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What is Design?

It is not just the world that is subject to constant change—its design is, too. Today, design is no longer only about objects, but about the entire world as an ecological and social structure. In this essay, Friedrich von Borries develops a proposal for a contemporary understanding
of design.

We all think we know what design is. We encounter it everywhere in everyday objects like cars, furniture, and clothes, as well as in tools and machines. But is that all? The spaces around us, the city, the landscape—didn’t they also emerge from a design process? And what about us? Are our bodies, our desires, our thoughts not products of a conscious design? Whose?

What is now called “design” once went by other names: “Formgebung,” “Gestaltung,” “applied art,” or “art that makes itself useful” (“Kunst, die sich nützlich macht”). The exact meaning of these terms was, of course, always contested. Historically, design has had very different, sometimes even contradictory meanings. Sometimes, it was defined narrowly; other times, the term and its associated tasks were understood broadly and comprehensively. In this historical overview, I’ll explore the breaks and oscillations of this evolution and close by offering a suggestion for a contemporary understanding of design.

Everything begins with one question: when does design begin, and where does it end?

Enlightenment Design

One possible origin of design can be found in the early 16th century. At the beginning of the modern era, the idea emerged that society could be shaped through the design of the living environment. A God-given order did not determine our lives; it was rather people who shaped the world—this, at least, was the basic idea. An excellent example of it can be found in the philosophical work Utopia, in which Thomas More (1478–1535) created an ideal society.1 This society’s realization depended on the way cities, villages, and settlements were arranged, and the way houses, furnishings, clothing, and meals were configured. Today, all of that is included in design. 

© Illustration by Ville Savimaa. Utopia 2016, Reinterpretations of the cover of Thomas More’s Utopia from 1516.

Another possible origin of design is discernable in the late 18th century. During the Enlightenment, many rulers tried to improve their states and educate their subjects according to their perceptions of the ideal. To that end, they trained artists, craftspeople, and producers, who, following the ancient Greek model, were meant to make objects for everyday use, thereby strengthening the economy and cultivating “good taste” in the populace.2 In the design of these objects, the desire for economic growth was combined with moral goals. The rulers’ humanistic ideals were meant to be passed on to the subjects through everyday objects. This linking of the moral and economic reappears in almost all later periods of design.

Michel de Certeau, Die Kunst des Handelns, Berlin 1988.

1    Thomas Morus, Utopia (Stuttgart, 2012).


2   Claudia Sedlarz, “Gelehrte und Künstler und gelehrte Künstler an der Berliner Kunstakademie,” in Netzwerke des Wissens. Das intellektuelle Berlin um 1800, ed. Anne Baillot (Berlin, 2011), pp. 245–77.

Because not only objects, but all of life must be designed.

The Design of the Industrial Era

Perhaps, however, design traces its origins to the 19th century. The Industrial Revolution enabled a previously unthinkable mass production; but industry was not quick to find its own formal language. Instead, its products imitated the appearance of old, mostly handcrafted items. Contemporary critics like Gottfried Semper (1803–79) considered these industrially produced objects aesthetically and materially inferior, and a number of artistic and craft reform movements emerged in response to them, with the English Arts and Crafts movement leading the way.

The criticism of industrialization put forth by these movements dealt not only with questions of materiality and design, but also their social consequences. Large parts of the population were impoverished at the time, with slum-like settlements emerging in the rapidly growing cities. Supporters of the reform movements saw a connection between products’ aesthetic appearance and the social conditions of their production. They aspired not only to a renaissance of craftsmanship, but to a process of renewal in society as a whole. They therefore not only created workshops for the design and manufacture of innovative furniture, but conducted experiments on a larger scale—because not only objects, but all of life must be designed. The English idea of green and healthy garden cities gained currency, while supporters of life reform advocated vegetarian food and nudism.

At the time, however, these idealistic ideas emerging from the reform movements did not resonate much among the general public. Ultimately, the reformers foundered on their own aspirations. The design products they manufactured from high-quality materials could not meet the growing population’s need for everyday goods. Art Nouveau products—to cite just one example—remained essentially reserved for an affluent clientele.

Nevertheless, the reform movements were formative for our contemporary understanding of design. Even more than Enlightenment design, they shaped our view of design as an engine of social change. Many designers, furthermore, still see themselves as craftspeople creating high-quality products that can be produced as individual pieces or in small series. Last but not least, the reform movements—contrary to their intentions—introduced the still dominant idea that “good” design is expensive and often even elitist.

Another conception of design has its origins in the early 20th century. The reconciliation of designers with industrial-scale production began even before World War I. Rather than positioning themselves against industry, designers increasingly aimed to produce high-quality, aesthetically beautiful, material-worthy objects under industrial conditions. With functionalism—which saw form and function as inextricably linked—on the rise, they even came to see industry and factories as key tools for creating a better society. This period, retrospectively referred to as the “classical modern,” sought to overcome social inequalities through design. Ideally, everyone should benefit from technical progress; well-designed products should no longer be accessible only to the upper classes, but to the entire population. An important proponent of this school of thought was the Bauhaus, which first pledged a new unity of art and technology (“Kunst und Technik—eine neue Einheit”) and later devoted itself to the needs of the people as opposed to the need for luxury (“Volksbedarf statt Luxusbedarf”).

For the progressive avant-garde of the 1920s—but also for the Stalinist Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany—design was an instrument for building a “new society.” There was even talk back then of the creation of a “new man.”

The needs of the people as opposed to the need for luxury.

The Design of Consumer Society

After World War II, design remained oriented toward industry, largely bidding farewell to its old ideological goals and aspirations for improving the world. The idea was no longer to create a “new man” or more just society, but to repair a world destroyed and dazed by war. Gone were ideology and utopian goals, replaced by economic needs and the aim of providing greater society with a steady supply of consumer goods. In both East and West, the goal was the happiness assured by a comfortable everyday life, complete with an apartment, washing machine, refrigerator, and car for everyone. 

Some good product design did emerge from these circumstances—consider Braun’s electrical appliances, for example. But the capitalist model is based on perpetual growth; the washing machine must be followed by an even better washing machine, the toothbrush replaced by an electric version. For that, there must always be newer ideas for newer products. This requirement characterizes design to this day. On the one hand, new products must constantly be invented; on the other, existing products must be repeatedly given a new desirable look and feel. The fulfillment of needs, the project of classical modernism, was superseded by the production of wants and desires. A society based on mass consumption, after all, must continue to not only produce, but also to sell new goods. Temptation and inciting desire thus become important additional duties of design. The products’ aesthetic appearance must always be restyled in accordance with current fashions.


Hal Foster, Design und Verbrechen. Und andere Schmähreden, Berlin 2012.

The fulfillment of needs was superseded by the production of wants and desires.

The Design of Protest Culture

A global protest culture emerged in the 1960s that fundamentally questioned the economic order of Western societies and the capitalist model of development—and therefore the idea of mass consumption as well. For young people in particular, consuming goods and, allegorically speaking, perfecting the material fittings of everyday life, no longer sufficed as life’s purpose. That of course also affected the role of design.

Design became the medium and subject of reflection, protest, and criticism. As a result, sociopolitical issues increasingly moved into the designer’s focus. The dark side of capitalist production modes—global social dislocations and environmental consequences, for example—became increasingly visible.

In 1971, Austrian-American designer Victor Papanek (1923–98) published the book Design for the Real World, in which he pleads for a design that feels beholden not only to economic interests and strategic market considerations, but is also conscious of its role as global actor. In Papanek’s view, consumer society led to a neglect of design’s ethical aspects. His provocative assertion was that only few “professions [are] more harmful than industrial design,” which is why design must “become [an] innovative, creative, and interdisciplinary instrument true to the needs of the people.”3

In the 1970s, designers again became aware of their social and environmental responsibility. Today’s eco-design, debates about sustainability, and attempts to recycle existing materials in the development of new products trace their origins to the protests of the 1960s.

A new self-conception and self-awareness also emerged at this time for designers. They no longer wanted to be agents or optimizers, but to become reflexive, critical entities reflecting on the conditions of design’s creation, questioning the economic and cultural framework in which they operated, and proposing alternatives. The tentative high point of this new self-conception is Critical Design, founded around 2000 by English designers Anthony Dunne (born in 1964) and Fiona Raby (born in 1963). It doesn’t manufacture any practically useful objects, but rather seeks to show “that the everyday […] could also be different—that things can change.”4


3    Victor Papanek, Design für die reale Welt. Anleitungen für eine humane Ökologie und sozialen Wandel (Vienna, 2009), pp. 7f.


Victor Papanek, Design für die reale Welt. Anleitungen für eine humane Ökologie und sozialen Wandel, Wien 2009.

4 Fiona Raby, “Critical Design,” in: Wörterbuch Design. Begriffliche Perspektiven des Design, eds. Michael Erlhoff and Tim Marshall (Basel, 2008), p. 81.

Marcel Breuer’s B 64 cantilever chair from 1928 is a typical Bauhaus product. Intended as a mass product for the people, it became an elite design icon.
Another cantilever chair? In 1983, Stiletto Studio,s converted a shopping cart into the Consumer’s Rest Lounge Chair—a prime example of the ironic New German Design.
With his 1970 Fantasy Landscape, Verner Panton created a womb-like living environment. The bright colors reflect his generation’s hedonistic attitude toward life.
London design duo Dunne & Raby created the Faraday Chair in 1995. This is not a feel-good piece of furniture. Instead, it invites frightened users to huddle inside it in the fetal position so they may find relief from the stresses of the high-tech age.
The colorful Carlton shelf, designed in 1981 by Ettore Sottsass of the Memphis Group, is actually not a shelf at all, but a statement against functionalist design. Memphis creations in general are defined by emotions, colors, and forms rather than function, durability, and practicality.
Designer Maarten Baas has been making his mark since 2002. In Smoke, he set flame to design classics—here, for example, Sottsass’s Carlton—making them his own. He considers furniture with an individual story more interesting than flawless objects.
Functionalist postwar minimalism. The ornament-free aesthetic of Braun appliances—in this case, the 1959 Portable Transistor Radio and Phonograph by Dieter Rams—reflect the mood of the so-called Stunde Null (Zero Hour) and the longing for an unencumbered present.
Das glatte Design des iPhone verbirgt komplexe Technik, die für den Nutzer undurchschaubar ist. Zugleich macht das iPhone seinen Nutzer mittels GPS, App-Installationen und Datenspeicherung ziemlich transparent.
Die Firma Thonet stellt seit den 1860er-Jahren den Stuhl Nr. 14 her. Stuhl und Firma sind ein frühes Beispiel für die erfolgreiche Verbindung von gestalterischer Vernunft und industrieller Produktion.
The sleek design of the iPhone conceals complex technology that’s opaque to the user. At the same time, the iPhone’s GPS, app installations and data storage make its many users more transparent than ever.
Thonet has been manufacturing the No. 14 chair since the 1860s. Chair and company are early examples of the successful marriage of rational design an industrial production.
In the 1970s, Enzo Mari designed simple furniture made from affordable materials that users could put together themselves. The most famous piece in his DIY collection Autoprogettazione is probably the Sedia 1 chair from 1974. Mari’s furniture designs presented alternatives to industrial production—and posed the question: what does a person really need?

The Design of a Society of Excess

In Italy, Radical Design offered another answer to the crisis of classical, industry-related product design. Starting in the late 1960s, it questioned modernism’s strict prevailing functionalism. In the 1980s, this rejection culminated in the programmatic “anything goes” approach of Italy’s Memphis Group and the market noncompliance of “Neues Deutsches Design,” which was oriented to the artistic process. Indeed, much of the design of the 1980s that took a critical stance toward industry sought a proximity to art; it wanted to elevate the designer from industrial production’s anonymity. So emerged the artist-like “auteur designer” who, similar to the designers of the early 20th-century reform movements, developed high-quality and usually expensive products.

Design thus also became part of the transcending of consumer society; design products were now divorced from everyday consumption and elevated to expressions of identity. The alienation of the individual from society was opposed with self-actualization: “design is Dasein (being)” according to one 1980s slogan. Brand messages are meant to become part of identity formation; consumer products meant to become functional elements of individual self-actualization. Since that time, then, self-actualization and its result, the unique and unquestionable identity, have been expressing themselves in a “curated” collage of commercially available identifiers—whether a home and car, clothing, home furnishings, the “right” vacation, diet, or selection of educational and cultural activities. Whereas within protest culture, design spilled over into society and engaged with social issues; in the affluent society, design swings the pendulum the other direction: the formulation and representation of the self are from now on subject to a design process. So everyone is henceforth subject, in the words of philosopher Boris Groys (born in 1947), to the “obligation to self-design.”5

These developments and the differentiation of design notwithstanding, “classic” functionalistic product design still exists, but is subject to fundamental changes because the design-driven potential for growth seems exhausted in the material realm. Design is becoming increasingly immaterial. On the one hand, in the context of branding, the physical is loaded with ideal values. It’s no longer mere product design, but branding that determines the success or failure of material products, whether sneaker or car. The range of identification possibilities is furthermore so flexible that even capitalist critique is exploited: Che Guevara has long been an icon not only of protest culture, but also advertising.

On the other hand, the physical dissolves in the immaterial. A perfect example of this is the smartphone. The actual design achievement is not the device’s surface, but its technical interior and available systems; the ability to access information, order goods, interact in social networks, et cetera. The iPhone, say, is more than an object. It shapes our relationship to the world, conveys messages, defines our communications and our sense of self. It shapes the relationships we have to other people and to the world—and thus designs us.

Interestingly, today’s designers of the immaterial hark back again and again to the formal language of the pre-digital era. Jonathan Ives (born in 1967), for example, Apple’s Chief Design Officer, draws upon the formal language of the Braun appliances designed by Dieter Rams (born in 1932). In that sense, Apple products resemble the products of early industrialization. And just as a (failed) reform movement longing for the old crafts emerged back then, DIY scenes have emerged today, seeking to delay the parting of 20th-century material culture with adhesive tape and knitting, crafting, and tinkering. The paradox therein is that by now, even this oppositional stance has spawned new consumer products. Today, entire industries are dedicated exclusively to manufacturing and marketing DIY equipment.


Cynthia E. Smith u.a. (Hrsg.), Design with the other 90%: Cities, New York 2011.


5 Boris Groys, »Die Pflicht zum Selbstdesign«, in: Boris Groys, Die Kunst des Denkens, Hamburg 2008, pp. 7–24.









Horst Rittel, Die Denkweise von Designern. Mit einer Einführung von Wolf Reuter und einem Interview von 1971, Hamburg 2012.






To elevate the designer from industrial production’s anonymity.

The Design of a Society in Transition

Like the oil crisis in the 1970s, concern about climate change is introducing a new self-conception in design. More and more designers are asking themselves how they can help solve global challenges and codesign socially acceptable change. This aspiration is based on the assumption that today’s global environmental and social problems were created by humans and thereby can and must be resolved by them. Designers have a particular expertise for just that, says design theorist and philosopher Tony Fry (born in 1944) in his book Design as Politics. “Change only occurs in two ways: by accident or by prefigured intent (which is de facto design).”6

Fry thereby connects to a long tradition. Back in the 1940s, artist and former Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946) declared that design refers not only to objects, but to fundamentally larger relationships. This thought culminated in the thesis that design is not a profession, but an attitude.7 Many designers and design theorists adopted this position in the following years, including Horst Rittel (1930–90), who taught at institutions like the Ulm Hochschule für Gestaltung, a successor to the Bauhaus. In his view, design’s primary feature is the purposeful transformation of an “existing state” into a “desired state” that exists in the designer’s imagination. Thanks to this imaginative capacity, felt Rittel, the designer is especially adept at finding solutions to so-called “wicked problems,” tricky conundrums that defy conventional approaches.

Rittel concluded that “designing,” understood as a rational, methodical process, is not just performed by a cohort of professional designers, but by individuals from many professions. American social scientist and Nobel laureate Herbert Simon (1916–2001) held a similar view. In his 1981 book The Science of the Artificial, he wrote that in principle, every person who undertakes to methodically change an existing situation is a designer.8 German designer and theorist Gui Bonsiepe (born in 1934) also addressed this point when he stated that even a company’s organization is to a certain extent design—and every manager thus a designer.9

In the 1980s, Swiss sociologist and economist Lucius Burkhardt (1925–2003) came up with an expansion of the term design. “Design is invisible,” he asserted. In contrast to the classical, object-fixated understanding, he argues that not individual objects, but entire systems are the subject of design. “The design of tomorrow,” according to Burkhardt, is one that “consciously takes into account the invisible overall system comprised of objects and interpersonal relationships.”10 In consequence of these considerations, concepts like Participatory Design—in which the designer resigns as authoritarian decision-making body and the end users are closely involved in the design process—developed in both Europe and the United States starting in the 1970s. In the early 1990s, an influential expansion of the concept of design finally emerged again with Design Thinking. This approach—developed by Tim Brown (born in 1962), founder of the think tank Ideo—seeks to make designers’ strategic problem-solving skills useful outside the realm of products. Since then, design has had the image of a change agent and general problem-solver that not only creates beautiful things, but is primarily concerned with the design of processes that resolve issues arising from economic, political, and social interrelationships.

According to the demand today’s designer makes of him or herself, design should help to remedy current ills and crises in the world. Designers engage with refugees, combat climate change, and develop spaces for life in a post-growth society. Design becomes transformation design, an engine of social change. Beyond the self-conception of “problem solving,” this sort of transformation design refers back to other traditions. Similar to both the Age of Enlightenment and the 1970s, today’s design has been assigned an ethical dimension in the transformation discourse. It must save the world from climate change and enable a just society. To achieve this, the mechanisms of desire production field-tested in advertising and branding must be used to get people excited about other, more sustainable lifestyles—designers, in other words, must draw upon a contradictory tradition.

In transformation design, various traditions are activated to develop new design-based resolution strategies in the face of the comprehensive threat human posed to the earth. The touchstone of this design is no longer the object of utility or the space surrounding us, but rather the whole world, the entire ecological and social system—in other words, as American architect and designer Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) once put it, Spaceship Earth.11


Vilém Flusser, Dinge und Undinge. Phänomenologische Skizzen, München/Wien 1993.

6 Tony Fry, Design as Politics (Oxford/New York 2011), p. VIII. 

7  László Moholy-Nagy, Vision in Motion (Chicago 1946), p. 42. 


8 Herbert Simon, Die Wissenschaften vom Künstlichen (Berlin 1990).


9 Gui Bonsiepe, Entwurfskultur und Gesellschaft (Basel 2009).


10 Lucius Burckhardt, Design ist unsichtbar (Ostfildern 1995), p. 24.


11 Richard Buckminster Fuller, Bedienungsanleitung für das Raumschiff Erde und andere Schriften (Reinbek 1973).

A Contemporary Understanding of Design

After this brief glimpse into the history and present of design, the question arises: what could a contemporary understanding of design look like? How can the various requirements and realities be combined? When we talk about design today, we need to be aware that we’re talking about a practice oscillating between two extremes.

Design is a highly professionalized and extremely complex discipline that continues to expand and, as Swiss architectural theorist Philipp Ursprung (born in 1963) predicted, will eventually absorb architecture and art but also overlap with areas of technological development and management. Designers operate transdisciplinarily to account for the necessity of a comprehensive design of our world. Contemporary design is “world design.”

Yet design is also a cultural technique limited not only to professionals, but one that affects everyone: a cultural technique concerned with the design of everyday life, which has to do with ways of life and individual forms of expression. This cultural technique ultimately extends so far that not only is every object part of the design process, but—to paraphrase artist Joseph Beuys—everyone is a designer. Each of us is the designer of his or her own life and self.

The contemporary tensions between self design and world design will be explored and discussed in the Autostadt Design Display in the coming years.



Bruno Munari, Design as Art, London 2008.

Friedrich von Borries, born in 1974, is an architect. He teaches Design Theory at the Hochschule für bildende Künste in Hamburg and runs the Projektbüro Friedrich von Borries in Berlin. The relationship between design and social development lies at the heart of his work, which exists in the border zone between urban planning, architecture, design, and art. “As scholars, we try to understand the world. As designers, we try to change it.”