How to Cite

Sully, N., O’Rourke, T., & Wilson, A. (2021). Design. M/C Journal, 24(4). (Original work published August 12, 2021)
Vol. 24 No. 4 (2021): design
Published 2021-08-12 — Updated on 2021-08-13

Conventional definitions of design rarely capture its reach into our everyday lives. The Design Council, for example, estimates that more than 2.5 million people use design-related skills, principles, and practices on a daily basis in UK workplaces (Design Council 5, 8). Further, they calculate that these workers contribute £209 billion to the economy annually (8). The terrain of design professions extends from the graphic design of online environments, the business models that make them economically viable, and the algorithms that enable them to function, through to the devices we use, the clothes we wear, the furniture we sit on and the spaces where we live and work. Yet paradoxically a search of online dictionaries reiterates the connection of design primarily to drawing and making plans for buildings.

As we witness the adoption of practices of “design thinking” in non-traditional design disciplines, it is interesting to note that the Italian renaissance term disegno, referred to both drawing and aspects of thinking. Giorgio Vasari claimed that design was “the animating principle of all creative processes” (Sorabello). Buckminster Fuller was just as florid and even more expansive when he argued that “the opposite of design is chaos” (Papanek 2). The Oxford English Dictionary captures a broad sense of design as “a plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent execution” (OED Online).

This issue of M/C Journal offered contributors the opportunity to consider “design” in its broadest sense. The articles in this issue cast a wide net over design in both practice and theory, and emerge from varied disciplinary bases including material culture, graphic design, media studies, and architecture. The authors critique diverse design practices and pedagogy as well as the social reach of design and its political potential.

Design Canons and the Economy

While design histories begin with the earliest accounts of toolmaking (Margolin), the Industrial Revolution reinforced the more abstract intellectual dimensions of the discipline. Changing methods of production distinguished making from thinking and led to the emergence of the design profession (Spark).

During the twentieth century, New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) was instrumental in not only raising awareness of design, but its exhibitions and acquisitions endorsed and canonised the styles and figures associated with “good design”. From its promotion of modern architecture in 1932, to the Good Design exhibition in 1950, MoMA’s advocacy reinforced a selective (and exclusive) canon for modernist design, educating the design-conscious consumer and reaching out to public taste, even advising of local stockists. Design became a means to mediate the art of the past with contemporary furnishings, that they accurately predicted would become the art of the future (MoMA 1). Drawing from this context, in this issue, Curt Lund’s essay interrogates a porcelain toy tea set from 1968 through the lens of material culture analysis to confirm its role in mediating relationships, transmitting values, and embodying social practices, tastes, and beliefs. 

MoMA was not unique in recognising both the artistic merit and commercial potential of design. Few design activities are inseparable from the market economy and the language of design has infiltrated business more broadly. Design processes are used in seemingly novel ways across businesses and governments seeking to improve their digital and real-world services. A 2018 report by the UK’s Design Council recognised the expanding reach of design and the competitive advantage of design-based economies:

the skills, principles and practices of design are now widely used from banking to retail. Designers, too, have always drawn on a range of different skills, tools and technologies to deliver new ideas, goods and services. This is what makes design unique, and is how it makes products, services and systems more useful, usable and desirable in advanced economies around the world. (Design Council 5)

Underpinned by design, the global gaming market, for example, is an expanding multi-billion-dollar industry. In this issue, Heather Blakey explores connections made in the digital world. Her article asks, how the design of interactions between characters in the game world can align the player experience with the designer's objectives? The reality of working within the design economy is also addressed by Yaron Meron, whose article in this issue examines the frequent absence of the brief in the graphic design context. Meron highlights problems that arise due to a recurring failure to define the scope of the brief and its significance to a formal collaborative framework between designers and their clientele.

Recognition of the design economy’s value has translated to the educational sector. With the expansion of design practice beyond its traditional twentieth century silos, higher education managers are seeking to harness design as a source of innovation, driven by the perceptions of value in disparate industries. This desire for interdisciplinarity raises significant questions about pedagogy and the future of the design studio, which has anchored design tuition since the late nineteenth century. Mark Sawyer’s and Philip Goldswain’s article proposes the employment of concepts from open design literature, “meta-design”, and design “frames” to inform a toolkit to enable shared meaning in an architectural studio setting.

Design for a Better World

The American industrial designer George Nelson described design as “an attempt to make a contribution through change” (Packard 69), echoing the perception that progress represents improvement in a teleological sense. Many designers have long pursued social agendas and explored solutions to inequities. What loosely unites the disparate design disciplines is a shared sense that design improves the world we live in. But even with the best intentions, design does not inevitably lead to a better world.

Accounts of design frequently recognise its shortcomings. These might include narratives that document or delight in famous design failures, such as the complex circumstances that led to the famed demolition of the Pruitt Igoe housing complex in the 1970s (Bristol). We also regularly encounter design flaws in the digital environment—whether an encryption algorithm open to compromise or online forms that do not recognise apostrophes or umlauts. Although on one level this leads to frustration, it also leads to other types of exclusion.

Lisa Hackett’s article on 1950s-style fashion shows how the failure of the fashion industry to accommodate varying body shapes has led some women to seek solutions with vintage-style fashion choices. Hackett’s article brings to mind the serious concerns that occur when the standards that define the normative fail to account for large parts of the population. Overlooking gender and race can have a cumulative and significant impact on the everyday lives of women and minorities (Criado-Perez). The global pandemic has emphasised the dangers arising from PPE ill-designed for racial and gender diversity (Porterfield).

The idea that design was a means of progressive improvement began to be prominently debunked in the 1960s with the discussion of the design life of machines, objects, and buildings. Planned obsolescence—or designed obsolescence as it was also known—came to attention in the early 1960s when Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers called into question the ethics of post-war consumerism. Packard’s work drew attention to the ethical responsibilities of designers, by revealing their complicity in the phenomenon of planned obsolescence.

Packard’s critique linked the problem of “growthmanship” with issues of saturation and disposal (Packard 5). Large digital libraries replace physical objects but introduce new types of clutter. The anxieties produced by alerts that one’s device is “out of memory” may be easily dismissed as “first world problems”, but the carbon footprint of digital communication and storage is a global concern (Tsukayama; Chan). Digital clutter is explored in Ananya’s article “Minimalist Design in the Age of Archive Fever” in this issue. Ananya contrasts minimalist aesthetics, and Marie Kondo-style decluttering, with our burgeoning prosthetic memory, and its attendant digital footprint.

In the late 1960s, Victor Papanek considered the ethics of design choices, and in particular, the nexus between design and consumerism, acknowledging Thorstein Veblen’s coruscating critique of conspicuous consumption. But Papanek also drew attention to contemporary environmental crises. He railed against industrial designers, architects, and planners, attributing blame for the profligate consumerism and environmental degradation arguing that “in all pollution, designers are implicated, at least partially" (14).

Inclusive Design 

Papanek’s influential advocacy acknowledged the political dimensions of design and the inherent biases of the time. In response to his teaching, Danish student Susanne Koefoed designed the now ubiquitous International Symbol of Access (ISA), which Guffey suggests is the most widely exported work of Scandinavian design (358). In this issue’s feature article, Sam Holleran explores the connection between visual literacy and civic life, and the design of an international symbol language, which aimed to ameliorate social disadvantage and cultural barriers.

Discussions of inclusive design acknowledge that design history is most often Eurocentric, and frequently exclusionary of diversity. Articles in this issue examine more inclusive approaches to design. These efforts to make design more inclusive extend beyond the object or product, to examining techniques and processes that might improve society. Poiner and Drake, for example, explore the potential and challenges of participatory approaches in the design of buildings for a remote Indigenous community.

Fredericks and Bradfield, in this issue, argue that Indigenous memes can provoke audiences and demand recognition of First Nations peoples. The meme offers a more inclusive critique of a national government’s intransigence to constitutional change that recognises Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination. Further, they advocate for co-design of policy that will enshrine an Indigenous Voice to the Australian Parliament.

There are many reasons to be grateful for design and optimistic about its future: the swift design and production of efficacious vaccines come to mind.  But as Papanek recognised 50 years ago, designers, most often handmaidens of capital, are still implicated in the problems of the Anthropocene. How can design be used to repair the legacies of a century of profligacy, pollution, and climate change? Design needs its advocates, but the preaching and practice of design are best tempered with continuous forms of critique, analysis, and evaluation.


The editors thank the scholars who submitted work for this issue and the blind referees for their thoughtful and generous responses to the articles.


Bristol, Katharine G. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Journal of Architectural Education 44.3 (1991): 163–171.

Chan, Delle. “Your Website Is Killing the Planet.” Wired, 22 Mar. 21. <>.

Criado-Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. Chatto & Windus, 2019.

"design, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2021. < Accessed 8 August 2021>.

Design Council UK. Designing a Future Economy: Developing Design Skills for Productivity and Innovation. Feb. 2018. <>.

Guffey, Elizabeth. “The Scandinavian Roots of the International Symbol of Access.” Design and Culture 7.3 (2015): 357–76. DOI: 10.1080/17547075.2015.1105527.

Margolin, Victor. World History of Design. Vol. 1. Bloomsbury, 2017.

Museum of Modern Art. “First Showing of Good Design Exhibition in New York.” Press Release. 16 Nov. 1950. <>. 

Packard, Vance. The Waste Makers. David McKay, 1960. 

Papanek, Victor J. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. Bantam Books, 1973. 

Porterfield, Carlie. “A Lot of PPE Doesn’t Fit Women—and in the Coronavirus Pandemic, It Puts Them in Danger.” Forbes, 29 Apr. 2020. <>.

Sorabella, Jean. “Venetian Color and Florentine Design.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. Oct. 2002 <>.

Sparke, Penny. “Design.” Grove Art Online, 2003. <>.

Tsukayama, Hayley. “How Bad Is Email for the Environment?” Washington Post, 25 Jan. 2017. <>.

Author Biographies

Nicole Sully, School of Architecture, University of Queensland

Nicole Sully is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture at the University of Queensland and a member of the ATCH research group. Her research focuses on the interdisciplinary relationship of architecture and memory; modern architecture; pathologies of place; and more broadly the history and heritage of Australian Architecture. Nicole’s publications include: Shifting Views: Selected Essays on the Architectural History of Australia and New Zealand, (with Leach and Moulis, 2008); Out of Place (Gwalia): Occasional essays on Australian regional communities and built environments in transition (with Goldswain and Taylor, 2014), and “Architecture from the Ouija Board: Louis Kahn’s Roosevelt Memorials and the Posthumous Monuments of Modernism", Fabrications, (2019).

Timothy O'Rourke, School of Architecture, University of Queensland

Tim O’Rourke teaches and researches architectural design and technology at the University of Queensland. His research is broadly concerned with past and present applications of cross-cultural design across different building types and settings. Such projects often require multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of architectural problems, informed by the histories of buildings and the people that use them.

Andrew Wilson, School of Architecture, University of Queensland

Andrew Wilson teaches and researches architectural design and history and theory in the School of Architecture at the University of Queensland. His research is split between architecture’s relationship to the city and accounts of urban and architectural histories of the recent past.