Dan Agostino: Design is not a dirty word

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Dan Agostino: Design is not a dirty word

By Dan Agostino, Head of Design at The Brand Agency.


I’m not sure about you, but I seem to be getting spammed a lot lately. Not the dodgy kind from a long-lost relative who kindly wants to share their recently inherited fortune; or the even dodgier kind asking if I need the help of a little blue pill. No, I am getting spammed a lot from companies selling quick-fire design solutions. They are offering me creative expertise at the click of a button or spruiking the best logo design from hundreds of designers worldwide. Even Bill Gates is getting in on the act, continually prompting me to help design my PowerPoint slide layouts. Excuse me Mr Gates but I don’t remember seeing you in design school. As much as I appreciate the offers, I don’t need 99 of this or a fiverr of that.

It makes me think that somewhere along the way the term ‘design’ has been misinterpreted, misused and, dare I say, misunderstood and that its original purpose has been lost in translation. The word is now bundled in with every conceivable acronym and buzzword that I feel we have lost track of what its true meaning.

Are designers to be known for just making pretty pictures, cool fonts and following trends rather than craftspeople who creatively solve problems? Have we become the ‘ambulance chasers’ of the creative world? Has design become a dirty word?

50 years ago, designers such as Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand, and the like were seen as multidisciplinary designers who worked across multiple fields and applied their craft in not just one particular space. Their thinking worked across product design, industrial design, visual communication, furniture making, photography – the list goes on. The other thing, they had in common was their belief that design had a purpose – be it sustainable, economic or social. It wasn’t a buzzword to be thrown about in meetings, nor the latest trend for making things look good. It was a way of thinking that allowed solutions to come to the fore through creative problem-solving. Decades on, their work is still considered ground-breaking.

With more-and-more tools for design becoming readily accessible and in the hands of so many, the ability to design has never been easier. Therefore, it has also never been easier to diminish in meaning.

While making my PowerPoint presentation more ‘pretty’ is handy feature – thanks Bill – I think the shear responsibility of what being a designer should represent is more important than ever.

I am not saying every design challenge needs to follow in the path of Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard, who recently gave away his share in the $4.4 billion organisation to help fight climate change. Since 1985 they have been donating 1% of sales to preserving and restoring the natural environment with their mission to save our home planet. He comments, “instead of going public, you could say we’re ‘going purpose’” as design without purpose is design without meaning or intention. It is creation without a goal, an objective, or direction. Without purpose, design is just decoration; aesthetics without true meaning; design for design’s sake.

On a much smaller scale, I recently stumbled across the crowdsourced mental health platform, Koko. The text-based peer support system allows anonymous users to connect through social networks and share concerns ranging from stress management skills to suicidal prevention strategies. Partnering with the likes of Tumblr, TikTok, WordPress and others, the platform states that technology, if designed well, can be used to help people flourish. Totally free of charge, this simple piece of design combines AI, code and social media to help make mental health services accessible to everyone.

Another beautiful example of design meets purpose is cleaning product manufacturer, Resolv. Designed in New Zealand, I originally stumbled across them in my local supermarket and was struck by how the beautifully crafted range of packaging bucked the trend of the larger multinational brands. The company states that they are cleaning up the cleaning aisle and rethinking how we shop the category by simply removing one key ingredient that makes up 90% of cleaning products – water. By eliminating water, and instead creating a 100% biodegradable cleaning concentrate, the products leave nothing to waste. It reduces shipping, pack size, freight costs and their carbon footprint by a factor of twelve.

Vickor Papanek, one of the most influential and renowned industrial designers of the 20th century, described design as a responsibility. He said, “design has become the most powerful tool with which one shapes their environment and, by extension, society and themself.”

I find so much strength in this approach. Moving forward, we need to consider what value purposeful design can bring to an organisation, product, service or brand, not just the pretty pictures it can make. How can we use design thinking to better engage with an audience; how can it be implemented to create stronger ties with social norms; how can it help refine sustainable and environmental practices through thoughtful innovation?

As designers and creators, we are given the opportunity to make change happen. Now it’s time do to it. I believe without real purpose, there is no real design.