Design is a tricky word.
It comes from the word de – which means out or from – and the word signum, which refers to a mark or a sign.  Design ... to mark out.
Most dictionaries list synonyms like planning, delineating, contriving, scheming, intending, indicating, sketching, and more.  Design as the organizing part of the creative process.  Every stage up to but not including the actual making of a thing.

In the media, the word design tends to mean the styling of products.  The process that makes the world of objects look as it does.  So not just the planning of the project, but the execution too, the material manipulation.  It is a broader meaning but very much tied to taste and trends.  Design in this sense is momentary, it can be hip or tired, great or lousy, hot or cool, chic or retro.

But look through an undergraduate catalog and you start to see design in an even broader way.
Product, industrial, fashion, architectural, graphic, interior, advertising, automotive, and a whole
bunch of other kinds of design.  This goes far beyond the planning and scheming or the look and style of things to include the function, the use, the structure, and even the entire creative process start to finish.  And not just in the arts but also in the sciences, where you can design a theory or a proof, a device, a process, an experiment.

Take these all together and what have you got?
The study of making things and nothing less.   In this sense, design is the theory and practice of our human need to remake the world in our image, to fix what is, to stubbornly refuse to accept things as
they are.  Creativity, psychology, craft, production, planning, construction, materiality, aesthetics, formal study…all of these are part of the design process. To study design is to immerse oneself in a curriculum of social, political, economic, scientific, mythic, human, aesthetic, practical, and even impractical forces.

In this way we might discuss the design on the surface of a bowl, for instance, but we could not stop there.  To understand the true design of the thing, we would have to go on to investigate the method of its construction, the craft of its making, the technology of its production, the tools of its creation, the culture of its use, the politics of its objectivity, and so on.
Every made thing, from logo to industrial revolution, points to a complexity of study.  The word design takes on an entire lexicon of meanings…the whole rich, romantic, robust adventure of conceiving, making, and using everything there is.

Here is another definition: Design…an integrative process of thought and action that manifests our dreams.  It is the means by which we impress our will on the world and make our creativity real.  The most liberal of all the liberal arts.  Design in this wide sense is what you study when you want to know what the made world is all about.


Design as an industry is supremely self-conscious.

Goals, objectives, briefs, research…these are all carefully worked out and tested, and retested and reworked, before any design moves forward to actuality.  So it is interesting to note those times, and there are many, when successful designs just came about without much planning.  This of course was the case before the birth of the data-driven society.  That grand old time when a neat idea became the solution for a problem not yet formulated.

Like Coke, for instance.
Has there ever been a greater synergy of product, name, logo, and package design than the one that evolved for Coca-Cola?  I am holding that classic bottle in my hand and wondering just that.  Everything about it, from the funky script to the unique shape and even the level of carbonation is all one unified message.  The periodic revolts that occur whenever the company tries to change any piece of this prove the case.  Yet this combination was not the result of marketing surveys, focus groups, or even a visionary’s vision.  The design came about through a more haphazard accretion of elements long before the days of metrics and statistics and even before product experts had their say.

Coca-Cola, the drink itself, was invented by an Atlanta pharmacist named John Stith Pemberton.  In common with the other pharmacists of his day, Pemberton came up with his own secret recipes for ailing customers, but his concoctions were so dreadful tasting they had very few takers. Then on May 8, 1886, Pemberton cooked up a dark syrup that, diluted with soda water and spiked with sugar and traces of cocaine (still legal at the time), was actually palatable and energizing.  His business associate Frank Robinson thought up the name Coca-Cola.  No one really knows why.  And it was Robinson who designed the Spenserian calligraphy of the logo and who came up with the first ad slogan for the product: ”Delicious and Refreshing.”  Not bad for a bookkeeper.

The next breakthrough came after Pemberton’s death, when the rights were sold to Asa Candler who formed the Coca-Cola Company in 1892.  The innovation this time was not in the product itself but in the marketing of it.  Candler had the idea of a franchise to sell the syrup to bottlers who would add the soda water themselves.  It was a brilliantly simple strategy except that all the bottlers used their own distinct bottles, which wound up diluting the branding effect.  So a competition was held for a standard bottle.  The contest was won by the Root Glass Company of Terre Haute, Indiana, for a bottle shape that was based on an image of a cola nut found by an office assistant.  Any resemblance to a corseted woman is purely coincidence, according to the lore.  In fact, no one knows who created the actual shape, but in 1915 a patent for it was registered in the name of the company manager, Alexander Samuelson, who is credited as the bottle’s designer.

And there you have it, a series of design decisions by non-designers without the aid of customer surveys and feedback stats.  And while it is true that over the past century both the bottle and the logo and even the formula have changed and evolved, the basic components of the design have always remained in the mix for the simple reason that they just worked.

Appealing to the eye and the touch, graphically distinctive, historical and timeless at the same time.  And all without any master plan.   So have a Coke next time you plan a retreat to tell you what the world needs next.  If only as an inspiration to ignore the rules and follow your gut instead.


For two winters, I have been in a battle with the zipper on my jacket.
One of the tiny teeth is probably off line but a stubborn effort seems to overcome it.  For that reason, I still keep the jacket, which is warm.  But every time I put it on, get into the fight, win and zip up, I come face to face with that annoying flaw.
It is a good thing that design flaws are the gateways to insight.

The best designs barely rate a second thought, simply because they do not even seem to have been designed at all.  The pencil, the bicycle, left and right shoes…surely these have all been there in their original forms right from the start.  No insight, no evolution.  But, of course, that is just an illusion of usefulness.
Every design for everything, no matter how familiar, is the result of a long struggle to find the right balance between materials, needs, and social meaning.  The zipper is one invention that achieved this illustrious mix.  The zipper is so common to encounter, and so natural to the touch, that little reflection goes into its complex engineering and fitful development.  But think about it.  Think about all the zippers there are, and how easily they zip things up, and all the connotations – moral, psychological, sexual - attached to them, and you will begin to see the penetrating and evolving role that zippers have in modern life.

Naturally, all the methods of the past – buttons, laces, ties, hooks, pins, sashes – have their fans.  But these were cumbersome, complicated, and often unreliable.  The design that is the zipper may, on the other hand, may very well prove to be our greatest attempt at true closure.
The original device was called the clasp locker, a mechanical monstrosity exhibited at the World's Colombian Exposition in 1893 by its inventor Whitcomb L. Judson.  It was the first device in which a series of metal teeth with tiny hooks engaged the spaces under adjoining hooks on an opposing row.  But Judson's design was so clumsy and snagged so easily – it also looked pretty nasty – that it failed to attract much of a following.  And following the path of all designs, scores of inventors, many of them women, immediately tried to improve on it.

In 19l3, Swedish immigrant Gideon Sundback, an employee of the Universal Fastener Company in Chicago, redesigned and streamlined a version that was patented in 1917.  The new design worked much more smoothly, looked somewhat less lethal, and even made an attractive zipping sound when zipped.  One of Sundback's most brilliant design changes was another addition we hardly think about today...attaching the metal locks of the zipper to a flexible cloth backing.  When the B.F. Goodrich Company used the device on its rubber galoshes in the 1920s, the name "zipper" was used as a marketing device.  And the rest is fastening history.

The inevitable redesigns and revisions over the years largely deal with tooth size and material.  Sure there have been zipper competitors – from Velcro all the way to the plastic tubules of Ziploc bags – but none of these has yet replaced the classic in our minds and hearts.  Despite its design flaws, there is just something comforting and conclusive in the feel of a zipped zipper.  What could be better? 

Unless of course, your zipper gets jammed like mine does.  And at that point every year when I take it out of the closet, there is only one question that matters to my designing mind…what’s next?


A designer can be thought of as anyone who makes a thing. 
Any thing and any kind of thing.
From this angle, a lot of people you would not ordinarily think of as designers come into view just because they conceived, planned, and created things, as any designer would.
Discovering – or rediscovering – the geniuses of this process is always rewarding and in that spirit, l offer one of the greatest scientists – designers, that is – of the 17
th century.  His name was Robert Hooke.
He is obscure today due in part to his famous, influential, and vindictive colleague Sir Isaac Newton, who made it his business to overshadow all competition.  Yet Hooke was a true genius of his age; his interests and designs knew no bounds, ranging from physics and astronomy, to chemistry and biology, geology and architecture to drawing. 
Hooke invented, among many other things, the universal joint, the iris diaphragm, an early prototype of the respirator, and devices for more accurate clocks.
  As the Chief Surveyor, he helped rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666.  As a theorist, he developed the theory of combustion, devised Hooke's Law, studied the physics of gases, and the list goes on and on.
Hooke even realized, two and a half centuries before Darwin, that the fossil record documented changes among the organisms on the planet, and that species have both appeared and gone extinct throughout the history of life on Earth.

Born on July 18, 1635, Hooke was mostly educated at home by his father, although he also served an apprenticeship to an artist.
  Hooke so impressed his teachers at Oxford that he soon became an assistant to the famous chemist Robert Boyle.  In 1662 Hooke was named Curator of Experiments of the newly formed Royal Society of London and later Professor of Geometry at Gresham College in London. Yet beyond all this, if you can imagine more, Hooke's reputation comes largely from his book Micrographia, published in 1665.  Using a compound microscope and illumination system of his own design – naturally! – he observed a wide range of organisms and illustrated them with beautifully detailed drawings.  The book was an instant success, though one critic ridiculed Hooke for paying attention to such trifling pursuit, noting that he “spent 2000£ in Microscopes, to find out the nature of Eels in Vinegar, Mites in Cheese, and the Blue of Plums which he has subtly found out to be living creatures."  Even in the heady world of innovation, it seems, you cannot please everyone.
The most famous image in the book deserves our special attention because it is a lovely mix of art and science.  It is a delicate drawing by Hooke of thin slices of cork seen under his microscope and which revealed the cellular structure of plants.  In fact, it was Hooke who coined the term "cells" because the pattern reminded him of the cells of a monastery.  Along with Leeuwenhoek, who discovered the world of bacteria and protozoa through his own microscope, Hooke was one of the founders of the revolution in biology.
Hooke was what we would call a polymath, a Renaissance man, an artist/scientist or many other compound names.
  But I like to think of him as a designer, studying the way of the world and devising clever ways of altering it.


Nothing could be simpler than drawing a circle. 
A compass – or more correctly, a pair of compasses – accomplishes this in no time. 
As easy as it may be, however, there is still a magical power to drawing one.  Give any kid a compass and watch their expression as the arcing line meets up with itself.  Pure satisfaction and true for most adults too. 

Something about that perfectly circular shape resonates in the part of the brain that loves simplicity and a sense of completion.  For this reason perhaps, most cultures throughout history have used the circle to represent life, the universe, even divinity.  Medieval art and literature, for example, are filled with the idea that God is the geometer of a complex world.  The image that is used most often to illustrate this shows a crouching bearded figure using a pair of compasses to conjure the world into existence.
Circles are not only visible objects though; they are also maneuvers in the creative mind.  From the color wheel to the Circle of Fifths to the organic chemistry ring, the history of thought is filled with circles as insight, innovation, and inspiration. 

Circles, of course, are everywhere in design as well, and making them is built into the tools we use whether the string-and-post used in ancient architecture or the Photoshop file I worked on this morning.  But there is another way to make a circle that is even more compelling and that is to do it free-hand.  Drawing a perfect circle with no tool at all, just using the gesture of the hand and eye, has an especially magnetic attraction.  In fact there are events like the World Freehand Circle Drawing competition, among others, devoted to this fascination.  Not to mention hundreds of YouTubes. 
Try it yourself and you will see.
Just take a marking tool – even your finger on a dusty glass will do – and sweep your hand in one fluid motion around to make the best circle you can.  It is addictive if you cannot get it right away and even more compelling once you do.  It elicits a very satisfying sense of conclusion...and freedom, considering that the only tool besides the marker is your own body thinking circularly. 

By the way, you can cheat on this if your circle is big enough.  Just stand sideways to a wall with chalk in the hand next to that wall and sweep your arm around while keeping it straight.  Your shoulder becomes the hub of a circle that cannot miss and you will get your hand-drawn circle all right, but maybe not quite the same feeling of satisfaction because to draw a circle spontaneously and make it perfect through grace and balance and rhythm puts you in touch with that one great circle that exists only in the imagination.
This is the thrill of design, after all, since making a thought real is what design is all about.


For months I have been watching my neighbor’s roof.
Sometimes with binoculars but mostly with my naked eye.  My obsession started in the summer and has now continued into autumn.  The roof in question belongs to a brownstone on my block and my apartment on the ninth floor of a nearby building gives me an aerial view over it.  It is the perfect perspective from which to gaze in awe, but the object of my fascination is not what you might think.
For months the workers there have been building an additional floor on top of the brownstone and as a designer, I find this deeply interesting.  It started with some neat men walking around the roof and pointing.  The next thing I noticed was a team of workers removing the old tarry roof, replacing the ancient wooden joists with steel ones for support, then putting down a simple plywood floor to stand on. 
After that, the real construction began.  Plan, scheme, process, materials, it is all there.  The whole practice of making a thing – in this case a new living space where none was before – was unfolding down there below me.  I felt like some sort of master builder watching it happen, except for the simple fact that I am just a bylooker, a peeper from afar.

The structure they are working on is about 20 feet wide by 50 feet long and it is composed of four materials only…brick, cinder block, wood, mortar.  Watching the men working is a study in the art of craft.  They are efficient in their moves, little effort wasted.  The carpenter cuts and nails his wood, the mason grinds and sets his bricks, there does not seem to be any foreman; they each know their task and move through it with precision.
Two of the carpenters set their ceiling joists – massive planks of wood – into notches they have cut into the cinderblock with a Sawzall.  Adjust, adjust, then readjust.  I know this part of the process very well and tell my students that if they cannot tolerate changing and reworking, they should switch their majors to accounting where the numbers always add up the same way, or at least are supposed to.
I also notice that the edges where things meet seem to matter.  Seams between the brick and the cinder block cannot be too wide since they end up being filled with mortar; the wood must be protected with some sheathing from the mortar that will hold it in place; wood has to abut wood to create the strongest connection.  Edges matter in all design…those places where text and image join up, for example, or the ways the shapes in a logo meet to unify the form.

But of all the building going on down there, I am most intrigued by the bricklayer.  He must work around the wooden frames of future windows and doors, squeeze himself between the cinder block walls, begin and end at the exact right edge, make a thing that will not budge.  He is orderly, masterly, relentless in building his walls brick by brick.  Measuring the space, grinding the bricks, buttering the edges, placing each piece, tapping and leveling.  He is a maestro of the trowel, moving at such a steady pace that I can see why the masonic craft had an elemental appeal.
I envy him for this.  Everything in life is inconclusive, vague.  In teaching and in writing, and even much of graphic design, the goals and achievements constantly shift and change.  Opinions, attitudes, contradictions muddy the waters.  Did I really accomplish what I set out to do?  Will my work work the way it should?  Yet at the end of each day, the bricklayer – with little need for philosophy I imagine – builds his wall.  And when he is done, it is done, and no one can doubt it, nor the thing he made.
I wonder if the owners will even notice or even think twice about the handiwork that went into the outer walls of their fine new living space, walls they will never even see.
I doubt it and think to take some photos to give to them next year when the job is done.  But I will not do that, of course. 
Some design is meant to disappear into the bigger picture, and the individual who made left only to briefly admire the result…and then move on. 


A spider web, like the one on the bush outside my house upstate, is a good place to consider humility.
Like most designers, I like to think of design as a very human activity, one that truly separates us from the rest of dumb life.  But if you wander in the wilderness, you quickly see the kink in this line of thinking.  There are beavers that make sustainable dams, termites
that build air-conditioned skyscrapers, and even the lowly rat mole designs a tunnel with waste disposal.
True, none of these designing species have yet come up with a cell phone, but perhaps that is only because they know how annoying it would be.

One of the most stunning examples of non-human architecture – not counting the universe itself of course – has to be the spider web.  Spiders and their webs have been around for 100 million years, which is about 100 times as long as homo sapiens with our own Web.  Sure the online revolution is great, but try catching dinner with it.

Most of the 40,000 known species of spiders make webs and we tend to think of them all as looking
the same.  Like that iconic spiral that comes instantly to mind.  There are, in fact, thousands of different spider web designs – or so the spider folks say – and scores of them are used by any individual species to fit the need at hand.   Some spiders spin only single thread traps like clotheslines; others produce webs like lassos that swish through the air; there are even spiders that spin underwater nets to catch tiny fish.  Funnel-shaped webs, rigid webs, sheet webs that billow like sails, the list goes on and on all the way up to the familiar labyrinthine web of our nightmares. 
To make a web, a spider’s glands distribute liquid silk to three pairs of spinnerets.  These work like microscopic fingers pulling, carding, twisting, and weaving the thread as it solidifies in the air.  The thread itself is astounding: barely a millionth of an inch in diameter yet stronger than steel of the same thickness.  Not to mention that it is instantly available, sticky, stretchy, and flexible.  Talk about a useful material!

It takes about 25 minutes for a spider to weave one of those classic webs, longer if local conditions are difficult.  It starts with a single dry thread called a dragline (by us, not them) that the spider uses as a
basic orientation thread since most spiders have lousy vision and have to go by touch.  The first line of
the web itself is called a bridge line and this is followed by two more lines to create a triangle.  The spider then selects a center point and starts to spin the radials, the spokes of the design.  When this is secure, it creates the orbital pattern of rungs until the web is complete.  Spiders continue to manage and repair the web throughout its use.

Watching the spider up close is like observing the design process in action.  Focus, work, adjustment, decision, more work…it is all there.  Purists will refute this equation and point out that the spider is no designer at all, only a biologic machine spinning out a programmed pattern.  They will say that the design of the web is in the genes, that there is no choice, and therefore what spiders do is no example of
design at all, just DNA raveling and unraveling.  And of course they might be right.  But then, that explanation might just as well fit us as we go about our business.

Sitting there watching that web, I prefer to think that my little spider and I have something different in common…a sense that the world can be adapted to suit our needs, that the universe is improvable, and that we are just the ones to do it.