Design…before, now, and then?

Since Design was defined as an academic discipline different from Art around 1836 (Frayling, 1993:4), designers have been associated with the creation of different visual communication pieces. For a long time, designers have been introducing theirselves generically as: Graphic Designers, and clients have expected that they could solve different design problems from branding, advertising, packaging and, more recently, digital problems. But I often ask myself: can a designer be an expert solving all different types of design problems? Can a designer be good at designing such a wide range of communication pieces? If we think about this for a long minute, this is hardly possible, as each problem might require different knowledge and skills to be properly solved. A need for more focussed-problem designers is a risen characteristic of these days.

Let’s have a look to the Design practice and education over the last 30 years to have a clearer understanding of its evolution and future.

Past: Multi-task

Designers in the 50s and 60s can be defined as self-taught designers. Even tough Design has been already defined as an independent academic discipline from Art, its education with proper theory is quite new (and it is still in progress). As an example, in Argentina in the late 80s, the Design discipline was divided according to the material of the final outcomes: graphic design = print designs; product design = 3D objects; textile design = cloths; environmental design = green/open spaces. Students who wanted to study print design did not have many choices. When I went to University, the BA Graphic Design was kind of brand new at the University of Buenos Aires. It wasn’t 10 years old yet, and only the youngest mentors and teachers were proper designers (the director of studies were mostly architects). Only in the last year, students could choose specific sub-design courses (i.e. editorial, packaging, website).

In the early 2000s, designers were still associated to the term ‘multi-task’ designers, and designers who wanted to specialise in only one sub-area of design were rare.

Present: Specialised

The current period shows different (and more complex) problems than that of previous periods, which demands an increasing need for more specific design expertise and new skills to properly address each problem. As a result, different types of design disciplines have emerged and consolidated as Sub-Design disciplines. Service Design, Digital Design, Information Design, User Experience Design, Surface Design, and Communication Design are some of them. In addition to these specialised designers, to get a complete understanding and develop effective solutions for the increasing complex problems, expertise of professionals from other disciplines, not related with Design, is also required. Thus, a wide range of disciplines is taking part in the development of a design solution, including marketing, design, engineering, technology, social sciences and communication. In addition, often more than one sub-design discipline is needed as part of the problem-solving process.

More than ever, the audience (instead of the technology!) has become an important part of the problem-solving process. Different stages of the design process are based on social analysis, and quantitative and qualitative research. As an example, post evaluation stages are included as part of the problem-solving process to measure the success of design solutions and to improve their quality.

A general Design education does not seem to be giving potential designers the enough and adequate tools and skills to solve the current design problems. Fortunately, Design education institutions seem to be adapting to this situation, as some of them are offering more specific design courses, which cover most (but not all) of the sub-design disciplines mentioned above.

In a similar vein, now professional designers seem to be defining themselves with specific ‘labels’, including the particular sub-design discipline in which they are specialised: Information Designers, Communication Designers.

Future: Consolidation?

The trend seems to indicate the consolidation of some of the growing sub-design disciplines, and the increasing of multi and interdisciplinary projects. The inclusion of sub-design departments within companies not related to design is a step towards the consolidation of these sub-design disciplines and the need for higher levels of design expertise.


In terms of Design education, the utopia would be the definition of universal education programmes to help setting the base for these growing sub-design disciplines.

Although there is still too much to improve and do for the Design discipline, at the same time, the Design discipline has evolved significantly fast in the last 30 years, consolidating as a valuable and rigorous discipline, which shows an encouraging future.

– Frayling, C., 1993/4. Research in art and design. Royal College of Art Research Papers, 1(1),pp.1-5. London: Royal College of Art.

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3 comments

  1. Pingback: Adopting a Team Approach | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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