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The following text was published in Scandinavian Journal of Design History 12, 2002: 7-23
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On Seeing Design as Redesign
An Exploration of a Neglected Problem in Design Education
By Jan MICHL
“… every picture owes more to other pictures painted before than it owes to nature.” E.H. Gombrich, art historian, 1954
“… one of the most important properties of all fields of production [is] the permanent presence of the past of the field, which is endlessly recalled even in the very breaks which dispatch it to the past.” Pierre Bourdieu, sociologist, 1984
“Any new thing that appears in the made world is based on some object already in existence. (…) each new technological system emerges from an antecedent system, just as each new discrete artifact emerges from antecedent artifacts.” George Basalla, historian of technology, 1985
“… if anybody were to start where Adam started, he would not get further than Adam did …” Karl Popper, philosopher, 1979
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Carl Sagan, astronomer
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 designer’s individual creative activity and more than merely the last designer’s 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 one designer’s creative activity and one ultimate solution is becoming more firmly cemented.
This does not mean to say that we can or should manage without the notion of “design”. The notion is indispensable in that it captures two central aspects of the activity of designing, i.e. that it is always individuals who propose 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 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 immediate results of the design process.
But although in one way it is correct to say that designers start from scratch, 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 the past. 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. 
So it is not surprising that the illusion of design as a stand-alone activity leading to final solutions should be flourishing. The situation is scarcely improved by the fact that the design world has no external corrective to such illusions such as those available to the world of academic research in the form of literature and source references. Through such it is always 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. The dominant position of the notion of design and at the same time the absence of similar correctives among designers constitute a serious problem in an instructional and educational context where there is a strong need for straightforwardness and transparency. 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 idea of redesign as a concept capable of introducing a perspective on designing 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 his 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 and evolutionary 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 being attributed to it 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 firm’s 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 discuss a few essential aspects of this question of design-redesign. I want first (I) to explain why I believe that part of the problem resides in the actual word design, and what it is based on historically speaking. As this is relatively new material, I shall be devoting a rather more detailed discussion to it. After this (II) I shall consider 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 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 sign denoting a specific professional landscape, that the problem must lie in the philosophy or theory behind the actual word rather than in the word itself, and that in addition, at least outside the Anglo-Saxon countries, the concept has only been used for the past 50 to 60 years. My brief answer to these objections is that the notion of design, for reasons to be explained below, has merely 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 fashioning, of giving shape to something, fundamentally related to an individual activity resulting in a finished project.
The reason why the English word design has reinforced these tendencies is the unique metaphysical career of this word in its native land, something that can still be said to colour the secular use of the word. Although its roots go via Italian to Latin, the word design is an English word, and a great deal of significance must be attributed to this. As it is used in everyday English, the word signifies intention, intent, plan, intrigue or even conspiracy – that is to say concepts which all 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 activity 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 fashioned by a rational being in the same way as contrivances produced by human beings. It was in this context that, long before the words came to refer to a trade or to someone specialising in that trade, the terms design and designer were used to describe God the Creator and His work of Creation by analogy with human artisans and their works. These alleged results of God’s 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 discussion over several hundred years in which the natural world was presented as the result of design, and that God Himself was referred to as the Designer, undoubtedly coloured the connotations of these two words. It is probable 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 technical terms, this kind of empirical proof of God’s 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 natural theology. 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 examples, as the result of God’s 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 given a quality of the divine, is used as the starting point for proving the existence of a God who creates solely on His own. This is achieved by pointing out that this God creating alone stands as a Designer behind the contrivances found in living nature in the same way as an individual human craftsman stands behind his own contrivances. Paley’s analogy is in other words logically acceptable only as long as the reader unquestioningly accepts that the watchmaker really is a 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 theology 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 made from scratch by a single watchmaker, as Paley’s 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 or redesign on the part of a large number of watchmakers over a long period, and if it is accepted that it would be impossible without them, the analogy of the natural theologians falls to the ground, as does their design argument.
Such criticism of the “argument from design” theology is anything but new. The whole of natural theology and its design argument was already subjected to detailed critical consideration in the second half of the 18th century by the Scottish philosopher David Hume in his 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 the static concept of the design process, which Hume’s brilliant spokesman Philo also touched on and ironically rejected. Nor did the German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s 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 Darwin’s 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).
To illustrate way in which the notion of design is still spontaneously and naturally linked to the idea of sole creator, I want finally to comment on the way in which the anti-Darwinist offensive on the part of American fundamentalist Christians in the 1980s and 1990s has been countered by Darwinist evolutionary biologists. Creationists, which is the term given to these fundamentalist groups with scientific ambitions, assert, in line with their natural theological forefathers, that living nature is full of proofs of “intelligent design” and that it is a Divine Designer and not Darwinist natural selection that is behind functional adaptation in nature. In my opinion, exactly as was the case with Paley in his day, 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. What is surprising is that evolutionary biologists do not attack and reject this, the very core of the Creationists’ argumentation. It appears on the contrary that they see it as unproblematic if we are to judge by the fact that they criticise the Creationists for every other assertion and interpretation. If it had been pointed out that human artefacts are also evolutionary phenomena, i.e. the results of redesign rather than the human designer’s godlike ability to create something from nothing, it would be possible at one stroke to remove the entire starting point of Paley’s and the Creationists’ seductive analogy. It is difficult to say why even leading polemicists among evolutionary biologists continue to go along with the Creationists’ clearly anti-evolutionary presentation of human designers and their products. Perhaps it demonstrates one thing, or possibly even two: that biologists’ ideas on how designers work also continue to be characterised by the theological associations of the design concept and the wishful thinking of the designers, and perhaps also the fact that we historians and theorists of design do too little to counter this one-sided 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, partly on account of the word’s intrinsic meaning, and partly as a result of its historical association with the speculations of the natural theologians, focuses on the individual source and thereby omits a central dimension in designing, that is to say its supra-individual, evolutionary nature, in other words the dependence of designing on earlier solutions.
II. Two Pedagogical Consequences of Viewing Design Only as Design
Let me furthermore name two examples of problems to which, in my opinion, the notion of design with its 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 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 this is an everyday reality with which all are familiar, it is largely repressed as a result of the wish to focus on the individual contribution of the last 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 he ought to be 100% original in the sense of starting from scratch, i.e. creating exclusively out of his sole creative 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 people’s 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 ourselves and for the students. 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 user’s 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 teacher’s instruction 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 acquiring other people’s solutions and approaches. The student can at worst experience the learning situation as an impertinent interference in his 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. When it comes to the place of design history in teaching, most people know that this is a subject with 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 results in design history being tolerated rather than embraced and integrated into the teaching of design. The problem is in many ways analogous to the teaching of art history in schools of art. The reason for this might be precisely that the notion of design is still grafted on to a quasi-religious romantic notion of creativity ex nihilo rather than a problem-oriented concept of creativity reflecting the fact that the designer is building on, contributing to, dependent on the creative contributions of earlier designers. So it is not surprising that design history, a subject in which the evolutionary supra-individual and collective dimension of design activity most clearly emerges, does not receive any clear, natural or logical place in institutions in which creativity is often viewed as an a-historical, individualistic and almost private phenomenon. However, the problem might also be that we design historians portray objects and their histories 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 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 different layers of intention.
III. The Concept of Redesign: New Light on Old Problems
I would now like further to develop the assertion that things fall better into place as soon as we regard design as redesign. And at the same time I will provide a brief (and necessarily incomplete) review of research arguing that the functionality of neither living beings nor human artefacts is really the result of design.
One of the things on which the redesign perspective throws light is the allegedly mysterious circumstances surrounding the very first inventions at the time when human beings began to produce tools. If we look at design as redesign, we must assume that these were not really inventions: the first tools were simply not made, but found. Tools are in principle means that are taken into use 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 designer was who invented the wheel thus only arises and becomes meaningful as long as we assume that artefacts are the results of design, of a creation ab novo and ex nihilo, rather than of small step-by-step changes to the tools available at any time. But if we start out by accepting that our artefacts are always the results of improvements to things that already exist – whether these things are naturfacts or earlier artefacts [19a] – then the mystery disappears. 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 mankind’s production of artefacts the situation essentially resembled the one in which design students (and in fact all of us) find now themselves. Human beings who lived 20,000 years ago were, just like people today, born into a situation in which countless objects were found that could be used for one thing or another, and in which all had room for improvement. In this, we are not strikingly different from our distant forefathers: although today we use highly specialised tools, we nevertheless feel that these, too, have the 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. A choice was made at first unconsciously, 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 gradually come to depend, including such luxury creations as seedless oranges and grapes, and similarly the awesome multiplicity of breeds of dogs we know today.
These methods of breeders, or what he called man’s power of selection, or artificial selection, were the starting point for Charles Darwin’s 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 both space, food and mates. So such better-adapted individuals had a better chance of surviving until reaching sexual maturity and thus further propagating their kin. The result was that the next generation was marked by the selection of these better-adapted individuals, which in their turn were exposed to a new process of selection. It was this process 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 animal’s own striving nor of the Creator’s 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 a long period of time and many generations.
By demonstrating that design-like phenomena in nature were the result of minute changes over a long period of time, directed by natural processes of selection, Darwin gave a new impulse to the evolutionary, historical interpretation of apparent design behind essential institutions of human society such as language, laws, market, money, religion, state, et cetera, including man-made artefacts. What mankind’s design activities and nature’s design processes have in common is that neither of them begins, or can begin, from scratch. Organisms and artefacts are thus never distinguished by perfection but by a mixture of optimal and sub-optimal solutions because both new individuals and new products always retain a number of earlier solutions that were optimal in contexts no longer existing. In other words, both processes can be described as processes of redesign or, to use Darwin’s formulation, characterised 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 slim 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 book’s originality and its reflections, which are subtle and at times difficult of access, that it does not appear to have achieved any great influence. Kubler’s 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 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 Kubler’s insights, but also on Darwinism and some of the 19th- and 20th-century researchers (sociologists, economic historians) who started out from Darwin’s 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. This is based on his conviction 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 Kubler’s and Basalla’s books are distinguished by a high degree of methodological reflection. Basalla’s work for its part is more easily read because he combines his reflections with a large number of fascinating case studies. In Basalla, too, we can find references to figures such as 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 to the economic historian 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 Darwin’s 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 Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things deserves a mention, 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 Norman’s 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 Lawson’s 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 Linus operating system, which is open and thus can still be 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 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 basis for production and the actual production 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 design in the perspective of time. We can ask why, in a situation in which Darwinism’s re-evaluation of the design idea has been so influential in many disciplines over the last fifty years, designers have kept to the sole creator dimension of the design process at the cost of its supra-individual and co-operative quality. As an attempt to answer this question, I will list five circumstances that I believe have stood in the way of establishing a vibrant redesign perspective on design. These circumstances I believe to include: (1) the belief that it is possible to separate “present” from “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 the designer name.
1 The first circumstance that I believe supports the idea of designers as sole creators is linked to the idea that designers can and should work exclusively on the basis of “the present”. This notion is in its turn based on a belief that “present” and “past” stand for objective chronological entities, that we are all agreed as to their scope, 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-defined temporal boundaries, to believe that it is History itself and not historians who undertake such a division. We forget that there is a multitude of ways of drawing historical boundaries and divisions to form 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 has direct consequences for the concepts of “the present” and “the past”: neither of them are units with clearly defined boundaries, as history books tend to persuade us, and as we unreflectingly are inclined to accept. The concept of “the present” stands rather for a chronological area of reference that in size is dependent on the particular problem under consideration, and which changes in line with the problem. We can perhaps best understand the concepts of “the present” and “the past” as categories of matters that we conceive of as relevant or irrelevant in relation to the problems with which we are concerned at any one time. So what we call “the present” is a unit of time with a size primarily defined by our immediate mental relationship to a current problem. Similarly, the concept of “the past” is used as a catch-all phrase for things that from the perspective of the problem are seen as not being immediately relevant. From this it follows that the very same matter that one person sees as belonging to “the past” can by someone else be felt as being an intensely relevant part of “the present”.
The use of the term “modern” can illustrate the actually context-related nature of “the present” and “the past”. Our children like to think of themselves as the epitome of modern beings, in contrast to their conservative parents. When functionalist 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 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 post-Neanderthal, Cro-Magnon Man. Dependent on the context, then, the “modern period” stretches over the last 15, 80, 600, 2000 or c. 30,000 years.
To sum up, it can be said that what any single person or group sees as "the present" will always include the time that, viewed from the point of view of other people’s problems, can legitimately be described as irrelevant, and thus part of “the past”. And conversely: an individual’s conception of “the past” will always include the time that in the context of other people’s problems can equally legitimately be described as intensely relevant and thus part of “the present”. And so it is a misunderstanding to believe that a designer who chooses to base himself on the “modern age” or “the present”, or who chooses to stand for “modern” design has as a consequence no link with the design solutions of an earlier time. There is no such thing as a past-free present.
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 in the thinking of architects and designers of today there is still much left of the functionalist’s design thinking, which in the 20th century sought precisely to base design on a kind of past-free present. The background to this thinking – and I will here only outline an ideal-typical gist of this philosophy – was the functionalists’ sky-high artistic ambitions. They saw themselves as the servants of History and maintained by dint of this conviction that it was the duty of the architect and designer to give the new age, which in their view was still without an aesthetic profile, a modern 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 hidden in the new functions, the new materials and the new methods of production – and bringing them out into the daylight in a kind of maieutic exercise. 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 motto for which Sullivan became best known: “form follows function”. It is a more concise version of the same idea, that is to say that every problem, every function, has its own proper solution, i.e. not two solutions or more, but one only. This sole solution implies that only a single shape was the right one – and that it was the designer’s task to find this correct solution and thereby the correct form. The forms found in this way had, according to the functionalists, nothing to do with the contributions of earlier designers or artists. Earlier solutions, and especially the early formal solutions, should immediately be forgotten because they were linked to earlier ages; they were the expressions of earlier approaches to problems, and were therefore out of date, invalid and worthless. 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 a kind of past-free present turned out to be an effective strategic 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, was a strange bi-product of the functionalists’ aesthetic agenda. It was admittedly very effective as a weapon in their victorious struggle for aesthetic autonomy, but intellectually it led nowhere at all and seduced and confused design thinking for years. 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 that are erroneously said to be characterised by free creativity rather than redesign processes, and who have reserved the title of creators for themselves alone. This can be viewed as a further reason why it is the perspective of design rather than 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 seen as representatives of a new, superior, independent category of art, that is to say the 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, that is to say arts which – allegedly in contrast to the autonomous arts – were seeking to appeal to users, and which were based on the principle of redesign rather than on free creative power. Many designers show signs of not quite being happy with an identity that they are inclined to think of as being second class. Many are keen to move their identities closer to so-called autonomous art, away from useful art, and away from the fact that their work is by nature redesign.
4 The fourth probable reason why the perspective of redesign has made so little progress might have been the way in which our society focuses 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. The novelty value is at the very centre in the commercial context: 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: you are revealing that all products by definition are imperfect. But also design critics and cultural journalists writing on design focus strongly on the novelty value and originality of the objects, something that leads to a low priority being given to the perspective of redesign. It is not only a lack of time and column space that results in its being a rare event to hear about the evolutionary dimension in the products and solutions: to point that out is usually felt to be a relativisation of the relevant designer’s own contribution. This is understandable: when the objective is to promote a designer or an object, it is difficult at the same time also to promote knowledge of design.
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 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 designer’s name (and/or signature) – further strengthen the illusion that products have a single and clearly recognisable 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 Phillipe Starck has a whole team of assistants who ensure that the master’s aesthetic objects also work and are suitable for manufacture are, from the point of view of sales and promotions, of no importance. 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 abut his wife and colleague Aina Aalto; we heard about Le Corbusier’s furniture, but not so much about Charlotte Perriand’s essential contributions to his furniture designs; we heard about Charles Eames but not always about his wife Ray, who was his close colleague. 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.
Naïve notions about historical periods, flattering design ideologies, motives concerned with status and prestige, the need for novelty, and commercial exigencies 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 people are working entirely on their own, they are in fact all the time “collaborating” with themselves in the sense that they are continually changing, improving and further developing their own previous ideas, visions and solutions. And we cannot avoid seeing that a process of redesign is perhaps the only sure method of achieving, improving and refining the quality of our products, whatever it is we are concerned with.
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 important contribution made by others to the success of one’s own design results. This insight strengthens the will and the motivation to learn from others without feeling that it is spoiling one’s 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 how much we adopt of other people’s 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 is thought of as belittling the designer’s 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 designer’s own creative input under a magnifying glass. Important as this is for the creator, it at the same time promotes a shortsighted perspective of one’s own work, because the contributions of others only come into the field of vision to a very limited extent. We are inclined to see ourselves as sole creators. But we pay for this satisfaction in the form of the sole creator’s 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 aspect 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 company of inventive, intelligent 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. But both are essential if we are to understand what design 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.
We can perhaps say that looking at design as redesign is to see 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.
I would like to express my gratitude to my colleagues Trygve Ask, Johan Bettum Jan Capjon, Halina Dunin-Woyseth, Erik Lerdal, Carsten Loly, Oddvar Løkse, Liv Merete Nielsen, Zdenka Rusova, Bjørn Normann Sandaker, Birger Sevaldson, Harald Skulberg, John O’Sullivan, Tom Vavik and especially Ole Lund, for their valuable critical comments on earlier versions of this text.
The present article is an expanded version of a paper in Norwegian delivered at Nordisk konferens kring designteori og designforskning at Lund in Sweden, 16-17 January 2001, organised by Professor Torsten Weimarck of Lund University, Department of Art History. The article was translated into English by Glyn Jones, with minor last-minute additions and changes made by the present author.
On the history of the concept of form, see Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, “Form: History of One Term and Five Concepts,” in A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics, Hague, 1980, 220–243.
I am using the pronoun “he” as a generic term covering both sexes.
The word redesign is well established in the English language and is used more frequently than even new dictionaries and reference works give the impression of. In addition, the word redesign is also adopted by non-English-speaking countries as their own technical term. Judging by searches on the Internet, industrial and product designers are in a minority among those who make use of the word redesign. A search for the word “redesign” in English-language net pages with the help of the Internet search engine AltaVista.com gave in January 2001 no fewer than 152 575 hits. For other languages the number of AltaVista hits was 6129 for German Internet documents, 1341 for Dutch, 175 for Italian and 127 for French. In the Norwegian search engine kvasir.no the number of Norwegian pages in which the concept of redesign appears was no fewer than 820 hits, in spray.no 367 hits. In Spain the term rediseño is used, which is created from diseño. A search for the word rediseño in AltaVista: España produced 1070 cases. -- Most of the hits, meanwhile, refer to pages with offers of net design. The concept of redesign refers here to offers of change or improvement of the existing net sites of a company or organisation, while the word design is clearly reserved for the development of home pages in cases where there do not exist any net sites to redesign, as in the example: “[Our company] specializes in web site design, redesign, marketing, e-commerce, and corporate logos”; see here. Another group with many hits comes from an area in Business Management known as Business Process Redesign, or Business Process Reengineering (both abbreviated to BPR). BPR aims for radical improvements in the business organisation through restructuring or the “overhaul” of the organisation. For a more detailed explanation of the concept of BPR and its relationship with Total Quality Management (TQM), see here. -- A search via the Norwegian library programme BIBSYS gave over 70 hits on foreign and Norwegian books in which the word redesign appears in the title.
Natural religion or natural theology were concepts used in the 18th and 19th centuries to distinguish between modern attempts to argue in favour of the existence of God using empirical methods based on the dogma of God the Creator as opposed to the traditional knowledge of God linked to revealed religion. Many of the scientists and intellectuals of the time embraced natural theology as the only sure source of knowledge about God, a knowledge that they believed could be consonant with the progress of science (see the article “Natural theology” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2001, ed. James Fieser.
God’s being called a designer was an extension of earlier attempts to understand how God the Creator operates, since the command “Fiat lux!” / “Let there be light” described in Genesis 1.3 is a method of working that we human beings are incapable of understanding. Theologians at various times have compared God with an artisan, something believed to have its source in Plato’s theological speculations as put forward in his dialogue Timaeus, where the creator of the world is a kind of sublimation of a mythical god-artisan (see Appendix XXI in Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Princeton, 1967 (1953). According to Curtius, the Old Testament references to God as a potter, weaver and smith were fused with Plato’s ideas to constitute a medieval topos known as Deus artifex, i.e. God-Artist or God-Artisan. This unintentionally opened up the later argument that as God creates in the same way as the artist does, the implication must at the same time be that the artist creates like God, in the sense of ab nihilo, from nothing. For a more detailed picture, see: Milton C. Nahm, “The Theological Background of the Theory of the Artist as Creator,” The Journal of the History of Ideas, 1947, vol. 8, no. 3, 363–372; Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, “Creativity: History of the Concept,” in A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics, Hague, 1980, 244–265; Paul Oskar Kristeller, “The Modern System of the Arts,” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 12, no. 4, 1951, 496–527, and vol. 13, no. 1, 1952, 17–46; Paul Oskar Kristeller, “Afterword: ‘Creativity’ and ‘Tradition’,” in Renaissance Thought and the Arts: Collected Essays, Princeton, 1990, 247–258.
Paley, William, Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearance of Nature, Boston, 1829 (1802), 249.
Relating to the discussion of the origin of the watch, Paley talks en passant of “artificer or artificers” (Ch. I), and in his description of the telescope, which he uses as an analogy to the eye, he talks of the telescope’s “improvements” (Ch. III). In other words, he admits the existence of both “multiple authorship” and redesign, but at the same time ignores the consequences of such empirical observations. For they imply that human artefacts are created through a kind of repair shop activity, and this is a manner of working that it is scarcely possible to attribute to the Christian God – not to mention the admission that multiple authorship behind human artefacts would lead to a polytheistic rather than a monotheistic interpretation of functional adaptations in nature. On the concept of “multiple authorship”, see, Jack Stillinger, Multiple Authorship and the Myth of the Solitary Genius, Oxford, 1991.
David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (ed. Henry D. Aiken), New York, 1960 (1779).
In the fifth chapter of the book, Hume writes: “… it must still remain uncertain whether all the excellences of the work can justly be ascribed to the workman. If we survey a ship, what an exalted idea we must form of the ingenuity of the carpenter who framed so complicated, useful, and beautiful a machine? And what surprise must we feel when we find him a stupid mechanic who imitated others, and copied an art which, through a long succession of ages, after multiplied trials, mistakes, corrections, deliberation, and controversies, had been gradually improving?” (op. cit., 39).
This critique of natural theology, influenced by Hume, is in § 85 “On Physico-Theology” in Kant’s Critique of Judgement, published 1788.
See, for instance, the Catholic bio-chemist Michael Behe’s now famous attack on Darwinism, in his Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, New York, 1996; see also some (by March 2003) 370 reader responses to the book at Amazon.com.
Richard Dawkins, a hard-hitting British champion of Darwinism, called one of his renowned books The Blind Watchmaker, a title consciously referring to – and ridiculing – Paley’s watchmaker argument. It should be noted, however, that Dawkins only ridicules the second part of Paley’s argument, the idea of one God as the designer behind complex organisms, while he takes the first part, one human being behind the design of a complex artefact as an acceptable proposition. Dawkins says that since the natural selection leading to design-like solutions in nature is a blind process, we are really concerned with a kind of blind watchmaker – in contrast to the human watchmaker who according to Dawkins is not blind because he has designed the watch. Dawkins writes: “A true watchmaker has foresight: he designs his cogs and springs, and plans their interconnections, with a future purpose in his mind’s eye.” (The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, London, 1987, 5.) Although the distinction Dawkins makes between the blind and the seeing watchmaker has its justification in the context in which it is used, it is nevertheless clear that he is abandoning his evolutionary perspective and is in line with Paley as soon as he directs his eye on artefacts rather than organisms. Other evolutionary biologists do the same when they need to make visible the contrast between an evolutionary and a planned process; see the Nobel Prize winner François Jacobs’ problematic description of the engineer’s working method in “Evolutionary Tinkering” (in The Possible and the Actual, Seattle, 1982, 25-46), later adopted by other Darwinist scientists (for instance Robert Foley, Humans Before Humanity: An Evolutionary Perspective, Cambridge, MA, 1995, ch.6). For exceptions to this rule, however, see George C. Williams, Plan and Purpose in Nature, London, 1996, 1.
The area of modern creativity research that is critical of the traditional theories of creativity centred on the individual and concerned with the genius can be cited in support of the views mainained in this article; see for instance the work of the American psychologist Robert Weisberg. In his book Creativity: Genius and Other Myths (New York, 1986), he draws attention to “the incremental nature of creativity” and says: “This view assumes that all creative acts are firmly grounded in the work of other individuals, as well as the work of the individual in question. The creative product comes about as a result of modification and elaboration of earlier work; and the new product evolves in a series of small steps as the thinker moves slowly away from earlier work.” (138). See also Weisberg’s later important book, Creativity: Beyond the Myth of Genius, New York, 1993, and his article “Creativity and Knowledge: A Challenge to Theories,” in Handbook of Creativity (ed. Robert J. Sternberg), Cambridge, 1999, 226-50.
The design collection established by Professor Hermann Sturm at Fachbereich 4. Gestaltung Kunsterziehung at the University of Essen can be mentioned as an exemplary instance of this; see Hermann Sturm, (ed.), Gestalten - Gebrauchen - Erinnern: Zum Gestalt des Gewöhnlichen Gegenstandes. Essen, 1994.
See Daniel C. Dennett, “Artifact hermeneutics, or reverse engineering,” in Evolution (ed. Mark Ridley), Oxford, 1997, 154–158. This is an extract from Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London, 1995.
A useful concept coined by George Basalla , The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge, 1988, 50, 51.
[19a]Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (online edition 2002) defines an early meaning of the word "art" as "skill in the adaptation of things in the natural world to the uses of human life."
See Henry Balfour, The Evolution of Decorative Arts, London, 1893.
See Jared Diamond, “How to Tame a Wild Plant,” Discover Magazine, September 1994; Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, New York, 1997.
An evolutionary view of human society was developed already in the 18th century, largely by Scottish philosophers and political thinkers such as David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. It was here that early evolutionary ideas such as “the invisible hand” (Smith), or the idea of social phenomena as “results of human action but not of human design” (Ferguson) were launched. These ideas were later further developed by the liberal thinkers of the 20th century such as Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek and others (see also Jon Elster’s discussion of “unintended consequences” in Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences, Cambridge, 1990, 91–100). The Scottish perspective, which Darwin knew, gained new strength after his evolutionary theory had become established in biology after 1859. See also Toni Vogel Carey, “The Invisible Hand of Natural Selection,” Biology and Philosophy, 13, 1998, 427–442. For Darwin's impact on philosophy, see John Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” (1909) in The Sacred Beatle and Other Great Essays in Science (ed. Martin Gardner), Oxford, 1985, 20–31.
On the lack of perfection in the organic world and/or the world of artefacts, see Michael French, Invention and Evolution: Design in Nature and Engineering, Cambridge, 1994; Stephen Jay Gould, “Evolution as Fact and Theory,” in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, New York, 1983, 253-262; Stephen Jay Gould, “The Panda’s Thumb of Technology,” in Gould On Evolution (CD-ROM), New York, 1992, 94–125; François Jacob, “Evolutionary Tinkering,” in The Possible and the Actual, Seattle, 1982, 25-46; Wilton M. Krogman, “The Scars of Human Evolution,” (1951) in Evolution (ed. Mark Ridley), Oxford, 1997, 348-353; P. B. Medawar, “Tradition: The Evidence of Biology,” in The Uniqueness of the Individual, London, 1957 (1953), 134–142; P. B. Medawar, “The Imperfections of Man,” in The Uniqueness of the Individual, London, 1957 (1955), 122-133; Peter Medawar, “Technology and Evolution,” in Pluto’s Republic, Oxford, 1982 (1973), 184–190; Jan Michl, op. cit., note 4 above; Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design, New York, 1992 (1985); David Pye, The Nature and Aesthetics of Design, London, 1978.
George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, New Haven, 1962, 2.
George Basalla, The Evolution of Technology, Cambridge, 1988, 45, 49.
Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, New York, 1988, 142. The original title was Psychology of Everyday Things, 1988.
Bryan Lawson, How Designers Think, London, 1980, 85, 42; see also third ed., How Designers Think: The Design Process Demystified, Oxford, 1997.
The Internet historian John Naughton writes on the Open Source movement that “… it understands that the best way to produce high-quality, reliable computer software is to maximise the number of informed minds who scrutinise and improve it.” See A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet, London, 1999, 271.
The lecture was entitled “Contemporary Norwegian Redesign”. It is on the whole identical with Gusrud’s text published under the title of “Some Thoughts on Things” in the periodical Pro Forma in 1991.
I touched on the theme of redesign for the first time in a paper delivered to the Copenhagen conference for Nordisk forum for formgivningshistorie in 1991, published as “The crisis of modernist design pedagogy – and its (possibly) gratifying consequences for museums of applied art,” Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 2, 1992, 119–22, though without using the term redesign; later in my review of Lasse Brunnström’s Svensk industridesign: en 1900-talshistoria, in Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 8, 1998, 126–141, and in an unpublished paper of mine, “Seeing design as redesign”, presented at the British Design History Society Conference at Huddersfield in Great Britain, also in 1998. A later talk presented at the conference on "The Changing Roles of the Designer" organized by Einar Wiig at the School of Art and Design in Bergen, Norway in November 2000, and the paper delivered at the Lund conference in January 2001, mentioned in note 1, were revised versions of the contribution to the Huddersfield conference.
George Boas, “Il faut être de son temps,” in Wingless Pegasus: A Handbook for Critics, Baltimore, 1950, 194-210; George Boas, “Historical Periods,” The Journal of Aesthetics & Art Criticism, vol. XI, no. 3, 1953, 248-253; and Karl R Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, London, 1969 (1957), touch on some of the problems discussed above; see also Jan Michl, “Is there a duty to be modern?,” in Tradizione e Modernismo: Design 1918/1940; Tradition and Modernism: Design Between the Wars (ed. Anty Pansera), Milano, 1988, 4-7.
Louis Sullivan, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” (1896) in Athey, Isabella (ed.), Kindergarten Chats (revised 1918) and Other Writing, New York, 1947, 203.
I have discussed or touched on various aspects of functionalist design thinking in “Funksjonalismen eller formgiveren i Historiens tjeneste,” in Nordisk funktionalisme 1925–1950 (ed. M. Gelfer-Jørgensen), København, 1986, 23–30; in op. cit., note 4 above; in “The crisis of modernist design pedagogy – and its (possibly) gratifying consequences for museums of applied art,” Scandinavian Journal of Design History, vol. 2, 1992, 119–22; in “Form Follows WHAT? The Modernist Notion of Function as a Carte Blanche,” 1:50 – Magazine of the Faculty of Architecture & Town Planning (Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, Israel), no. 10, 1995, 31–20 [sic]; in “Modernismens to designdoktriner: funksjonalisme og ‘abstraksjonisme’,” in Art Deco – Funkis – Scandinavian Design (ed. W. Halén), Oslo, 1996, 86–94; and in the review of Svensk industridesign: en 1900-talshistoria, mentioned in note 30 above.
It is my experience that in public debate designers frequently choose to draw attention to “the danger of prostituting oneself”. This can be read as a sign that working with aesthetic problems on others’ premises is still seen as a second-rate activity, clearly in contrast to artists who are said to work exclusively on their own terms.
On the development of autonomous art, see, for instance, Jacques Barzun, The Use and Abuse of Art, Washington D.C., 1974; Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, “Creativity: History of the Concept,” in A History of Six Ideas: An Essay in Aesthetics, Hague, 1980, 244–265; Brent C. Brolin, Flight of Fancy: The Banishment and Return of Ornament, London, 1985; Jean Gimpel, Against Art and Artists, Edinburgh, 1991; Tom Wolfe, “The Worship of Art: Notes on the New God,” Harpers Magazine, October 1984, 61-68; Janet Wolff, “The Ideology of Autonomous Art,” in Music and Society: The Politics of Composition, Performance and Reception (ed. Richard Leppert and Susan McClary), Cambridge, 1989, 1-12; Martha Woodmansee, “Aesthetic Autonomy as a Weapon in Cultural Politics: Rereading the Aesthetic Letters,” in The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, New York, 1994, 57-86; Martha Woodmansee, “Genius and the Copyright,” in The Author, Art, and the Market: Rereading the History of Aesthetics, New York, 1994, 35-55.
I commented on this problem in my review of Svensk industridesign: en 1900-talshistoria, mentioned in note 30 above.
The English poet T. S. Eliot writes in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” from 1917 about “… our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. And I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.” (See The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, London, 1920, 48.)
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Related articles by the same author:
"On the Rumor of Functional Perfection"
"Form Follows WHAT? The Notion of Function as a Carte Blanche"
(Added May 1, 2002:
See also an essay on related topics:
"Thoughts on Originality"
by the Belgian designer Koen De Winter)
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