Why do we design?

I remember when I was in college, studying to become a graphic designer, there was a feeling that we were learning how to change the world. And everyone there thought that we didn’t need to wait until we finish, just for the fact that we were there, we where changing it already. Everything we did had the seed in it to be life changing and thought defying.

It’s been several year since that time. I worked at several types of agencies, some more professional, some less. Every one of them taught me something, even though I wasn’t changing the world at some of them.

Some people, and to my regret some designers too, think we just design things to be beautiful or to sell things. The worst thing is that some agencies think that too, that they are in the business of improving sells on products for their clients. Although there is nothing wrong with that approach, I think we can do better, a lot better.

There is some natural impulse on mankind to design. A few months ago I was lucky enough to be at the British Museum, and there was this really kind old woman behind a little table in one of the museum halls, the one with wooden stands wall to wall and a zillion of objects in them. This table had a little sign with the legend “hands on”. On there were five objects from the museum collection, and for our surprise (me and my wife) we could grab them and hold them in our hands. One of the objects was a stone hand axe of almost 500.000 year old. It was incredible to be able to hold it in my hands, I was trembling of emotion after these almost eternal five minutes that we where there. But it was more incredible that this axe, an axe made of stone by an Homo-Erectus almost half million year ago, was a perfect fit in my hand, it has the perfect weight and balance. This axe was designed that way.

Before I went to college, I had the luck to work in a notorious argentinian design studio, Diseño Shakespear, leaded by Ronald Shakespear. I wasn’t doing any design work there, I started as an errands boy, just going to print shops with zip discs (yeah those old ones) to plot presentations, and things alike. After a month or so, I was promoted to be Ronald’s assistant. I still didn’t do any design work, but I was able to see how it was to do it. I had access to a lot of documentation, I remember specifically reading cover to cover a one thousand pages identity manual like it was a novel. I saw how designs where presented, how you have to play some politics with clients, and how the theory, concepts and caring of the designs are important to protect them from those politics. One of the most prominent projects they did was the sign system for Buenos Aires city. In a recent interview he said: “I like more (signs system design) because i feel useful. Knowing that an old lady found the subway station and came to her home safe”.

When I read that, all my career decisions pass in front of my eyes. How with some kind of unconsciously thinking I tried to stay focused in a discipline that mix all the things that mattered to me. I always loved technology and working with it, and like in college, I still want to change the world bit by bit (pun intended). Is the feeling of being useful, as Ronald Shakespear said, that drives me. But instead on doing sings system design, I want to develop better interfaces for the everyday task we have to do in this highly digital world we now live in. Helping the old lady to pay her taxes online, making the best interfaces so she could do everything she need to with confidence in the least time possible, so then she can keep doing what she likes in the analog world. I think what drives or should drive every designer is the goal of improving life, by enhancing, simplifying and making more delightful every little aspect of our daily tasks.

So the next time we have to deal with any kind of design, a brochure, an online campaign, a mobile interface, a home banking, a spatula, we don’t have to think how to make it more aesthetically beautiful or improve sales as our primary goal, we have to focus on how to make it more useful, how to improve the time people have to deal with it, how to improve readability for the little old lady, how we can improve people lives with our little grain of sand, how to make an stone axe fit perfectly in the users hand.