Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 15, 2018
Glenn Parsons The Philosophy of Design Malden, MA: Polity, 2015. 176 pp. Paperback $22.95 (9780745663890)

Glenn Parsons, an associate professor of philosophy at Ryerson University in Toronto, has managed a very difficult task: he has written a solid philosophy book about design that is firmly grounded in design and the problems of designers. Parsons’s introduction stakes out his goal—“showing that design is a realm worthy of philosophical exploration in its own right” (3)—but his book, in contrast to much of what is labeled “design philosophy,” is about design as analyzed by a philosopher rather than philosophy imposed on the subject of design. It is this grounding that makes it a useful book for design students and practitioners as well as anyone interested in thinking about design.

Parsons recognizes an overlap but distinguishes theory from philosophy, noting that the former concentrates on the practice of design and is framed by current practicalities. While the distinction makes sense, this book makes it tempting to see it the other way around. Despite (or perhaps because of) philosophy’s concentration on “fundamental questions,” Parsons’s writing is anchored in the basic questions I hope designers and students of design ask: What is it that designers do? How do we do it? Where do answers to those questions come from? What restrictions should there be on what we do?

In tackling the first question, the book considers the explanations of Christopher Jones, Herbert Simon, Horst Rittel, and many other theorists of design. It tests various explanations. Parsons resists the inclusive definitions that tend to arise and concentrates on professional design as an activity that rose during the industrial revolution. He acknowledges the validity of less narrow definitions of design by labeling the professional activity he examines as Design with a capital D. Parsons devotes the first chapter to the question “What is design?” but unlike many who put forth definitions as declarations, he explores the origins of the various likely answers, their strengths, and the problems with each answer.

The second question, How do we do it?, is a recurring theme in the book—the “epistemological problem inherent with Design.” Parsons contrasts a designer’s confidence in the results of a project with that of artists and practitioners of tradition-based crafts. As opposed to the latter’s “trial-and-error testing by tradition, the Designer seems to be left with no reason for confidence in [an] ability to satisfy the aims for which [the project] was created. It is, as it were, a shot in the dark” (37). As one might expect of a philosophy professor, he explores the strengths and weaknesses of various possible explanations as he contrasts design with the tradition-guided goals of craft and the author-guided goals of art.

For better or worse (and I believe for better), Parsons concentrates on modernist design for the answer to the third question—Where do our answers to the first two questions come from? He tells us that “the Modernists saw, more clearly than anyone else, the central philosophical issues relevant to design, and the connections between them, even if they often failed to develop their philosophical insights” (2–3). As modernism seems more and more to be merely a dying dogma or an arbitrary style with pretensions to Truth, The Philosophy of Design shows us a modernism that may not have had all the answers but at least started to ask some of the right questions. The relationship of design to its era, the role of aesthetics and personal expression, and the meaning of function are among the issues that modernism brought into focus.

Academics are often rightly accused of tortured, impenetrable prose, and philosophers regularly provide prime examples. Glenn Parsons’s writing, however, is clear and accessible. He doesn’t assume his readers’ knowledge of philosophical jargon but avoids getting bogged down in a general philosophy lesson. The flow is slightly impeded by occasional numbered chapter subheads and the leave-no-stone-unturned argument style, but one joy of this book is the nearly obsessive organization and consideration of every obvious counterargument. As with a good law-journal article, it assures that you do not have to guess whether other perspectives were considered fairly.

The Philosophy of Design would be an excellent textbook in a design-theory class. The same features that make it a good undergraduate text—clarity, thorough thought, and fairly consistent relevance for designers—will make it a worthwhile book for designers who are far enough away from school that they want to reconsider received wisdom about their profession and for design historians wanting to clarify the various boundaries of their subject.

Design students or designers hoping that the second chapter, “The Design Process,” will be a recipe book will, of course, be disappointed. Instead, Parsons explores themes that will become increasingly important in later chapters—functionality, aesthetic appeal, symbolic or expressive aspects, and mediation—and the role of design in affecting the relationships of people and the world at large.

The third chapter is devoted specifically to modernism and its rational conception of design. This rationalist stream is, of course, just one part of the far-from-homogeneous flow that was modernism (or even, more narrowly, modernist design). It is, however, the stream that had the most lasting influence on our understanding of modernist design and, arguably, the most lasting influence on design in general.

Those of us who were active in design during the 1980s and early 1990s remember that modernism died and that we all went to the funeral and danced on its grave. Parsons’s systematic construction of a fairly coherent philosophy from the fragments of modernist thought prompts serious consideration of whether the wake was premature. He makes a good case that important answers are available in that philosophy.

Chapters titled “Expression,” “The Concept of Function,” and “Function, Form and Aesthetics” are followed by Ethics. Here Parsons seems to revert to a broader definition of design, and his examples of choices regarding safety and resource conservation seem to be more the sort of thing dealt with by people who aren’t involved in the aesthetic and expressive arenas that much of the book focuses on.

An epilogue then considers the meaning of modernism. Even while rescuing the label from being a purely stylistic designation (thus avoiding what Jeffery Keedy famously dismissed as “Zombie Modernism,” Emigre 34, 1995), The Philosophy of Design doesn’t really delve into the question of the relationship of stylistic modernism and philosophical modernism in design. This question does seem to be outside the realm of philosophy; maybe Parsons’s definitions can become a basis for design theorists considering what various sorts of modernisms might or might not look like.

It’s hard to think of a rationalist-functionalist approach that takes us very far away from the earlier results of solving functional problems and then letting “expression, aesthetic value and mediation become, as it were, ‘spin-off’ values that follow effortlessly” (63), as Parsons would have it. Even while modernism was on the rise in design, Beatrice Warde’s “The Crystal Goblet” (1932) made a claim that the “new traditionalist” typography she trumpeted was the work that was actually functional thus modern, perhaps challenging the philosophical/stylistic marriage. As others have noted, everything from molded plastic cases over radios to digital devices have confounded thoughts of certain sorts of functional aesthetic determinism. Modernism’s focus on zeitgeist worked for a machine age during which it was the mechanism or the structure that made sense to express. The style may not hold up as well in an era when much of our culture has dematerialized.

An objection to my assumption that physicality is an important point goes hand-in-hand with what some might see as the problem with The Philosophy of Design generally. While those who never stopped celebrating modernism’s supposed demise may object to its centrality in Parsons’s argument, others may see the book as hopelessly mired in the past, ignoring human-centered design, codesign, service design, the possible role of intelligent machines, and whatever else may seem more central today.

Those possible objections noted, The Philosophy of Design not only establishes a strong platform for thinking about design but is readable and coherent. Those objecting to its focus should still contend with its arguments.

Gunnar Swanson
Professor, East Carolina University School of Art and Design