Towards a new Design Atlas

Social and industrial changes in recent decades are urging a reconsideration of design typologies, with a re-reading for the current era.

Aircraft construction class. Volusia County, 1942

Aircraft construction class. Volusia County, 1942 | Howard R. Hollem. Library of Congress | No known copyright restrictions

Understanding design from the perspective of specialities established in the 20th century such as graphic design, industrial design, architecture and its ramification, is no longer possible. The digital revolution, the reconfiguration of industrial design and the disappearance of the middle class have reconfigured and expanded what we understand by design or what is designed. It is also necessary to link this re-reading to the major postmodern debates such as feminism, post-colonialism, climate change, etc. This new scenario is the setting for the emergence of the “Design Atlas”, a map of various specialities linked to design, with the aim of including the changes that have not been reflected in academia or that are taking place in our close environment.

These days, the word “design” is as broad in its scope as the word “love”. What is love? Could we classify all the types of love that exist? Defining it would represent a herculean and somewhat imprecise task. This undertaking requires constant revision and a capacity for addition plus an open mind. The typology of love is amplified when society suffers a change of mentality that gives rise to new social practices. The same thing has happened to design. Design as a social practice is incorporating, increasingly rapidly, new typologies that tell us of a world in constant transformation. What we understand by design is hybridised with numerous trades and ways of thinking. If the “polyamory” label has been incorporated into the collective imagination, could we talk of “polydesign”? Let’s permit ourselves a game: let’s use the “design” concept and apply it to the description of “polyamory”:

Polydesign is a neologism that means having more than one creative, project, technical and lasting relationship simultaneously with various types of design (graphic, industrial, fashion, etc.), with the full consent and knowledge of all the designs involved. The designer who feels emotionally capable of such relationships, defines himself or herself as a polydesigner, sometimes shortened to “poly”.

It is possible that, consciously or unconsciously, the professional practice of design already resembles this description. However, officially, and from an academic and professional viewpoint, the parcels of design are still very much separated.

Moreover, towards the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the meaning of what is understood by design is being overwhelmed by its uses and, above all, by its practices. What does design mean to people? The answers can create an infinite range of possibilities in our mind that swing between a graphic product, a chair, a building, to the point of imagining a dessert or a political programme.

This old debate takes on a new resonance today, when the aesthetic and the utilitarian are not only conflated but all but subsumed in the commercial, and everything – not only architectural projects and art exhibitions but everything from jeans to genes – seems to be regarded as design.[1]

Design navigates in people’s minds between something extremely exclusive to something banal and cosmetic.

Milton Glaser: Design and Art Are Like Sex and Love | Inc. Magazine
Milton Glaser: Design and Art Are Like Sex and Love | Inc. Magazine

In fact, emblematic New York designer Milton Glaser has developed various definitions to express what design is; this shows us the complexity and sometimes the ambiguity of the matter:

One definition is that design is the intervention in the flow of events to produce a desired effect. Another is that design is the introduction of intention in human affairs. A third rather elegant description is that design moves things from an existing condition to a preferred one.[2]

Glaser closes these options by emphasising that: “Design doesn’t have to have a visual component. Ultimately, anything purposeful can be called an act of design.”[3]

From here on we can understand how ductile the “design” concept is. At the same time, professional practice is capable of generating new phenomena without much background humanistic reflection and exclusively with the aim of fattening the consumer market: “Sometimes, one gets the impression that a designer aspiring to two minutes of fame feels obliged to invent a new label for setting herself or himself apart from the rest of what professional service offers.”[4] This is how the hyperinflation of the practice of design takes shape.

This panorama generates a good number of problems for us when it comes to explaining what design is and its typologies in society in general and especially in university studies. The names of the subjects in teaching areas have been overwhelmed and are insufficient for today’s reality. The expansion of what is understood by design or by what is designed (as if anything was not) is sometimes fuelled by fundamental vectors linked to social and production changes that have been occurring in recent decades. We need to stop and reconsider design typologies and re-read them in the current era. Possibly, in this way, we will be capable of better reflecting or expressing the design profession in the times that we live in.

Some vectors that have transformed design

Old and new corporations

In the 1990s, the so-called digital revolution, by changing atoms for bits, amplified the possibilities in the design of material objects and projected them towards new scenarios of a virtual, and even an algorithmic nature. These changes have disrupted the idea we have of design.

The second industrial revolution, unlike the first, does not present us with such crushing images as rolling mills and molten steel, but with bytes in a flow of information traveling along circuits in the form of electronic impulses. The iron machines still exist, but they obey the orders of weightless bits.[5]

We are living in the era of the lightness of design. As we know, this new panorama has changed everything and design is no exception. If a large part of the matrixes for the publication and dissemination of knowledge are based on structures controlled by software, should designers know how to program?

These changes suffered in recent decades led to big losses, setbacks and disappearances at the heart of the major consolidated industries linked to image and design. Let’s think for a moment about the photography sector and its leap from the analogue system to a digital one. Possibly the case of the Kodak empire can help us to understand that many economic parcels became blurred, giving rise to new industries. Kodak today has very little connection with the idea of taking a selfie, an exercise that we can understand as the hegemonic model for taking instant photos in current times. Kodak and Polaroid configured this imaginary decades ago and today they are no longer playing in this league. Naturally, one empire collapses while another, forged between Silicon Valleys, comes into being and takes the reins in the design of new social construction based on mass images.

It is time to move to the north of Europe. The multinational corporation Ikea can give us information about a new form of navigating through extreme capitalism; in this case, the matter is a reconfiguration of industrial design.

Vinçon. Barcelona, 2012

Vinçon. Barcelona, 2012 | Tokyographer (Flickr) | CC BY

The Swedish company has contemplated another way of showing, selling, distributing and designing household furniture. For better or for worse, it has disrupted the system of furniture stores as we had understood it in past decades. Ikea sells furniture, but not only that: it sells the idea of freedom of configuration of the furniture, of another type of  distribution, and it is imposing a new shop model that is no longer a showcase that displays honey and  desire in the city centre’s best streets.

Ikea is a great warehouse on the skirts of the cities that generates such enthusiasm that the consumer is capable of carrying boxes of furniture onto the Metro or the bus. Ikea reconfigured Sundays. Putting furniture together with the family is another new pastime of the European middle class. The question is: who pays those assembly/labour hours? In the city of Barcelona, we can see the other side of the coin in the case of Vinçon, which after 74 years in business closed its premises on Passeig de Gràcia. The emblematic Catalan design shop could not resist the economic crisis and the change in paradigm in the way of consuming design for the home. Here we could find a sign of our times, the disappearance of that European social class coming from the so-called “welfare state”, that consumed in this type of shops as an aspirational mechanisms that that these days must be concerned about the basic needs in danger, for example housing education and health. What type of designer is required by this new scenario?

New social links of design

What is happening on the street and its reflection in design

In another part of the spectrum, and as a contemporary vector for change, we have a crystalline call from social groups removed from academia, such as cooperative movements and communities of practice, which understand design as a shared space, with distributed responsibility, and that they consider as another scenario for exercising democracy. It is there where the debate of the political role of design is situated. In these territories the social responsibility of design is underlined, in times in which extreme capitalism is showing us its darkest face. Must design only respond to private interests? Could design be a social articulator? Historically, designers have repeated that design has improved the world in which we live: what part of the world are we referring to? Apparently the practice of design has been absent from the great post-modern debates such as feminism, post-colonialism, climate change, etc. These days things move slowly and these debate are starting to be naturalised in less official design circles and gradually in the official ones. However, one thing is clear: in the commercial circles and their forms of production, this entire debate is very distant.

Linked to changes in professional practice we find new questions in global society. These questions are opportunities to generate new lines of work and research in design.

Among them, it is fundamental to bring to the table the subject of ecology and environmental sustainability. In relation to this, a revision is being demanded of design in its function as a social agent and its ecological responsibility. It is sufficient to simply look at the automotive industry, the Fordist queen, which today is looked at under a magnifying glass due to its direct effects on climate change. At present, the design of urban mobility is opening up new possibilities at all levels, for planning improvements in the way in which we move without depending exclusively on the insatiable hydrocarbons monster.

Moreover, the political configuration of the cities generates new experiments that link militant practice with graphic communication. In this scenario we have projects such as Barcelona’s MLGB Movimiento de Liberación Gráfica (Graphic Liberation Movement), connected directly with the so-called “new municipalist policy” in Barcelona, Madrid and other cities. The MLGB is a praxis collective that is clearly aligned with the political process known as 15M. It called its way of working “municipalist overflow” and operated outside the margin of the official communication campaigns of the new political parties. “The overflow must seek replicability, copy, appropriation”,[6]  an imaginary that we have been able to identify for decades with guerrilla communication, freeware militancy and avant-garde art. Could we talk of an overflowed design? Does community-based militant design exist? We are talking about graphic artists and creatives whose objective is to sketch a social change on the streets: “Design means, ultimately, the willingness to change reality without distancing oneself from it.”[7] It is possible that these graphic artists work in commercial designs studios or advertising agencies, but the link with the new political ideas equally takes them to overflow their profession and politicise it. Ultimately, it is possible to draw the logo for Estrella Damm beer and an anti-capitalist poster with the same pencil.

In relation to the form of disseminating and debating design, the forms and formats have also changed; one good example is the podcast platform 99% Invisible, which emerged from the heart of the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco.

Episode number 264 of “Mexico 68” talks about the design of the Olympic brand for the Games of the same year. According to the podcast, the work was undertaken by Lance Wyman. The programme does not go into the typical analysis of a graphic communication work, but looks in depth at the massacre of students by the Mexican government on those same dates. The investigation equally tells us about the counter-graphics of the Mexican student movement. With platforms like 99% Invisible we can get excited about a story and critique of design that does not dissociate the political, the social responsibility of design and the role of designers in an increasingly complex world. We can talk about typography, colour, form, function etc., at the same time as we extend our practice to other spheres of socio-political debate.

Towards changing typologies of design

In the face of the panorama outlined above, academic institutions are anxiously redesigning the names of their degree programmes and subjects, trying to gauge the mood of the mentioned social changes, but always at a lower speed compared with what happens at citizen experimentation laboratories, increasingly present in our creative ecosystem (hackerspaces, co-design groups, Fablabs, etc.). They are more flexible, experimental and recreational spaces. But principally, they mix all types of people and specialities, they do not have the prejudices that academia drags along and are constantly updated.

The hegemonic idea of understanding design from the specialities established in the 20th century as graphic design, industrial design, architecture and their branches, has been overwhelmed. “It is no longer feasible to limit the notion of design to design disciplines such as architecture, industrial design or communication design because scientists are also designing.”[8] These parcels were established by academia and by the consumer industry which, these days, has mutated. Academia does what it can and often it can do very little. We firmly consider that in 2018 we can talk about a design universe that has amplified, to such a degree that in recent years it has needed constant revision, of the new phenomena born under the root of this professional, intellectual, economic and academic practice.

Solder workshop at FIXME Hackerspace. Lausanne, 2015

Solder workshop at FIXME Hackerspace. Lausanne, 2015 | Mitch Altman | CC BY-SA

Moreover, we have diverse tendencies that talk to us about design as a group of systems or methodologies to be integrated into diverse economic fields, such as Design Thinking. What we are witnessing is the growing interest in diverse economic areas that have been looking towards design practices and concepts for some time. It is said that this system is user-centred. This leads us to ask: before Design Thinking, what was design centred on? Avocados?

What is a market reality is that design education is no longer the exclusive task of faculties of art, design and similar. Today we can mix the word “design” with anything and we will probably find a course inside and outside of academia that covers that subject: interior design, critical design, eco design, citizen design, food design, etc. Possibly soon we will be able to find a course that offers the design of happiness algorithms, you never know.

Let’s design a teaching tool

Based on this scenario, this text is the first step in the “Design Atlas” project, which aims to create a map of the diverse specialities linked to design, for the purpose of including changes that have not been reflected in academia or that are taking place in our surrounding environment.

We are thinking about a teaching resource to use in class, to explain the new typologies without overlooking the old ones. The idea is to draw up a list with the different types of design that coexist today and describe what they consist of. We want to go down to a basic level of explanation that includes intelligible typologies, with clear examples. We believe that to understand what design is, we can begin by clarifying what it does and the way in which each speciality is named. We are proposing a very basic exercise that consists of defining the new roles of design and thus opening up the debate in the diverse spheres that participate in this activity.

The aim is that the tool will be constructed with an online base, that it will be expandable, collaborative and modifiable, as much as possible. We will take the principles of Wikipedia, a collaborative knowledge base. The ultimate aim is to have a teaching resource that we can use in the classroom and that will facilitate the approach to contemporary design for those of us who teach. We are interested in inviting young, expert and varied voices to be able to develop this typology. The idea is to bring together opinions. From a political viewpoint, we are interested in integrating as a core the narrative of people from origins beyond the English-speaking countries, and beyond the authorized male voices. We are interested in including in the list practices linked to design that assume a social responsibility and do not only constitute a model of providing services. We must include practices that link design with politics.

Examples exist that we think are a relevant reference in this type of classifications, such as the book Deployable Structures (2015) by Esther Rivas Adrover, which presents a detailed and very illustrative typology of the variables in the design of deployable structures through an exhaustive analysis of the material and conceptual differences of each one. Along this same line of work we find the book Merz to Emigre and Beyond, by art director, critic and editor Steven Heller. This book offers a review of design, art and political movements through publications produced in the 20th century. Also, and of recent creation, we have the project “Gràfica obrera i anarquista”, which is a research project that takes an in-depth look at the visual richness and iconography of anarchy.

Ultimately, the most complex and widely extended cultural phenomena need an exercise in synthesis to favour their dissemination. The “Design Atlas” is a project that is born as an updating exercise of what we as people linked in one way or another to design are witnessing. We are living in times of confusion, of global emergencies and of a return to the basic question that led us to work in this field: what is the purpose of design? To tackle this question we can start by listing what design does.


[1] H. Foster (2002). Design and Crime: And Other Diatribes. London: Verso, p. 17.

[2] M. Glaser (2008). Art is Work. New York: Overlook Press.

[3] M. Glaser (2008). Art is Work. New York: Overlook Press.

[4] G. Bonsiepe (2012). Diseño y Crisis. València: Ed. Campgràfic, p. 3. (The translation is ours.)

[5] I. Calvino (2009). Six Memos for the Next Millennium. London: Penguin Classics.

[6] MLGB, El libraco. Y al final ganamos las elecciones. (The translation is ours.)

[7] G. Bonsiepe (2012). Diseño y Crisis. Valencia: Ed. Campgràfic, p. 27. (The translation is ours.)

[8] G. Bonsiepe (2012). Diseño y Crisis. Valencia: Ed. Campgràfic, p. 6. (The translation is ours.)

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