Niels Diffrient: “Design Is Not Art Because Art Is Useless”

Niels Diffrient is a tinkerer, a fixer, and an ever-restless experimenter


The following text is excerpted from Niels Diffrient’s new book, Confessions of a Generalist.

The first thing to understand is that design is not art. As Oscar Wilde is purported to have said “Art is absolutely useless.”

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In spite of some topical conceits such as “Functional Art” or “Art Design” and other such oxymorons, art remains without utility; design is integral with utility and usefulness. This means fulfilling the needs of people which includes aesthetic considerations, separating it from engineering design and other technical, specialized pursuits. The next thing to understand is that design, as currently practiced, is an activity not a profession. Whether one is a fashion designer, graphic designer, product designer or interior designer, one is still pursuing an activity or applied practice. Design, as a word, is a verb, not a noun, and as such is not a suitable identifier for a practice that has not yet reached the standards of a profession. The next thing to understand is that design, as currently constituted and practiced, is mainly focused on visual aesthetics.  Even so, there are those who make it their duty to see that their designs fulfill expectations in serving the user appropriately. These designers are acting responsibly, employing human factors and consulting experts in supportive fields to verify that the designs do, indeed, provide a useful service as well as an appropriate aesthetic presence. Strangely enough this responsible approach to designing for people is not universally practiced or popularly supported. The responsible practitioners are largely in the field of industrial design doing consumer goods from washing machines to garden tractors. Others are in electronics, which is a burgeoning field with a plethora of designs composed largely of printed circuits and various elements in cleverly shaped, seductive containers. Actually, the designers would do more good designing the nature of the software and its effect on society and the long- term consequences of the pervasiveness of digital systems. There are various other practical areas of useful designs, but these are not the kinds of design that are generally featured in magazines and newspapers, nor are they shown to any extent in museum collections or popular award programs. When was the last time you went to see a museum’s collection of product designs featuring washing machines or garden tractors? Since most design collections are shown in art museums, such items would not be appropriate. Instead what one is more apt to see has long been known as decorative art. This includes furniture, tabletop items, dishes, vases, silverware and other [things] largely judged on appearance. Even when a function-based product is shown, it is based on its appearance not how well it performs.

Years ago I encountered Philip Johnson and Arthur Drexler, both responsible for design and architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. I pointed out to them that among the handsome selection of design products in their collections there were many that did not function very well and were not as qualified in utility as they were in appearance. The response I received was “We are an art museum, not Consumers Union.” Actually this was an honest answer but it didn’t justify the fact that their collection was being seen by vast numbers of people who did not comprehend this caveat and instead were being educated to think what they saw represented the best of design. Even if the museums wanted to show design that was both useful and aesthetic, they are not equipped to evaluate how well a design serves the needs of the user. The upshot of this situation is that for enlightening the general population on how design could improve their lives there are virtually no popular references to adequately fulfill this need. The final thing to understand is the importance of design to improve life and experience. The activity we refer to as Design, though not yet fully developed and certainly not yet established sufficiently to be considered a profession, has still given the civilized world a higher quality of experience than just those essentials that technical and scientific advancements can offer. Humans are sensitive to a broad range of experiences. The nature of the various experiences, from the basic essentials to the most elevated and refined, when summed up determine the quality of life and existence. One can survive on the basic essentials, but one’s existence is without much joy or emotional satisfaction. In short, just the basics of survival, though essential, still amount to a colorless life. In reviewing the full spectrum of experiences that we are capable of, we see that the lower fundamentals, from survival to safety and economy, are largely supported by various specialized activities provided by technical practices of all types from law enforcement to financial and medical. This category contains the essential services that sustain the foundation necessary to build the higher more refined levels of experience.

The next are those things that add civility and cooperation, forming the more advanced stages of experience. Again, we are largely dependent on specialists in various fields to make the experiences operative. Yet this level of specialist occasionally offers something beyond just the specialty; there is room for other ingredients such as elegance, refinement, and sensitivity. The added patina of these qualities begins to elevate the basic service to an intangible yet satisfying level. Finally, the ultimate quality of experiences are wholly unspecifiable or accurately defined, yet they are the most deeply moving and satisfying for those who are sensitive enough to appreciate them. As we move up this scale of human potential, we notice that specialist activities and practices tend to be relegated to the lower categories. True, without the practical foundation the upper level experiences would not generally be supported, yet our lives would not be fulfilled if we didn’t seek to reach the highest levels. It is my belief that this pursuit is the ultimate responsibility of design to understand and participate in the lower levels, but also to include an operative capability in the higher levels of human experience. But this cannot be done by sympathetic intentions only. Without broad capabilities and rigor in application, the circumstances of life attuned to the intangible values of higher experience would fall back on mysteries, faith, and insupportable beliefs which may give solace, but not the very real circumstances that are possible to make the exotic and aesthetic values of living an operational reality. Design as practiced shows signs of intent to reach a more expansive understanding and creation of situations and products that support experiences with intent to reach higher levels. Before this can be accomplished we must advance beyond a practice to a profession. I have doubts this will happen without some fundamental shifts, primarily the recognition of our greatest novelty and strength which is to begin operating at what we have always pursued, but not formalized: to be generalists.

Niels Diffrient has a degree in architecture and design. He has worked with Eero Saarinen, Walter B. Ford, Marco Zanuso, Henry Dreyfuss and was a senior partner and owner after Dreyfuss retired. His long-term involvement in ergonomics lead to the publication of Humanscale, a set of three volumes on human factors. He has taught at Yale and the University of California. His new book, Confessions of a Generalist, is a self-published and self-marketed biography.

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