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Design is arbitrary. I’d like to state that as a law, in the sense of “laws of physics” — something that simply is (even if no one will fine you for disobeying).

Now let me be very specific about what i mean by arbitrary.

Arbitrary — and i from the get go admit that i might be confusing the meaning-spaces of “arbitrário” in Portuguese and “arbitrary” in English — is a word whose meaning seem to fall in either of two very different ideas. It might be “despotic”, something imposed by force by an unforgiving alien will, or it might be “free”, “at discretion”, something left to your disposal. What links both meanings is that there is one decision being made by itself, not forced or influenced.

Now my intent here is not to focus in the intention, or in whose intention it is. I feel those angles are making — for years now — the question too unclear.

When i say that design is arbitrary, i mean that design actions (wrongly called decisions) could be made different. They are not necessary.

For example, when Gropius designed the Bauhaus building with a glass façade, he could have done it differently. It could be brick. It could be wood. It could be lots of different things. When the programmers of the first Photoshop versions deemed to make each of the “tools” symbolised by one “button” that would remain in “pressed state” as the tool is used, they could have used other UIs. They could have a pull-down, or a non-modal interface.

Differences in shape do not make a difference. They are different, and they are important. But they do not make a difference. This is a subtle distinction, and also one that i do not know exactly how to express in English. But it is very important.

But despite the awkward form of expressing, this idea is pretty much felt throughout the design-making experience. For example, when many designers work atop the same specifications and briefings, with the same clients, and come up with different proposals. Or when facing the white sheet of paper.

Every project is faced with some constraints. For example, a given poster needs to use recycled paper, or a chair’s seat height needs to be ergonomically correct. And the existence of constraints can even be said to “circumscribe” the “design-space” of the project — though i find this an overly colourful description. But even inside a very constrained universe of possible forms there are still infinite subtle possible differences in shape.

Even if you must use yellow, there are still zillions of shades of yellow. Yes, even of yellow.

It is not wrong to value those constraints and base the design process upon them. This is the strategy of most so-called rationalist design: approach the shape-making from a problem-solving perspective. This is not bad as an strategy, but it is definitely bad science. Design simply is not like this, and if we want to understand design we should try different approaches.

One of the basic characteristics of design is that it is arbitrary.

This means that a design-decision needs to be made upon design-reasons. This means that design is not a formula-applying, recipe-following simple sequence of actions. There are situations during design-making when we need to make settlements without resourcing to clear and specific guiding values or references.

This is not an issue per se, but the historical attempt to depict design as an problem-solving activity created an enormous amount of crud around this point. Again, problem solving (in design) is no more than an strategy.

What i mean is that a design without strict rules is neither necessarily harder nor necessarily easier than one with strict rules.

Now: what other consequences can we deduct from design being arbitrary?

One Comment

  1. I should point out that this idea is very much alike the distinction by Richard Buchanan between design-as-invention versus design-as-discovery. I prefer my own way of putting it, for some specific and (i think) compelling reasons, but the margins are just too short.

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