– The evidence is that the human capacity to design has remained constant, although its means and methods have altered, parallel to technological, organizational, and cultural changes. The argument, therefore, is that design, although a unique and unchanging human capability, has manifested itself in a variety of ways through history.
An initial problem in delving into the origins of the human capacity to design is the difficulty in determining exactly where and when human beings first began to change their environment to a significant degree – it engenders continual debate that shifts with each major archaeological discovery. It is clear, however, that in this process a crucial instrument was the human hand, which is a remarkably flexible and versatile limb, capable of varying configurations and functions. It can push, or pull, exerting power with considerable strength or fine control; among its capabilities, it can grasp, cup, clench, knead, press, pat, chop, poke, punch, claw, or stroke, and so on. In their origins, tools were undoubtedly extensions of these functions of the hand, increasing their power, delicacy, and subtlety.
– Humans, from earliest times, have created stereotypes of forms, fixed concepts of what forms are appropriate for particular purposes, as a counterpoint to their contrasting capacity for innovation. Indeed, forms frequently became so closely adapted to the needs of societies that they became interwoven with a way of life, an integral element of its traditions. In circumstances where life was precarious and people were highly vulnerable, the accumulated experience embodied in and represented by such forms was not lightly abandoned.
Nevertheless, over time, forms were adapted by intent or by accident, became refined, or were transformed by new technological possibilities, and new stereotypes would emerge to be adopted as a standard. These in turn would be adapted to specific local circumstances. In West Greenland, for example, each major Eskimo settlement had different versions of sea-going kayaks.
Emphasizing manual dexterity as a dominant feature of the crafts tends to underestimate two other developments crucial to enhancing human ability to transform an environment. Each Design represents a capacity to reach beyond innate human limitations. One was harnessing natural forces, the superior physical strength of animals and resources such as wind and water, to provide a supplemental level of power greater than the human body, and selecting superior strains of plants and animals for cultivation to provide greater yields. This required a process of enquiry and the accumulation of knowledge and understanding that could be applied to processes of improvement, in which writing and visual representation played a crucial role.
Linked to this, and, in the long run, of increasing significance, was the ability to move beyond an accumulation of pragmatic experience into the realm of ideas as abstractions, with the evolution of tools moving beyond their origins in nature, to forms that were totally new and uniquely human in origin. Abstraction enables capacities to be separated from specific problems, to be generalized, and flexibly adapted to other problems.
Perhaps the greatest example of abstraction is language. Words have no innate meaning in themselves and are arbitrary in their application. For example, the words house, maison, and casa, in English, French, and Italian respectively, all refer to the same physical reality of a human dwelling and take on meaning only by tacit agreement within their society. The capacity to abstract into language, above all, allows ideas, knowledge, processes, and values to be accumulated, preserved, and transmitted to subsequent generations. It is also an integral element in understanding any process of making. In other words, mental skills and thought processes – the ability to use ‘mind tools’, which represent and articulate concepts of what might be – are as essential in any productive process as the physical skills of the hand and its tools, such as hammer, axe, or chisel.
– The emergence of agricultural societies living a fixed pattern of life was also capable of supporting concentrations of populations, allowing a greater degree of specialization in crafts. In many cultures, monasteries were founded that not only emphasized meditation and prayer, but also had more practical members who had considerable freedom to experiment and were often at the forefront of technological innovation.
– More widespread were concentrations of population in urban communities, where more specialized, highly skilled craftsmen were attracted by the demand for luxuries created by accumulations of wealth. A frequent consequence was the emergence of associations of skilled craftsmen, in guilds and similar organizations, which, for example, already existed in Indian cities around 600 B C. Social and economic stability in an uncertain world was generally the main aim of guilds, whatever their variations across cultures. A widespread function was the maintenance of standards of work and conduct, and, in the levels of control some of them exerted, they prefigured the characteristics of many modern professional associations and represented an early form of licensing designers.
Guilds could often grow in status and wealth to exert enormous influence over the communities in which they were located. During the Renaissance, for example, Augsburg in southern Germany was famous for the exquisite skills of the gold- and silversmiths who were a major force in city life, with one of their number, David Zorer, becoming mayor in the early 1600s.
Efforts by governments to control and use design for its own purposes also reduced the power of guilds. In the early seventeenth century, the French monarchy used privileged status and luxurious facilities to attract the finest craftsmen to Paris in order to establish international dominance in the production and trade of luxury goods. Laws were introduced to promote exports and restrict imports. Craftsmen became highly privileged and often very wealthy in catering for the aristocratic market, and in the process were freed by monarchs from guild restrictions.
Excerpts from the book “Design: A Very Short Introduction”, John Heskett, OUP, 2002
- MAMTA MANTRI