idea of design as a stand-alone activity, such as those available to the world of academic research in the form of required references to used literature and to sources. Through such it is made plain that a scholarly undertaking has a supra-individual, collective, co-operative dimension, and that any practitioner is therefore part of a community and makes use of, and attempts to contribute to, its common pool of knowledge. Insofar as the word design has a tendency to hide the fact that the designer is and has always been critically dependent on earlier functional and formal solutions, students awareness of the supra-individual dimension in the design process is constrained rather than promoted by the very central notion of the profession.
As the title of this article suggests, I want to propose the notion of redesign as a concept capable of introducing a perspective that expands the notion of design.
The concept of redesign has the advantage that it actually contains the word design, i.e. the concept retains the individual creator dimension of the word design while at the same time, through the prefix re-, emphasising that the individual creative process has the character of step-by-step changes in, improvements on, and new combinations of solutions that already exist. In this way, the concept reminds us that every complex product that is improved embraces a large number of clever solutions that earlier designers have contributed, and which the latest designer freely adopts, makes into her own, and builds on. In other words, the concept of redesign underlines the fact that both as process and product design always contains a collective, cooperative and cumulative dimension.
The term redesign is not a new word. It has long been in use in various design contexts although in a different and often opposite meaning from the one I propose here. While this article argues in favour of a perspective in which design emerges as a sub-category in a never-ending redesign process, the concept of redesign is today used in the exactly opposite sense. Industrial designers both in and outside design schools have long used the word redesign to describe design assignments aiming mainly at a visual updating of solutions that already exist. This is by way of contrast to the term design, which is understood as addressing solutions that do not yet exist. Over the last ten or twenty years, the word redesign has been used in several other contexts, for instance in the theory of business management and most recently in web design. Here, too, the word is used in the sense of changes to existing products and systems in contrast to the term design used in the sense of devising products or systems that do not yet exist.
This established use of the term redesign as a contrast to new design undoubtedly makes a practical and useful distinction, especially with regard to clients. It is useful in all the situations in which designers want to distinguish between solutions that a firm or organisation already has and needs to improve, and those which the organisation plans to acquire and which from the firms point of view must be developed from scratch. However, from the perspective of design theory and design history, this established distinction is confusing in that it creates a radically misleading impression that it is only in certain situations that designers build on earlier solutions, whereas in design proper that is not the case.
So let me now discuss several essential aspects of this question of design-redesign. I want first to explain (I) why I believe that part of the problem resides in the very word design. As this is a less familiar territory, I shall be devoting a rather more detailed discussion to it. After this I shall consider (II) some consequences of regarding design only as design rather than as both design and redesign. Thirdly, (III) I shall briefly amplify my view that many things will fall better into place as soon as we regard design as redesign. Here, I shall also discuss the literature relevant to the redesign theme. Finally (IV), I shall shortly consider five possible reasons why the perspective of redesign has not become part of the mainstream understanding of design.
I. Why Part of the Problem Resides in the Actual Word Design
First, I would like to explain why there are grounds for viewing the term design as a problematic word. I am aware that it can be argued that a single word is not so important, that it is not all that much more than a label denoting a specific professional activity, and that the notion, at least outside the Anglo-Saxon countries, has only been used for the past 50 to 60 years. My brief answer to these objections is that the notion of design is a term that has further reinforced the tendencies already latent in the traditional terms employed before the word design came into use. Whether these were terms such as drawing, planning and fashioning or others like creativity, originality and genius, the process of design tended to be understood, especially since Romanticism, as an individual, solitary activity ending in a final result.
The reason why I believe the word design has reinforced these tendencies is, in addition to its current meanings in English, its unique track record in the British intellectual history. Although its roots go via Italian to Latin, the word design is a very English word. As it is used in everyday English, the word stands for intention, plan, project, intrigue or even conspiracy that is to say concepts which all appear to refer back to individual persons, individual heads, individual originators and individual intelligence. (The well known sarcasm: A camel is a horse designed by a committee can perhaps be interpreted as suggesting that the word design can most naturally be associated with an individual mastermind rather than a collective undertaking).
But it is not only human design and the human designer with which the word is associated. Both the word design (which appears in English late in the 16th century) and the word designer (which comes into use after the middle of the 17th century) were frequently used in the 18th century and later in theological discussions linked to the question of rational, empirical proofs of the existence of God. By means of empirical argument (in line with the developments in science), the so-called natural theologians tried to support the Bible's central assertion in Genesis that God had created the world and all living things in it. The natural theologians turned their attention to the striking functional adaptations characteristic of the organs of plants, animals and human beings, which give the impression of having been designed by a rational being in the same way as man-made contrivances. It was in this context, before the terms design and designer were established as names for a trade or for someone specialising in that trade, that the words were used to describe God the Creator and His work of Creation by analogy with human artisans and their works. These alleged results of Gods work as a designer were now put forward as a rational proof of the existence of God. The fact that in the English-speaking world there had been a more than one hundred years long debate in which it was argued that the natural world was the result of design, and where God Himself was referred to as the Designer, probably coloured the connotations of these two words. It is possible that this way of speaking contributed to reinforcing the idea of the human designer as a sole creator and led to a flattering notion that the human designer and Almighty God have something in common.
In British philosophical terminology, this kind of empirical proof of Gods existence is referred to as the argument from design or the design argument. It became best known through the book Natural Theology, published in 1802, written by the English cleric and popular author William Paley, the most readable representative of this kind of theological reasoning. The book is an impressive attempt to interpret complex functional phenomena encountered in nature, for instance an eye, but also a large number of other contrivance-like phenomena, as results of Gods design. In keeping with the earlier arguments of natural theology, Paley maintains that these and other functional phenomena must necessarily point back to the non-human Designer in the same way as complex functional mechanical devices such as a watch presuppose a watchmaker, that is to say a human designer. In his own words: The marks of design [in nature] are too strong to be got over. Design must have had a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person is God.
The construction of this analogy between human products and the work of God ought to be of interest in the present context. For Paley, like various natural theologians before and after him, makes the reader take it for granted that the human process of creation resembles the creative process that God is asserted to use, in the sense that human beings create on their own and exclusively out of their own head. Afterwards, this human process of creation, which has now been stealthily given a quality of the divine, is used as the starting point for proving the existence of the divine Creator: God creating alone stands as a Designer behind the contrivances found in living nature in the same way as a lone human craftsman stands behind his own contrivances. Paleys analogy is in other words logically unobjectionable only as long as the reader is willing to accept the hidden claim that the watchmaker really is a lone creator working on his own. For only then is it plausible to maintain the analogy between the watch, which according to Paley points back to the watchmaker designer, and the eye, which according to him points to God as the designer behind it.
But if such a complex mechanism as a watch is taken out of the rhetorical grasp of natural theologians and presented in an evolutionary perspective of design history, it quickly emerges that no watch exists that can be seen as the result of a creation ex nihilo, that is to say as made from scratch by a single watchmaker, as Paleys argument suggested. A watchmaker who has designed and made a watch always bases himself on a long tradition of watchmaking consisting of both large and small contributions on the part of a vast number of watchmakers. Without contributions from these countless earlier craftsmen and other mechanics it would be completely inconceivable to design, and just as inconceivable to produce, such a complicated instrument. If the watch, the epitome of a complex apparatus, is seen to be the result of repeated improvements on the part of a large number of watchmakers over a long period, and if it is accepted that the watch would be impossible to design and produce without such improvements, the analogy of the natural theologians falls to the ground, as does their whole design argument. To put it differently: the analogy falls to the ground because Paley's watch is such highly functional contrivance not due to design - but because of redesign.
Criticism of the argument from design along these lines is anything but new. The whole of natural theology and its design argument was already subjected to powerful critical scrutiny in the second half of the 18th century by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in his fascinating, posthumously published Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Meanwhile, this book, which was built up in the form of discussions between three participants, had only a slight effect on the predilection of the time for natural theology and its static view of the design process (which Humes brilliant spokesman Philo also touched on and ironically rejected). Nor did the German philosopher Immanuel Kants equally determined rejection in the 1780s of the logic of natural theology have any notable consequences. It was only with the publication of the non-philosopher Charles Darwins book On the Origin of Species in 1859 that a powerful theoretical alternative to the design argument was put forward within the framework of a theory of evolution. According to Darwin, it is natural selection, the key mechanism of evolution, that leads to functional adaptation in organisms and creates the impression that living nature is fashioned by a rational designer. (We shall return to this below in Section III).
Today the notion of design seems to be still habitually linked to the idea of a sole creator, both in religious and non-religious contexts. It is hardly surprising to find the Paleyan argument from design alive in debates of the contemporary American fundamentalist Christian intellectuals. Usually called Creationists, these writers argue that living nature is full of proofs of intelligent design and that it is a Divine Designer and not a Darwinian natural selection that is the force behind functional adaptations in nature.  And exactly as is the case with Paley, the argumentation of the Creationists also stands and falls with the truth content of their core assertion that human artefacts point back to sole designers, in line with Paley's watchmaker argument. What is surprising, though, is that the evolutionary biologists who engage in heated debates with Creationists fail to pick apart this very core of the Creationist argumentation. While firmly rejecting all kinds of biological arguments in support of the idea of a Divine Designer, they appear not to be disturbed when God-like powers are imputed to human designers.  It is difficult to say why these anti-Creationists continue to go along with the Creationists counter-evolutionary interpretation of human artefacts. Perhaps it demonstrates that even the biologists perception of how human designers work continues to be colored by the Paleyan representations of the design process. Maybe it suggests also that we historians and theorists of design do too little to counter this rather customary view of design.
To sum up: Why do I think, then, that part of the problem resides in the actual word design? In brief, because the notion of design, mainly on account of the words intrinsic meanings, but also as a result of its historical association with the reasoning of natural theologians, focuses merely on the single, individual and most recent creative mind. Thereby it neglects the fact that all new products and solutions, and all their designers, are deeply in debt to earlier products and solutions, and to earlier designers. To put it differently, the word design accommodates neither the co-operative, cumulative character of the design process nor the supra-individual, evolutionary nature of designed objects.
II. Two Pedagogical Consequences of Viewing Design Only as Design
Let me now shortly address two examples of problems to which, in my opinion, the notion of design with its single focus on the individual originator leads. One problem is (1) that it becomes difficult to talk rationally about quite ordinary phenomena such as the mentioned fact that a designer starts out from the solution achieved by another designer. The second, related problem (2) is the ambiguous position of the subject of design history in the curriculum of most schools of design.
Re. 1. It is a fact that all designers, the outstanding ones as much as the mediocre or inferior ones, always build on, modify and continue the work of other designers, and that no one can avoid doing precisely this. But although it is an everyday reality with which all are familiar, it tends to be pushed aside as a result of focusing on the individual contribution of the most recent designer. When we attempt to discuss the fact that designers build on other designers solutions, it turns out that we lack a theoretical framework allowing of a discussion of this reality. Terms that we use in that context, expressions such as to be influenced, to be inspired, to take over a solution, to start out from, to build further on, or to steal, are used with an apologetic, or accusatory, undertone as though they implied a reprehensible lack of independence on the part of the designer, as though the designer ought really to be uninfluenced and indeed immune to influence by others, as though she ought to be 100% original in the sense of starting from scratch, i.e. creating exclusively out of her sole head.
It is probably true to say that tuition in design leads in practice to the students nevertheless understanding that they always build on the past and that design is about the constant improvement of earlier solutions, whether their own or those of others, and that the creations of both nature and culture serve as starting points for their own design. But although the student might understand this, the idea that it is best not to be influenced by other peoples solutions remains as a kind of hidden ideal that rarely is explicitly challenged on a theoretical level. If students are not clearly told that insusceptibility to influence is a false and deplorable ideal, and that design is just as much a collective as an individual undertaking, we teachers make life difficult both for the students and for ourselves. The students ought to be told that what counts is not whether a solution comes from others or themselves, but how good the final outcome is, seen from the users perspective. If the students are not told such things often enough, they continue to aim for unachievable goals in which originality based on the notion of creation from scratch is still one of the most persistent, while at the same time being pursued by a bad conscience for not having achieved them. Such ideals make the teachers work difficult because, if a student makes his own originality his goal, he will try, logically and naturally enough, to defend his own individual artistic innocence against what he sees as harmful external influence. This leads to a fundamental hostility to learning because learning always implies being influenced by others and adopting other peoples solutions, approaches and insights. The student can at worst experience the learning situation as an impertinent interference in her own affairs. Luckily, the schools of design, with their pragmatic bent, are less exposed to such dangers than the academies of fine art where the schizophrenic attitude to learning and being taught has traditionally been far more acute.
Re. 2. As to the position of design history in the curriculum, the subject exhibits a somewhat paradoxical status in most schools of design. Majority of teachers view design history as an important subject; probably no one would think of abolishing it. On the other hand, it is seldom one hears really convincing arguments as to why this subject is important. This lack of clarity as to its usefulness results in design history being tolerated rather than embraced and integrated into the teaching of design. The reason for this situation might be precisely that the notion of design is still grafted on to a romantic notion of creativity ex nihilo rather than to a problem-oriented concept of creativity reflecting the fact that the designer is always building on and adding to the creative contributions of earlier designers. So it is not surprising that design history as a subject in which the evolutionary, supra-individual and collective dimension of design activity most clearly emerges, does not receive any obvious, natural or logical place in institutions in which creativity is often viewed as a purely individual, more or less private phenomenon, unrelated to knowledge of historical and contemporary precedents. However, the problem might also be that we design historians present historical objects and their stories as belonging to the past rather than as a part of the present. A way of tackling this problem might well be to make physical products a more central part of the teaching of design history (this presupposes establishing of pedagogical design collections), and with the help of methods such as reverse engineering analyses or artefact hermeneutics demonstrate the historical structure of the objects and reveal their various layers of intention.
III. The Concept of Redesign: New Light on Old Problems
I would now like further to develop the assertion that many things fall better into place as soon as we regard design as redesign. Thereafter I will provide a brief (and necessarily incomplete) review of literature suggesting or contending that the amazing functionality of both living beings and artefacts is not the result of design.
One of the things on which the redesign perspective throws light is the seemingly mysterious circumstances surrounding what looks like very intelligent inventions at the time when human beings began to produce the very first tools. If we look at design as redesign, we would assume that these earliest tools were not invented but rather discovered, that is, they were not made, but found. Tool is a name for means we employ in order to achieve an objective; such means were first found and taken into use, later adapted, and later still made specially for the occasion. The question of who the brilliant creative mind was who invented for example the wheel thus only arises and becomes meaningful as long as we assume that artefacts are the results of design in the sense of a creation ab novo. But if we adopt the redesign perspective, i.e. if we take for granted that functionality of our artefacts is always the result of step-by-step improvements to the tools available at any time whether these tools are naturfacts or early artefacts [19a] then the origin of any intelligent contrivance becomes a good deal easier to understand. This applies as much to functional improvements as to aesthetic innovations. If we look at design in the perspective of redesign, we can assume that some time at the beginning of mankinds production of artefacts the situation essentially resembled the one in which design students - in fact all of us - find now ourselves today. Human beings who lived, say, 20,000 years ago were, just like ourselves, born into a situation in which they were surrounded by countless objects that they found useful in one way or another, though not completely satisfactory for their ends. In this, we are not different from our distant forefathers: although today we are surrounded by highly specialised tools, both their producers and users feel that these, too, have a great potential for improvement.
However, it was not only the first human tools that came into being on the basis of people finding and using naturfacts and then gradually adapting them to various purposes. Our utility plants and domesticated animals are equally striking examples of gradual improvements or redesign undertaken by farmers and later specialist breeders in order to adapt them better to human needs. A choice was made, at first unwittingly, later consciously, of plants and animals with the qualities preferred, and only those were allowed to breed. In this way, by beginning from natural organisms, we gradually obtained all the utility plants on which we have slowly come to depend, and in addition such luxury redesigns as seedless oranges and grapes, and similarly the awesome multiplicity of breeds of dogs we know today.
Charles Darwin saw these achievements of breeders as results of what he called mans power of selection, or of artificial selection. This observation was the starting point for Darwins epoch-making explanation of why there exist so many functionally specialised species with so many functionally specialised organs that look as though they were designed by a rational designer. According to Darwin, this was the result of the fact that some organisms, plants and animals, as a consequence of small variations between offspring in every brood or litter, turned out to be better adapted to the concrete surroundings in which they lived, and/or more capable in the competition with others for space, food and mates. So such better-adapted individuals had a better chance of surviving until reaching sexual maturity and thus propagating their kin. In other words, the better-adapted individuals had more descendants in each new generation than did the other individuals. It was this natural selective process of the better adapted that Darwin saw as analogical to the artificial selection, and which he first called the natural means of selection and later natural selection. The striking design-like adaptations found in organic nature were therefore, according to Darwin, not the result of design, i.e. neither a result of the animals own striving nor of the Creators preconceived plan. Design in nature was the result of a natural process of selection, that is to say of continuous change in the internal and external structure of the species through small adjustments over long stretches of time and many generations.
By persuasively arguing that design-like phenomena in nature were results of minute changes over long periods of time, directed by natural processes of selection, Darwin gave a new impulse also to the evolutionary, historical interpretation of apparent design behind key institutions of human societies such as language, laws, market, money, religion, state, etc., as well as to the evolutionary understanding of man-made artefacts. As evolutionists we presume that what mankinds design activities and natures developmental processes have in common is that neither of them begin, or can begin, from scratch. Because they build on previous solutions, both new individuals and new products retain also a number of earlier solutions that were optimal in contexts no longer existing. Neither organisms nor artefacts can therefore ever be distinguished by perfection but are rather a mixture of optimal and sub-optimal solutions. Both processes can be described as processes of redesign or, to use Darwins synonym for the word evolution, as descent with modification.
Let me in this context mention some authors who have applied an evolutionary perspective to our artefacts and thrown new light on various problems in our own and related disciplines. Among the central texts deserving of mention is a book by the American art historian George Kubler, The Shape of Time subtitled Remarks on the History of Things (1962). Perhaps it is on account of the books originality and its reflections, which are subtle and at times difficult of access, that it does not appear to have achieved any great influence. Kublers starting point is that Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time. The book was nevertheless well received by some historians of technology. Of these, George Basalla deserves particular attention for his book The Evolution of Technology (1988). This is a conscious attempt to build on Kublers insights, but also on Darwinism and some of the 19th- and 20th-century researchers (sociologists, economic historians) who started out from Darwins theories of evolution. Basalla tries to throw light on what he sees as four key phenomena in the history of technology: the multiplicity, continuity, novelty and selection of artefacts. He argues that: Any new thing that appears in the made world is based on some object already in existence and that: each new technological system emerges from an antecedent system, just as each new discrete artifact emerges from antecedent artifacts. Both Kublers and Basallas books are distinguished by a high degree of methodological reflection. Basallas work, though, is more enjoyable to read because he combines his ruminations with a large number of fascinating case studies. In Basalla, too, we can find short presentations of figures such as Samuel Butler and Augustus Pitt-Rivers, who as early as the 1860s introduced a Darwin-inspired view on the development of both new and old technologies, as well as of the later evolutionist historian of technology Abbott P. Usher. In this context, reference should also be made to the Norwegian social historian Eilert Sundt who already in 1865, i.e. six years after the publication of Darwins main work on the origin of species, published an article containing an evolutionary interpretation of a specific type of boat from northern Norway. Among contemporary authors, the American engineer Henry Petroskis The Evolution of Useful Things deserves to be mentioned, as do his other books from the last twenty years. A recurrent theme in Petroski is the central role played by mistakes in the development of functional design. A host of similar themes is also found in the psychologist and designer Donald Normans important and popular book Design of Everyday Things from 1988, which takes up aspects of use and redesign in everyday machines, instruments, apparatuses and appliances. A quotation from Norman: Improvements can take place through natural evolution as long as each previous design is studied and the craftperson is willing to be flexible. The bad features have to be identified. The folk artists change the bad features, and keep the good ones unchanged. If a change makes matters worse, well, it just gets changed again on the next go-around. Eventually the bad features get modified into good ones, while the good ones are kept. Another book in the field of design, Bryan Lawsons How Designers Think (1980) must also be referred to here. Lawson is not a historian; just like Norman, he looks on design from the perspective of a practising designer and architect. He says that he stands for: a rather unglamorous view of design problems and insists that: Design problems and design solutions are inexorably interdependent and that: The stereotypical public image of design portrays the creation of new original and uncompromising objects or environments , but that: the reality is that design is often more of a repair job. Among biologists who have written about technology from an evolutionary perspective the names of Peter Medawar and Stephen Jay Gould must be introduced. With the computing world, or rather among developers of software, there has since the 1990s been an extensive discussion of advantages in making redesign rather than design (to keep to the terminology in this article) into a systematic method a discussion that was linked to the question of advantages of the open source, i.e. publicly accessible programme codes, and to the development of the Linux operating system, which is open and thus can be continuously improved by others. Eric Raymond has been a core name in this connection.
These are both individuals and publications that in different ways have argued in favour of seeing design as redesign, though I have here generally limited myself to names from the Anglo-Saxon world. None of these writers meanwhile uses the term redesign as an overarching concept as is attempted here I take responsibility for that suggestion. I adopted the word redesign from my former colleague Svein Gusrud, a Norwegian furniture designer and professor at the State College of Craft and Applied Arts (Statens håndverks- og kunstindustriskole SHKS) in Oslo, who used the word in the title (but not in the actual text) of an unpublished lecture delivered in London in 1986, a lecture that I was able to read at the time. It struck me already then that this was perhaps a word that, admittedly in an expanded sense, would be useful as a corrective to the notion of design.
I am meanwhile aware that the word redesign is no ideal concept either. It is possible, for instance, to criticise my description of natural selection as a process of redesign because where there is no question of design nor can there be a question of redesign. For the same reason it is perhaps problematic to talk of the redesign of naturfacts. The concept of redesign such as it is used here can also be criticised for being understood in as imperialistic a manner as the word design that is to say without distinguishing between creating a blueprint for production and the actual production process or the workmanship (a problem that the British designer David Pye pointed out in the 1960s in his important book The Nature and Art of Workmanship). The word improvement is in many ways less problematic in this context, but it lacks the striking linguistic contrast to the word design, which the concept of redesign so obviously has. So although the concept of redesign as used here is somewhat rough and ill defined, I still believe that its value as a supplement and corrective to the term design outweighs these weak points.
IV. Why is the Perspective of Redesign so Modestly Represented in Modern Discussions on Design?
To see design as redesign is to see both design process and design objects in the perspective of time. We can ask why, in a situation in which Darwinisms re-evaluation of the design idea has been so influential in many disciplines over the last fifty years, designers and those who write about design have so often kept to the sole creator view of the design. As an attempt to answer this question, I will list five circumstances that I believe have stood in the way of establishing a robust redesign perspective on human artefacts. These circumstances I believe to include: (1) the belief that it is possible to separate the present from the past; (2) the mental inheritance after the functionalists design philosophy; (3) the prestige of fine art; (4) the value of the new in our commercial society; and (5) the sales value of renowned designer names.
1) The first circumstance that I believe has supported the notion of designers as sole creators is linked to the notion that a designer can work exclusively on the basis of the present. This notion, characteristic for the modernist ideology of design, seems to be based on a belief that present and past stand for objective chronological entities, that we are all agreed as to their scope just as we are agreed to the scope of today and yesterday, and that it is consequently possible for a designer to turn his back to the entity called the past and exclusively concern himself with the entity known as the present. It is easy to be seduced by historians talk of epochs, ages, eras and periods, all with well-drawn boundaries, to believe that it is History itself and not historians who undertake such divisions. We forget that there is a multitude of ways of drawing such boundaries and divisions to form historical periods, not merely one. The reason for this multiplicity is that histories are always being written, and divisions into periods always being undertaken, in relation to the problems historians are concerned with at any given time, and that such problems are many and widely different.
This context-dependent periodization of history is closely related to the contextual nature of what we call the present. Neither the present nor the past are units divided by some kind of natural, objective chronological boundary, as history books tend to suggest, and as we unreflectingly are inclined to accept. What we call the present is defined rather by our active mental relationship to a particular issue, matter or problem. The concept of the past is on the other hand used as a mental catch-all basket for everything that is, from the perspective of the issue in question, seen for the moment as not being immediately relevant. From this it follows that the very same issue that one person perceives as belonging to the past can by someone else (whether an individual, or a member of a group, a nation, or an ethnicity) be felt as being an intensely relevant part of the present. As to the question of their chronological size, the present and the past are obviously context-dependent variables.
The use of the term modern can illustrate this context-related nature of both the terms present and past. Our children like to think of themselves as the epitome of modern beings, in contrast to their conservative parents. When modernist architects talked of modern Man, they were thinking of the people of the inter-war period in contrast to, for instance, the 19th-century Victorians and their contemporaries in other countries. We can also talk of modern Man and think of the epoch from the Renaissance to the present day, seeing the medieval world as the past. For Christians, modern Man can be identified with the period after the birth of Christ (of which our calendar reminds us), while by modern Man anthropologists mean the Cro-Magnon, i.e. the post-Neanderthal Man. Dependent on the context, then, the modern period stand for the past 15, 80, 600, 2000 - or 40,000 years.
It is therefore a misunderstanding to believe that a designer who chooses to base himself on the modern age and to stand for modern design, has as a consequence severed his link with design solutions of yesterday. The modern epoch of the modernist designers was necessarily a modern epoch of their own choosing, pertaining to their own particular issues not a modern epoch of all of their contemporaries. There is simply no such thing as a single present or a single past.
2) The second likely reason why the redesign perspective has not become part of mainstream design thinking is related to the first. It looks as though many pieces of mental furniture of architects and designers of today are inherited from the modernist design philosophy, which in the 20th century sought precisely to base design on the idea of a single present. The background to this thinking - and I will here only outline an ideal-typical gist of this philosophy - were the modernists sky-high artistic ambitions. They saw themselves as the servants of Art History and maintained by dint of this conviction that it was the duty of the architect and designer to give the new modern age, which in their view was still without an aesthetic profile, an authentic artistic expression of its own. They were to bring out the idiom innate in the new age. This was to be achieved by discovering the solutions that they maintained were still hidden in the new functions, the new materials and the new methods of production - and bringing them out into the daylight, as midwives would do. The idea that design was about discovering hidden, so to speak pre-designed solutions was perhaps most clearly expressed by the American architect Louis Sullivan in the middle of the 1890s, when he announced: It is my belief that it is of the very essence of every problem that it contains and suggests its own solution. This I believe to be natural law. The same thought was implicit in the slogan for which Sullivan became best known: form follows function. It is a more concise version of the same idea, claiming that every problem, every function, has its own proper solution, i.e. not two solutions or more, but only one, and that it was the designers task to find this one correct solution and thereby the one correct form. The forms found in this way had, according to this functionalist kind of modernism, nothing to do with the contributions of earlier designers or artists. Earlier solutions, and especially the early formal solutions, should simply be forgotten because they were linked to earlier ages; as such they were out of date, invalid and worthless as far as the contemporary design practice was concerned. So it was not surprising that the history of architecture, the history of design and the history of art as subjects were only considered to be helping to confuse the young designer. The insistence of functionalist design theory on starting from the present turned out to be an effective strategic and rhetoric ploy by which to introduce and legitimise radically new aesthetic means in a situation characterised by polarisation within the architects and designers own ranks. This design theory, meanwhile, is best understood as a beguiling but empty bi-product of the modernists aesthetic agenda described above. It was admittedly highly effective as a weapon in their victorious struggle for aesthetic autonomy, but intellectually it was hollow, and it seduced and confused design thinking for several generations. In many ways it continues to get in the way of a more encompassing perspective on design.
3) It is a fact that designers and architects even today look up to so-called free artists whose work process is said to be characterised by free creative powers, and who have reserved the title of creators for themselves alone. This can be viewed as a further reason why it is the notion of design rather than perspective of redesign that stirs enthusiasm among designers and students of design. It is well known that ever since the Renaissance painters and sculptors along with their supporters have fought to raise their social status. They finally achieved their objective on the basis of their argument that their profession had a predominantly intellectual, scientific and spiritual character rather than a manual or mechanical. As a result of this striving, painters and sculptors have since the 18th century been elevated to a new, superior art category, now called fine, free or autonomous arts. With this, however, designers and artist craftsmen were left behind in the inferior category of mechanical, practical or heteronomous arts, i.e. arts which allegedly in contrast to the autonomous arts had the task of pleasing users, and which were based on the principle of bound rather than on unbound creativity. Many designers still show signs of not quite being happy with an identity that they are inclined to think of as being second class. Some are keen to move their work closer to the allegedly autonomous art, away from useful art, and away from the fact that they as designers are redesigners of things.
4) The fourth probable reason why the perspective of redesign has made so little progress might have been the intensity with which our western societies focus on everything new: the way in which newly produced objects are spoken and written about usually sounds as though they were only invented yesterday. In the vast majority of references to design in the media of today the emphasis is on the features that make that product into something new, while the colossal number of solutions that have been adopted from earlier versions of the product are taken for granted. In the commercial context the novelty value is naturally at the very centre: you promote the wares by pointing out their new forms, new materials and new technologies. People in the advertising trade are usually cautious about describing new products as improved, as such a statement has the disadvantage of throwing a problematic light on the earlier product as well as the new one, revealing that all goods by definition are imperfect. But also design critics and cultural journalists focus above all on the novelty and originality of the objects. It is not only a lack of time and column space that results in its being a rare event to hear about the historical dimensions, or redesign dimensions, of things: to point that out is usually felt to be a relativisation of the products alleged novelty - and of the named designers contribution. When the aim is to promote an object or a designer, it is difficult at the same time to promote insight into the making of objects.
5) A fifth probable reason is that as soon as a designer becomes a regular figure in the media, often as the result of having been awarded a distinguished commission or a design prize, his name can be exploited to raise the art value and therefore the sales value of the product. Designer labels selling a product with the help of the designers name (and/or signature) further strengthen the illusion that products have a single and clearly identifiable originator. Not only are earlier products in the same product category rarely shown, but by being only linked to a single designer name, the product is consciously or unconsciously presented as though it were a work of art. It is therefore imperative to smooth over the fact that the product is more often than not the result of a collective effort, as collective work is seen as something conflicting with the notion of a work of art only having a single creator. The fact that the French star designer Philippe Starck has a whole team of assistants who ensure that the masters aesthetic objects also work and are suitable for manufacture are, from the point of view of sales and promotions, entirely irrelevant. Until recently, and before feminist perspectives on design began to make themselves felt, we heard a great deal about Alvar Aalto, but not so much about his wife and colleague Aino Aalto; we heard about Le Corbusiers furniture, but not so much about Charlotte Perriands essential contributions to his furniture designs; we heard about Charles Eames but not always about his wife Ray, who was his close collaborator. I believe that this was less the result of male chauvinism, and more a consequence of the deeply entrenched way of thinking that if an object is to be sold as something like a work of art, the public expects that it will have only a single creator, and not two or more.
Beliefs about tangible reality of historical periods and about literal existence of the past and the present, persisting influence of the functionalist design ideology, hypnotic prestige of the autonomous arts, high commercial value of novelty, and moneymaking potential of famous designer names, all contribute to creating the impression that designers start from scratch and create on their own. But this does not alter the fact that in reality designers always begin with solutions formed at an earlier stage, most often by other designers, and that they thereby always whether they want to or not enter into some kind of collaboration with both their living and their no longer living predecessors a collaboration that looks both backwards and forwards in time. In addition, most designers work in teams, that is to say that their final solutions are the result of collaboration between individual designers, or designers and engineers, or even more specialists. But even where a designer is working entirely on her own, she is in fact all the time collaborating with herself in the sense that she is continually changing, improving and further developing her own previous ideas, visions and solutions. And last but not least, we cannot avoid seeing that the process of redesign is perhaps the only sure method of achieving, improving and refining the quality of whatever we do.
It is important to encourage students to adopt a problem-oriented attitude towards creativity and originality. To understand and accept that as a creator, one always starts out from objects and design solutions that are already to hand (whether it is a matter of artefacts or naturfacts), and that one always builds on the inventions and contributions of others - that it is impossible to avoid this and that this is characteristic of every profession all this is a precondition for learning to appreciate the significant contribution made by others to the success of ones own design results. This insight strengthens the will and the motivation to learn from others without feeling that it is spoiling ones own originality and artistic innocence. It is only when we realise that our own design is always a link in a redesign process that we achieve better control over our own work, because we better understand what and why and how much we adopt of other peoples solutions, whereby we can be more critical of our own work processes.
Meanwhile, there is no hiding the fact that the redesign perspective can have the effect of a douche of cold water on many designers, in that it may be perceived as belittling the designers own contribution. I will therefore, in conclusion, attempt the role of a mediator.
I have argued in favour of a redesign perspective because I have felt that the opposite, the design perspective, has reigned largely supreme. Meanwhile it is important that neither the design perspective nor the redesign perspective should reign supreme, but that both should be present as two equally relevant and equally real perspectives. The notion of design has a tendency to place the designers own creative contribution under a magnifying glass. Important as this is for the creator, it at the same time promotes a short-sighted perspective of ones own work, because the contributions of others only come into the field of vision to a very limited extent. We are then inclined to see ourselves as sole creators. But we pay for this satisfaction in the form of the sole creators mental isolation and fear of underachievement. The redesign concept on the other hand can be accused of undervaluing the work of the individual designer because it focuses on the supra-individual, collective, cooperative and cumulative aspects of design activity. We see our own contributions as though through a minifying glass that brings also the contributions of others into view. But as a bonus we achieve the certainty that we are not alone, that we are not forced to think of everything for ourselves, and that, as designers, we are all the time part of a distinguished team of inventive and imaginative colleagues even if we perhaps never meet them personally, and even if the majority of them are no longer alive.
There is nevertheless a tension between the two perspectives, and it is easy to give in to the temptation either to reduce design to redesign, or to base ourselves only on the design perspective. Both are essential if we are to understand what being a designer is about. It is only when we are able to allow both these perspectives to exist peacefully side by side in our heads that we achieve a realistic, and civilised, view of design. This is not easy, but we can, and should, practise it and we ought also to teach it to our students.
Seeing design as redesign is seeing the creator as the re-creator and co-creator. But it is not so that the creator is lost in the perspective of redesign. One can certainly not be a creator without being a re-creator and co-creator. But neither is it possible to be a re-creator and co-creator without being a creator.
|The above text was originally published in Scandinavian Journal of Design History 12, 2002: 7-23; it is republished here with minor changes|
|To read other essays by the same author, please visit Jan Michl's website
Feel free to react to this text in our forum!
If you wish to contribute to the development of this 'essays' section or to any other sections of Design Addict, please don't hesitate to contact us!