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Does design need a definition? An interesting essay by art historian and curator Emanuele Quinz

What exactly are we talking about when we speak of design? It was never easy to define design. In an essay for Domus architecture magazine entitled “All the definitions of design”, art historian and curator Emanuele Quinzexplores different definitions and examines why it remains important to reflect on them. Quinz begins his essay recounting one of Ettore Sottsass’ final interviews, in which he declared, “Everything is design, it is destiny.” But if everything is design, asks the author, what exactly is design? Can a binding definition be found? Or are we in fact faced with a proliferation of definitions, which all indicate the exponential expansion of the fields of application of design? In a historical summary, Quinz retraces the process of increasing differentiation within the discipline from the 1970s to the present day. He argues that the borders between industrial design and art, architecture, crafts and engineering were obvious during that initial period. The aim of the modern era, to develop a new society characterised by cars, technology, mass consumption and communication, was clearly discernible. Even the movements of the 1960s, which to some extent involved radical approaches, were not able to change this. In parallel, Quinz also writes that participatory and responsible practices spread based on the close connection that Victor Papanek and other pioneers had established between design, ecology and social development, leading “to a veritable ethical turn in design”. Further definitions then emerged with the move towards new information technologies. He writes: “With the advent of digitisation, the world has become information, and the object an interface.” He contends that design, which defines infrastructures and interactions, ever increasingly represents a form of “global” project “that conditions our behaviour, configures our consciousness, defines the spaces and times of our existence and our relationships”. In his conclusion, Quinz rejects a relativisation of various coexisting definitions, arguing that “due to its very power, its capacity to act, design represents an area of forces that are fundamental for the transformation of society”. He writes that the definition of design is fundamental at the very moment that transition becomes crisis and that survival hangs in the balance. “The precise moment in which it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to define design, is the very moment in which it is necessary to do so.”

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