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1 Design and designing

1.1 Design

Design is everywhere. Look around you, and consider the objects you see. For example, in my office I can see my computer, a telephone, a pen, a coffee mug, my sunglasses, a stapler, my wallet, my diary, a one pound coin, a postcard, carpet tiles, a desk, a chair, window blinds, a jacket, a radiator, a strip light, and much more besides. All these objects are the result of a number of decisions which have been made by someone – either an individual or, more likely, a team of people. The designing of the material world is thus a complex and multifaceted activity involving a variety of human capabilities. It is this complexity which is explored in this section. Straight away we can see that we need to make a distinction between the human capability for designing and the output of that process: the designs which surround us in their many forms. In this field, authors often refer to both the process and the product as 'design'. Watch for this and try to work out which they are referring to.

Some of the products that are considered in the course may be unfamiliar to you, and you may not know the detailed principles of their operation. You should still be prepared to think broadly about the challenges that faced the designer, though. Do not be put off by an unfamiliar product. You will not need an advanced knowledge of these products and their manufacture to consider their design.

To help give you an appreciation of the wide spectrum of contexts in which designing is undertaken and the variety of designs which emerge, our case studies will be taken from a variety of fields. The list below gives some of the examples we shall be looking at:

  • designing a folding bicycle

  • designing a human-powered aircraft

  • designing a rescue stretcher

  • designing a kettle

  • designing yachts and their hulls.

These examples will be used to illustrate the process of design, and the effect that early design decisions can have on the final product. Technicalities will only be introduced to illustrate the design story. That is still a long way from learning to become a competent designer!

In addition to the wide variety of contexts in which designing occurs there is also great variation in the types of knowledge required by designers. Design teams are rarely static in their composition, and will rarely rely on the skills of designers alone. Specialist contributions will be sought throughout the whole process of designing: for example, advice on a potential market, information on a new material or results from the testing of a prototype. However, at the core of a design team will be people who are able to interpret information. They will have developed a certain blend of skills and knowledge which they use to combine and transform information into creative, new products. Interestingly, they might describe themselves as an engineer, innovator, designer, architect, inventor, etc., but their titles are really of no importance here. I am more concerned with exploring those human capabilities which make people good at designing and innovating. You may wish to develop your own capability at this beyond the scope of this course, but it can take many years of practice.

One thing all those objects in my office have in common is that they were all made in large numbers. This is not to say that you cannot be designing if you are not planning and specifying for mass manufacture. Indeed, we can all find ourselves designing to some extent during our daily lives. Many people who have acquired a powerful ability for designing use it to make one-off designs – for example craft workers in wood or silver, or designers for the theatre. However, this material is biased towards the particular demands of designing for mass manufacture and mass consumption.

The term design can be, and indeed is, used to describe the creative output of various professions such as jewellers, architects, boat builders, and those people devising new television adverts. So a study of design would not be complete without a study of designing, and this material will guide you through both. It will look at the designs of our manufacturing culture including bridges and architecture as well as consumer products. It will also examine the process of designing, including a critical appraisal of some of the accepted models of design. The term innovation is widely used today and this course reflects on what constitutes innovative design and innovative designing. Design is an essential part of engineering, and, in a competitive world, innovation is an essential part of design.