John Maeda is wrong about design
A couple days ago, RISD president John Maeda tweeted that “Design is a solution to a problem. Art is a question to a problem.” Perhaps he was kidding, but I have to object. To me, good design raises new questions. If designers simply solve problems, we deaden design and culture by making things that operate at the most mundane level. Instead, we should create things that inspire, challenge, provoke, surprise, satisfy, engage and open up opportunities. The best design changes the context around it and allows people to see and feel the world in a new way. What problem did the Porsche 356 solve? What is the impact of the new Seattle Public Library? Why is the iPhone important? What’s interesting about Paula Scher‘s posters? What makes a great hammer?
Each of these play a role in people’s lives with broad effects in terms of activities, emotions, thinking, tactility, social interactions, creativity, work, play, and more. Even the “functional” hammer does more than solve the problem of putting nails into wood – it feels right in the hand, it gains a patina over time that makes it personal, in a pinch it will open a beer bottle, and you can use it to repair a church after Katrina.
In particular, if we think about Interactive Design, the highest goal should be to empower people to create their own meaning spaces, not solve pre-determined problems or even make great experiences. As I’ve discussed in my Productive Interaction paper and in The New Ecology of Things, design plays a greater role than serving tasks and solving problems. The things in our lives communicate, create social exchanges, and enable us to manipulate both the tangible and the idea. They afford creative abuse and invention. Forget solving problems, design things to be productive, embodied, mythological, meaningful.