On Design - Part I


The topic, On Design: being a Maker, a Product Designer, and a Craftsman was conceived in partnership with a friend, a director of a well known design gallery in San Francisco. On Design questions not just how products are made, their impact and function, but also the ways in which the creators' approach influences how they view the end-user and concieve their products. 

Xander Bremer reflects on our evening of dialogue and explores the notion of design from his point of view.




On Design // Xander Bremer


Design (noun):

a plan or drawing produced

to show the look and function or workings

of a building, garment, or other object

before it is built or made.


Last June, I spent an evening at OHIO in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco discussing design over wine and hors d'oeuvres. This DIALOGUE was about “Being a Maker, Product Designer, and a Craftsman,” and included design and craft professionals, a gallerist, technologists, and students.

The conversation danced around the question of the meaning of design - how it relates to craft, how it exists in contemporary life, and how technology is changing the landscape of design and of craft.

Photo Credit:    Vinobosh Photography

Photo Credit: Vinobosh Photography

We were particularly fixated on the notion of “the mark of the hand” existing within any crafted object. Some even said that leaving this evidence is part of the design, as a symbol of labor, care and originality. But in the opening definition, design is nothing if not a plan - a plan separated from the labor. It is a mindset reinforced by technology: CAD, computer programming, UI/UX design, and overseas manufacturing all reinforce the idea that design is “a plan… before it is built.”

In the book, Making, Tim Ingold differentiates between “hylomorphic” design - to “impose forms internal to the mind upon a material world” - and a “morphogenetic” process where the design arises through the making. This was for me the crux of the DIALOGUE: On Design. Our notion (and definition) of design has been shaped by the dominant archetypes of architecture and industrial design where the making is separated from the design. As the digital world further normalizes this thinking even further - it squeezes out any room left for the mark of the hand. I recalled my experience working for Apple in Shanghai, seeing zillions of sexy laptops rolling off precise Chinese assembly lines, ready for intricate global distribution, and ripe for consumer lust.

The tension between craft and manufacturing for me lies at the heart of how we define design in the digital age. Does design mean simplicity of form and function? Apple certainly exemplifies this, with sleek hardware and seamless interfaces. But what if this simplicity means more waste, more complex manufacturing systems, more energy, less humane production, and higher prices? And that’s not a knock on Apple - it’s a question of what we value as designers and consumers. The package or the process?

Many of the objects we live with come from an highly-engineered design that has left no room for chance, skill, or variation. They feel static. Perfect lines, ultra-simple, but a little bit dead… Products whose every vibrant detail has become lifelessly numerical and precise before it can be made.

Human life on earth would not have been possible without randomness and variation to spur evolution. Maybe that’s the right metaphor to ground our contemporary thinking about what we make. An aesthetic metaphor, but also a moral one. Let’s make more life.

For me, that’s design.