There’s More to Design than the Media Says There is

In 1967, in an attempt to challenge the current understanding of design, Magnus Silfverhielm, a Swedish interior design student, wrote in the design student magazine Draken: ’design says something – and everyone knows what it is – it is what Sigvard Bernadotte[1] and all these designers are occupied with – coffee pots, cars, cigarette lighters, and beautiful chairs, you know!’[2] He went on to remind the reader that the world and its people were currently facing war, explosive growth in population, and severe pollution. Silfverhielm and many of his fellow students saw design, as it was, irrelevant and meaningless in the face of these devastating problems. Therefore design, including the way it was understood, had to change in order for it to be able to respond to the real needs of people around the world.


Silfverhielm was not the first, or the only, one who was thinking this way. His comment was published during a time of great changes in the design field, which was not left unaffected by global events such as the student movement, the Vietnam War, and the emergence of environmentalism. Visionaries like Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller were introducing new ways of facing the rapidly developing technology, while Victor Papanek was calling for a greater responsibility on the designers’ part. Art and design schools began transforming into universities, which in turn gave credibility and status to new disciplines, such as design research and design anthropology. Ever since, design as a discipline and as a profession has been evolving at a great speed, with the emergence of service and system design proving that design does not have to be tied to the narrow format of an object. But still, the seemingly general understanding of design as the act of making a product more beautiful or desirable, is severely outdated.


When you open to the art and design pages of the The New York Times, The Guardian or even specialist publications, rarely will you find any significant amount of text dedicated to the great strides which design as a discipline and a practice has made in recent years and continues to do on a daily basis (or even much design at all, with most major publications favoring the art side of this pairing). Instead, design is portrayed as mere flight of fancy or else a means to achieve a certain lifestyle, lauded for its ability to increase the cachet of the owner or user and nothing more. When we see Porsche being praised for the release of their new ‘luxury smartphone,’ which hardly makes any improvements on its predecessor, it is difficult not to feel as if these popular media outlets are doing a slight disservice to design. That is not to say that promoting ‘cool’ or ‘novel’ design is necessarily a bad thing, these sorts of objects can undoubtedly make lives better in their own way, but they seem to be given disproportionate attention in relation to more far-reaching examples. It would be refreshing to see increased coverage of the types of design mentioned in the last opinion piece, which reaffirm design’s role in the theater of the everyday. Perhaps this absence is due to the fact that the type of design that has the potential to affect and improve our lives on a grand scale is not always immediately visible (for more on this topic check out Georgia Newmarch and Rosannagh Maddock’s Unmaking Things column). Nevertheless, it would be a step in the right direction for design reporting, such as the BBC’s piece on Boston’s proposed solution to rising sea levels – a concept which pushes the boundaries of contemporary urban planning – to receive more attention in dedicated sections of major news outlets.[3]


3D printed hand gun, museum no. CD.1:1 to 16-2013 © Victoria and Albert Museum

3D printed hand gun, museum no. CD.1:1 to 16-2013 © Victoria and Albert Museum


The Rapid Response collecting strategy at the V&A, not to mention the Disobedient Objects exhibition, are just a couple of recent examples here in London that successfully challenge and widen our understanding of design. The words that Magnus Silfverhielm wrote fifty years ago still ring true today. The attitude that design can, and does, change the world might be idealistic, but, essentially positive and true. Design, when understood as a tool, rather than a visible and tangible result, has endless possibilities in shaping our surroundings. Our understanding of the nature of design directly affects the position that it holds in society. Design has as much power as we are willing to give it, and it’s about time the media catches up.


Kaisu Savola and Chloe Frechette


[1] Sigvard Bernadotte was one of the most prolific industrial designers in Sweden in the 20th century, and also a member of the Royal Family

[2] Magnus Silfverhielm, ‘Nordiskt fortbildningsseminarium för industriell konst’, Draken, nr 3 (1967), 24-25 (p. 24)

[3] Interestingly, the BBC does not even have a dedicated design section on their website, this piece appeared as a news feature in their magazine


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