The Language of Design

‘We believe that [design] props can have multiple voices or languages, or […] perspectives they can be designed from.’ – Dunne and Raby, 2013 (1)
Design has a specific language and vocabulary, similar to disciplines such as fine art that already have an established writing practice.

In that context, writing about design can be viewed as a practice that can be as much part of designing as physical prototyping. However, there are still questions about design history’s place within the traditions of academic writing and its place in design practice.

As Dunne and Raby stated it in their 2013 work Speculative Everything:

‘The most interesting voice or perspective to design from […] and probably most neglected, is the designer’s own language.’(2)

As much as writing about design is no longer a novelty, this quite recent comment by the authors illustrates that the language of design not having to be limited to catch- and power-phrasing still doesn’t seem to have reached public understanding. As Dunne and Raby suggest, the discipline’s own neglect of the written word may be cause to this phenomenon. Grace Lees-Maffei considers very accurately in Writing Design: Words and Objects that the act of writing can place an object in public space beyond the limitations of physicality. This notion is particularly important for the field of design as many projects never make it beyond the point of ideas or initial sketches and thereby ‘exist outside the category of objects’(3) – if never spoken or written about, unaccessible. The act of writing about design and reflecting on work can even result in a better understanding of the designer’s own practice:

‘I woke one morning and saw two jugs on the table; without any mental struggle I saw the edges in relation to each other, and how gaily they [moved].’ – Alison Britton (4)

Design history already has an established and alive history, which is made evident by the organization of the second part of The Design History Reader entitled ‘Methods and Themes’. This part in six chapters points out topics that design and design history have been engaging with since it came to existence. The topics are presented to the reader in a roughly chronological order which demonstrates the discipline’s ability to address cultural issues and concerns and the written word’s potential to help manifest design’s place in the world.(5)

Those who write about design appear to be those who study its history and those who practice it alike. Subtitled Words and Objects, Writing Design also evokes the question whether there is still a perceived distance between how design is practiced and how it is written about. Very noticeable the essays presented in the volume are alongside contributions from historians written by designers and architects, perhaps in an editorial attempt to bridge the gap between language in practical and academic environment.(6)

The essays reach from examples of the importance of the poetic instructions for the construction of the Museum of Childhood in London by David Kohn to the struggle with correct legal wording and written representation for the protection of intellectual property.(7)

In this way the volume illustrates the importance of the word in a multitude of aspects but also highlights that there can be extreme differences in the writing’s character depending on the context. The written word is not necessarily secondary to the artifact or idea, but can have the potential to stand on its own and moreover, influence the way we talk – and thereby think of – new innovations:

‘Writing about interaction and innovation design expressing the interrelationship between the real and the unreal and how the language of design has been particularly prescient in establishing a vocabulary for technological innovation, albeit in an almost unrecognised capacity.’ – Dunne and Raby, 2013

When designers write about design, their view and style of writing is going to differ from those of design historians that do not act within design practice. Themselves being makers, their viewpoint on the topic may be influenced by their own practice and sometimes even their personal lives. In this context, the use of personal pronouns in texts on design by designers such as Dunne and Raby is an interesting aspect to look at. As philosopher Cameron Tonkinwise criticises in his review of Speculative Everything the word ‘we’ is used by the authors in an extensive manner, both referring to them expressing their shared opinion as a couple but also to speak for what they view as humanity in general.

He asks:

‘The “we” of “We have become a society of individuals […] is obviously not the same “we” as “We coined the term critical design” […]. But which “we” is the following?’(8)

Summing up, writing about design has the potential to add new layers of complexity to the practice. Finally, designers themselves using language as part of their practice can make texts particularly engaging: ‘they are up front about owning the opinions expressed in the book rather than the perspectival-less declaratives of most academic writing.’(9)


1 Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. London 2013, p. 96.

2 Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, 2013: p. 96.

3 Grace Lees-Maffei (ed.), Writing Design: Words and Objects, (ed.) Grace Lees-Maffei, Berg, London and New York, 2012, p.4.

4 Alison Britton Statement of Practice – The Fiction of Form in: The Journal of Modern Craft Volume 2, Issue 1, Berg, March 2009, p. 94. Alison Britton is quoted as an example for a craftswoman that uses active written reflection to enhance her work.

5 Grace Lees-Maffei and Rebecca Houze (eds.) The Design History Reader, Berg, Oxford and New York, 2010. For better understanding: make a rough comparison the titles of the six sections presented in the second part of the volume with political and social trends from the early 1970s until 2010, publishing year of the volume.

6 Grace Lees-Maffei (ed.) Writing Design: Words and Objects, (ed.) Grace Lees-Maffei, Berg, London and New York, 2012.

7 Grace Lees-Maffei (ed.), 2012: compare p. 149, 222. This is a very short sum-up of two articles which of course does not do their complexity justice.

8 Cameron Tonkinwise, How We Intend to Future: Review of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming, Design Philosophy Papers, 12:2, 2014, compare paragraph We We We

9 Cameron Tonkinwise: compare pp.171-172. For better understanding: apart from his criticism concerning the use of personal pronoun ‘we’ by Dunne and Raby the author admits that there is a personal quality and authorship involved in the use of it.