A Taxonomy of Design

Bruce and Stephanie Tharp have written an interesting article on Core 77 that tries to create a taxonomy of the messy world of design.

As academics responsible for making sense of this jumble for our students then, we feel like those professional bic-a-brac organizers you see on daytime talk shows, confronting the tumult of someone’s bloated car garage. So after some long days and a dumpster-load of capabilities lists, here we present everything neatly ordered onto 4 shelving units. Behold the Design Garage—a categorizing of designed-object activity into four primary fields: Commercial DesignResponsible Design,Experimental Design, and Discursive Design.

They make the distinction between commercial design and responsible design, but part of the problem is that so much responsible design is disconnected from commercial realities.

They cite the OLPC, which is a perfect case in point: it has struggled to gain its projected numbers of buyers, is being over taken by commercial efforts like cheap netbooks, and in the last few days came word of an initiative to create a $10 laptop in India.

By making the commercial/responsible split we ghetto-ize, so to speak, responsible design and imply that helping large masses of the underserved cannot be done profitably. This is a sure fire way to stultify growth and let “commercial” designers off the hook.

We know from the drug industry that commercialization has its problems with tyranny of the majority and niches getting ignored, but we also know that capitalism can make things happen on a large scale if provided the right incentives. This is why Paul Hawken and others have advocated commercialization of sustainability - it’s the most effective mechanism we have to make things happen quickly.

The Tharps argue that the measure of purity of Responsible Design is it’s intent: is it primarily intended to help others, rather than to make money? I would suggest that this is sure way to help a small number of people very well.