Design’s natural order

Chantal Omodiagbe investigates the value of design’s non-intentional outcomes, challenging conventional practice and embracing creativity’s natural order.

By definition commercial design is a considered process where ideas are constructed then visualised by combining both creative and intellectual thinking. Design is necessarily intentional. It is most usually steered by project briefs, driven by business goals, and ultimately tested against client objectives. But could design be ‘non-intentional’ and what kind of design might result from such a practice?

Two German academics, Uta Brandes and Michael Erlhoff, introduce us to a concept called Non-Intentional Design (NID), also the title of their book – (Daab GMBH, 2006). Brandes and Erlhoff construct a viable design paradigm in which everyday objects are re-appropriated and redefined as something new. They define ‘Non-Intentional Design’ as “…the use and exploitation of objects already designed…Non Intentional design lends apparently unambiguous objects a polymorphism, implies transformation combined with clever invention and novel functions. NID is created out of necessity, convenience and play.”

A traffic cone used as a speaker. A cigar box as a wine glass cover. A newspaper folded into a conical hat. A wire coat hanger used as an aerial on a radio. Brandes and Erlhoff’s selection of 85 mostly staid photographs showing day- to-day objects redefined by their users’ random re-use and manipulation are, to this viewer, blindingly ordinary, the images being so wholly guilty of their own accessibility.

However, while the notion may seem flawed on face value, the application of this thinking is surprisingly significant. This publication is not interested in offering the expected quota of good design ideas, nor does it care much about aesthetics. However, the book’s collection of images holds a distant allure in its presentation of the power of imagination and human behaviour’s strokes with brilliance that might one day translate to award winning product design.

Dr. Lily Diaz, Professor, Systems of Representation & Digital Cultural Heritage at the University of Art and Design Helsinki incorporates the idea of ‘non-intentional design’ into her design research seminars. She says, “NID offers a useful approach in situations where there is a clear need to expand the set of available options or design paths, because it offers completely new ways to look at a design situation.

“In my opinion ‘Non-Intentional Design’ pertains to the realm of tacit, experiential and contextual knowledge. This type of knowledge is quite different from the formal knowledge made explicit through scientific practices. Scientists make use of something like NID but it is not something that their discipline values necessarily.”

In her paper titled, ‘Non-intentional art practices in design’, Diaz looks at the concept of serendipity in design methodology and credits the “ontological premises inherent in such processes.” Interestingly, her exploration focuses on American experimental music composer John Cage whose use of indeterminacy and randomness resulted in no two performances ever being the same. “The art of John Cage is interesting for design because of the way in which the existential conditions that define the performance (of music or art) itself, are intentionally altered in order to propitiate the emergence of serendipity.” Here, Diaz alludes to innovation as an undervalued tool in arriving at “design creative solutions” as well as to the meaningfulness that can be extracted from our understanding of the world and environment around us. Diaz uses this idea as a starting point in her research seminars asking her students the questions: How is the world put together? What are the artefacts [objects and concepts] and their meanings and how are they structured into this thing we call “everyday life?” How do the artefacts that we create enable or constrain our existence?

Design and innovations company Ideo, (pronounced “EyE-DEE-OH”), has been identified by the Boston Consulting Group since 2005 as one of the most innovative companies in the world and was listed in the top 50 innovators list in Fast Company’s February 2008 issue.

Paul Bennett, Creative Director, Ideo London, gave a TED presentation in July 2005 in Oxford, England titled ‘Design is in the Details’ [], in which he gave a number of examples demonstrating how the observations of people doing everyday things can be used to arrive at design solutions which serve to enhance the human experience in a diversity of environments and situations. By default Bennett’s position supports the NID theory but what is relevant and what truly makes a difference here is the business application of this thinking.

In an article in Fast Company in February 2008, Ideo CEO Tim Brown, was quoted as saying: “Today, we’re working in social domains such as wellness, sustainability, and design for markets where people live on less than a dollar a day. This creates opportunities to make a significant impact on people’s lives. As social issues increasingly become business issues this will be a critical new direction for design.” (Fast Company, Fast 50 2008: Ideo; February 19, 2008, Linda Tischler).

Another interesting manifestation of the non-intentional design ‘theory’ lies in a piece of work presented to Sydney’s College of Fine Arts. The 2004 project belongs to New York based London sculptor and designer, Debra Franses Bean (

Titled “Giving, Taking and Reciprocity”, the project’s investigative nature sought answers to the act of giving. Using French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s theory that a gift can not be understood to be a genuine act because by implication a gift resides outside the oppositional demands of giving and taking [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy], Bean’s project took her to Varanassi, Rajasthan and Delhi in India where miscellaneous western objects donated by friends and family were randomly given to local villagers.

“It was fascinating to see objects that we assign rigid prescriptive uses for, being re-appropriated for a local need, explains Bean. ”It seemed that many of the objects we gave away weren’t recognised for their primary utility and were often chosen for a particular aesthetic.

One young girl selected a bottle of Aveda Shampoo purely for the bottle’s function as a vessel – her father used old bottles for collecting water from the local well in his village. “The significant irony lay in the girl’s own physical beauty and her dark trellis of long hair,” adds Bean. “It really could have been a clever ad campaign.”

Says Bean on NID, “ While the book feels like a series of highly institutionalised and somewhat drab photographs, the importance of gesture and playfulness in the design of useful objects and products, as well as NID’s implied application of economies of scale, make NID an important line of thought from a socio-cultural perspective.”

It is perhaps no coincidence that Brandes and Erlhoff have picked up on this area of contemporary design thinking that is being echoed strongly across both corporate and design (creative) circles. That design is too often practiced as a micro-managed process with imposed pressures of deadlines and client fears, points to the need for continued change. The challenge going forward lies in communicating the benefits of innovation using ontological and effective methodologies where science and design can merge.

Published in Australian Creative June 2008

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