Design Disciplines and Movements

Design Pet Peeve #5: Let’s address the specific design principal of Consistency: The use of elements the same throughout a system no matter where or how they are employed; and how the lack thereof can cause stress, frustration, and sometimes dangerous situations.  Since I spend a great deal of my design time on signs, I will use them as my examples.  Traveling by car to a new destination without the aid of an accurate GPS unit can be highly stressful.  If your destination is a major attraction such as a specific spot within an airport, the signs should lead you right to it, like Hansel and Gretel breadcrumbs strewn on a forest path.  But just as in the fairy tail, sometimes those breadcrumbs mysteriously disappear mid-journey.  And sometimes, the design, color scheme, size, placement, symbology, or text content change from sign to sign or location to location, making the journey all that much more frustrating.

Traveling through Spain last year brought the subject of consistency graphically to the fore for me.  I returned a rental car to the Madrid Barajas Airport one rainy night.  Traveling highway A-2 from downtown to the airport proved to be a challenge for me and my son who was acting as a spotter.  The first decision point was marked by a huge yellow banner across the national-standard white-text-on-blue highway sign with an airplane symbol, a big “Aeropuerto,” and an exit arrow.  I was hoping to see the yellow background at every decision point from there on.  After that, however, no more yellow banner or Aeropuerto, just an airplane symbol and an arrow, sometimes white-on-blue, sometimes black-on-white, usually small.  When it came time to choose an exit to a specific terminal, it got even more difficult.  Each terminal was color-coded, but the content and/or content location on the signs was occasionally inconsistent, as was the placement of the signs in the environment; in one case, so far back from the actual intersection as to be impossible to see and comprehend in time to make a decision.  When we finally reached the driveway to the rental car area, the signage as well as the intended driving route defied comprehension.  Believe me, I’m not picking on the Spanish transportation system.  I have gotten just as lost trying to return a rental car to the Phoenix Arizona Airport due to very similar confusing signage, before the entire car rental facility was redesigned to its current exceptionally transparent configuration.  It’s just that the language barrier (I speak very little Spanish) made the inconsistencies in the Aeropuerto signage all that much more anxiety inducing.

What’s my point? With any designed system, keep it simple, obvious, logical, sequential when called for, well positioned, and employ similar to identical usage of elements from beginning to end.  People who know what they are doing or where they are going don’t need consistency in design. The rest of us can’t function without it.

Disciplines. There are dozens of disciplines and sub-disciplines that include design in their titles or functions.  Only a few examples are listed here:

Architect. Plans, designs, and specifies aesthetics, function, and construction details of built environments.

Book designer. Plans and executes the look and content of lengthy publications.

Engineer. Applies science, math, and logic to problem solving and practical ends.

Furniture designer. Plans the look, function, and materials for furniture and accessories.

Graphic designer. Combines images, text, and/or animation for a wide variety of print and digital products.

Industrial designer. Combines art and science in the creation of products, environments and/or identity.

Landscape architect. Plans, designs, and specifies construction details of built environments primarily outside buildings.

Sound designer. Specifies, arranges, and makes audio for venues such as film, television, theater, videos, etc.

Surface designer. Provides visual content to any product requiring a repeating pattern, such as wallpaper, quilting, or fabric.

Systems designer. Defines the structure, components, and interfaces for data universes.

Wayfinding designer. Creates systems and programs that allow visitors to use environments safely and productively.

Web designer. Plans and creates the look, components, navigation, and flow of web sites.

Each discipline requires specific training, and has unique areas of expertise, goals, and results.  Sometimes the processes and objectives of two or more disciplines may partially overlap, such as architecture, landscape architecture, and wayfinding design; or graphic design, wayfinding design, and web design.  Some have stringent testing and accreditation standards, by state or country, such as architecture or landscape architecture.  Most disciplines have guilds or associations that foster their interests among their practitioners, and/or serve as advocates for relations with their governments.  See Design #6: Resources, for a list of several.

In addition, the end product of most design is manufacturing and/or construction.  Now, more and more of both are accomplished in as sustainable a manner as possible.  Along with several of the more recent environmentally viable “Movements” listed below, Design #6: Resources lists several books, magazines, and web sites for sustainable and environmentally responsible materials and manufacturing processes.

Movements. The following are several movements that have been gaining popularity -- some over decades, some much more recently -- and now have profound impact on all design disciplines.  Along with each listing is included at least one reference in case you wish to investigate further.  They are listed in alphabetical order.

A.  Activity-Centered Design. This approach is based on the premise that people involved in any design process should proceed only with a deep understanding of the activity to be performed by the outcome of that design.  “Understand the activity, and the device is understandable.”

Donald Norman. “Human-Centered Design Considered Harmful.” In Interactions Magazine (a publication of the Association for Computing Machinery), July/August 2005, pp 14-16.

B.  Art Deco. A decorative style (incorrectly) named after the Paris “Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes” of 1925, this was in fact a successor to Art Nouveau from around 1914.  Art Deco combined simple, massive, and geometric forms borrowed from African, Aztec, Chinese, French Louis XVI, and Empire Styles using even more elegant and luxurious materials than had been used during the Nouveau years.  It is still influencing design today.

Edward Lucie-Smith.  The Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Art Terms. 1984, London, Thames and Hudson.

C.  Art Nouveau. This international movement flourished from around 1890 to 1910 in every field of design from architecture to book illustration.  As short-lived as it was, it has had a lasting influence on every subsequent design discipline in the western world.  It evolved gradually as an answer to Victorian sensibilities, heavily influenced by the Arts and Crafts Movement, the increasing popularity of Japanese art after 1853, and especially the graceful shapes and iconic images found in nature.  Practitioners from Antoni Gaudi (architect, 1852-1926) to Jules Chéret (graphic artist 1836-1933), to Louis Comfort Tiffany (glass and lamp design, 1848-1933) took full advantage of advances in construction, printing, and manufacturing technologies, respectively, to translate their visions into realities.

Philip B. Meggs.  A History of Graphic Design, 2nd ed. 1992, New York, NY, Van Nostrand Reinhold.

D.  Arts and Crafts Movement. Led by the English designer William Morris (1834-1896), and influenced by the philosophy of the writer/artist John Ruskin (1819-1900), this movement flourished during the last decades of the nineteenth century “as a reaction against the social, moral, and artistic confusion of the Industrial Revolution, . . . and the ‘cheap and nasty’ mass-produced goods of the Victorian Era.”  A return to design, craftsmanship, faithfulness to materials and methods of production, expression, a combining of aesthetics and function, and social value were hallmarks of a vast array of consumer goods “from buildings to bedding” designed and manufactured under the banner of this movement.  It was also one of the precursors to Art Nouveau.

Philip B. Meggs. A History of Graphic Design, 2nd ed. 1992, New York, NY, Van Nostrand Reinhold.

E.  Augmented Reality. The newest wave in virtual information, AR combined with GPS (Global Positioning System) is a real-time interactive video/audio enhancement for smart devices.  In terms of signage and wayfinding, applications added to smart devices contain all manner of visual information that can be accessed as overlays on scenes on the devices.  Public institutions such as museums use AR maps to guide visitors through their facilities.  In urban settings, AR can guide newcomers to bus stops, train stations, attractions, even the nearest pizza parlor.

Cossu, Matteo. Walk This Way: Sign Graphics Now, 2010, Collins Design and Maomao Publications.

It is just my opinion, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see AR incorporated into the windshields of private cars in the not-too-distant future, in a manner not unlike the “heads-up displays” that have functioned on military jets for decades.  Personally, I would like to see all roadside information handled in this manner; removing all signage, and substituting it with small roadside solar powered transmitters that interface with car receivers.  What would we do with all that leftover aluminum?

F.  Bauhaus. Founded by architect Walter Gropius, the “Building School” operated in three German cities from 1919 to 1933.  Although the school went through several changes during its brief existence, its teachers and overarching design principals of radically simplified forms, rationality, the idea that “form follows function,” and the concept that manufacturing and aesthetics were not mutually exclusive, have had a profound influence on all areas of design throughout the western world to this day.  Its influences were Constructivism and “De Stijl.”

Wikipedia: Bauhaus.

G.  Biomimicry. From the ancient Greek bios, meaning life, and mimesis, meaning to imitate, biomimicry is a science of: 1. studying nature as a model (solar cells inspired by photosynthesis in a leaf); 2. using ecological standards as a measure of “rightness” (what works, what lasts); and 3. valuing nature as a mentor (what we can learn from nature instead of just what we can extract from it).  It is a discipline that points the way to how humans can perpetuate our existence – and possibly thrive -- on Earth.

Janine M. Benyus, Biomimicry, 1998, 2002. NY, HarperCollins.

H.  Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM is a relatively new and comprehensive approach to architectural design that incorporates more than just using software to create fully explorable virtual versions of buildings-in-progress.  While BIM does provide 3 dimensional views of a building’s exterior and interior, it is also parametric and interconnected, allowing any change to one element to be reflected in all other aspects of the project, including finances and construction specifics.

Krygiel, Eddy and Bradley Nies. Green BIM, 2008, Wiley Publishing, Inc.

I. CAD/CAM. Computer-Aided Design/Computer-Aided Manufacturing are broad terms for the use of various computer software and hardware in the design, analysis, and manufacturing of a broad range of products and built environments. They are just two subdivisions of numerous computer-aided technologies in use today.  The outcome of CAD/CAM can be two-dimensional drawings, three-dimensional modeling drawings, and/or animations. In simple terms, project specifics and dimensional information input by designers and engineers is manipulated and output digitally or plotted on paper.  Any specific information can be shared among many users at computers all over the world, included with information input from another source, and checked digitally for compatibility and correctness with any other aspect of a project.  The design information can then be fed directly into computer-controlled machines for manufacturing.  CAD/CAM technology saves on time, costs, and mistakes.

Petrosky, Henry. Invention by Design. 1996, Harvard University Press.

J.  C.R.A.P. These are four basics of design for the non-designer.  Following these simple principals will avoid producing sub-standard printed materials.

C.  Contrast: Make sure elements are different.

R. Repetition: Develops organization and unity.

A. Alignment: Visual connection with no arbitrary placement.

P.  Proximity: Related items should be grouped together.

Robin Williams. The Non-Designer’s Design Book: Design and Typographic Principals for the Visual Novice, 3rd ed. 2008.  Berkeley, CA, Peachpit Press. Also: Daniel H. Pink. A Whole New Mind. 2006. New York, NY, Riverhead Books.

K.  Design Economies. The emerging understanding that design can be a global agent for change within the “laws and powers” of nature points up the need for a new approach to the process.  No longer can we think of design as being confined to individual projects or processes carried on between client and designer.  We must now take full responsibility for the consequences of our work, and embrace the collaborative nature of design as “distributed problem solving and [a] team-based multi-disciplinary practice.”  Hence, appreciating the complex and interconnective nature of design, graphic design now becomes the “economies of information,” or product design is thought of as the “economies of movement,” for example.

Bruce Mau and the Institute Without Boundaries. Massive Change. 2004. London, Phaidon Press.

L.  Design for Humanness. Combining design with medicine, this holistic concept pays close attention to body, mind, and spirit in the process of providing environments that promote health and well-being.  For example, knowing how our six senses (Sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and our immune systems) function, and how replacing harmful, unexamined, or irrelevant stimuli with positive sensory elements allows for the creation of healing environments.

Barbara J. Huelat, ASID. Healing Environments. 2003.  Alexandria, Virginia, Medezyn.

M.  Eco-effectiveness. An approach to design that embraces an engagement with nature, rather than its control.  “Taking an eco-effective approach to design might result in an innovation so extreme that it resembles nothing we know, or it might merely show us how to optimize a system already in place.”  Instead of a conveyor belt mentality where ingredients or processes are toxic, and products fall off the end into a waste stream, this view achieves a system in which the concept of waste does not exist because buildings, products, processes, transportation, used goods, and even packaging and by-products loop back around to become nutrients, clean resources, energy producers, or high-quality materials for “upcycling” rather than just recycling.

William McDonough and Michael Braungart. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things. 2002.  NY, North Point Press.

N.  Evidence-Based Design. EBD is based on the principals that the process that goes into the design of products or built environments is based “on an explicit chain of logic that can be directly linked to facts, research findings, or field observations” performed by primary design personnel or independent specialists, and shared with the entire team and any client(s) involved.  This means that scientific research undertaken before and/or during a project, plus research into existing data on the subject of the design should be gathered and used in order to create an end product that is more relevant, appropriate, useful, and responsive to the end-users of the project.  EBD holds the potential for revolutionizing design directions for whole sectors of the economy, such as hospitals, schools, or consumer products.

Hamilton, D. Kirk, and David H. Watkins. Evidence-Based Design for Multiple Building Types. 2008, New York, Wiley.

O.  Glimmer Movement. Using a set of ten principles in Universal, Business, Social, and Personal categories, proponents espouse the glimmer of hope that “design is applicable to just about any challenge – and its principles are accessible to anyone.”  The belief is held that “asking stupid questions,” doing more with less, taking responsibility, looking with fresh eyes, a sense of optimism, and asking “why?” (among other principles) are fundamental in the shifting of design from the realm of style to that of solutions.

Warren Berger. Glimmer: How Design Can Transform Your Life, and Maybe Even The World Featuring the Ideas and Wisdom of Design Visionary Bruce Mau. 2009. NY, The Penguin Press.

P.  Green Chemistry. An article I came across lately opened up my definition of “Design” to include the shape and function of chemical compounds.  Too many exist today that do more than they should, are more environmentally harmful than they need to be, and are found where they don’t belong, such as in human breast milk.  A growing field in chemical research argues that if we can create substances with certain properties, we can also customize the molecular shapes in those compounds to limit their function, lower their toxicity, and/or control their movement and access to tissues.  If chemists are looking at design on this level, think of the possibilities for nanotechnology, materials, health, energy, etc.

Richard Ehrenberg. “Better By Design” in Science News, March 26, 2011, p. 26.  Mentioned in the article are green chemistry centers at University of California, Berkeley, and Yale University.

Q.  Human Centered Design. The philosophy of this movement centers on universality, inclusion, sustainability, health, healing, problem solving, and the idea that the design process should take into consideration the full range of abilities in the humans who use the end results of designs.  Through good design these end products should enhance and improve the human condition.

Institute for Human Centered Design, Boston, MA.

R.  Information Architecture. The art and science of applying logic, common sense, intellect, and curiosity to form data into designs that are simple, clear, effective, and artful.  Using the “thoughtful structuring of information,” the design goal of practitioners is to convey complex information to consumers in a manner as simple, precise, and understandable as possible.

Richard Saul Wurman, and Peter Bradford, editor, Information Architects, 1996. Zurich, Graphis Press.

S.  International Typographic Style. Emerging from Switzerland and Germany during the 1950’s, this approach to graphic imagery grew from de Stijl (literally "The Style", a Dutch artistic movement founded in 1917), the Bauhaus, and the typography styles of the 20’s and 30’s.  It has had a huge impact on visual thinking to this day.  The principals behind this movement are the desire to achieve order and clarity using a mathematical grid to organize asymmetrical layouts; the presentation of visual and verbal information in a clear way using “objective” photography and copy; and the setting of typography margins in flush-left and ragged-right formats.

Philip B. Meggs. A History of Graphic Design., 2nd ed. 1992. NY, Van Nostrand Reinhold.

T.  LEED Certification. The US Green Building Council sponsors a sustainability rating system that architects, engineers, and designers can aspire to in the design of their projects. Standing for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, The four levels of certification (Certified, Silver, Gold, and Platinum) designate point standings in the five major categories of Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, and Indoor Environmental Quality, plus additional points for Innovation in Design, and for Regional Priority.

Krygiel, Eddy and Bradley Nies. Green BIM, 2008, Wiley Publishing, Inc., and LEED: Wikipedia.

U.  Modular Design. Standardization and interchangeability are hallmarks of modular design.  With modularity, self-contained and interdependent parts, manufactured exactly the same every time and often with a complex inner structure, can be added to or subtracted from any whole unit easily, inexpensively, and with a greater degree of flexibility.  Henry Ford’s approach to the manufacturing of automobiles using standardized parts, assembly lines, and task-specific workstations was an example of modular thinking that put America on the road.  The computer was not always designed and built as a collection of modules, but is now, as we know it.

William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. 2003. Gloucester, MA, Rockport Publishers.

V.  Semantography. Developed by Charles K. Bliss in his book semantography (Blissymbolics), 1965, this is a visual system representing real objects and actions reduced to basic lines and curves.  Used in combinations, his system “crosses all language barriers,” and is “translatable into all tongues.”  Bliss’s conceptual thinking and choice of shapes form the basis of the international symbols used today around the world.

Dreyfuss, Henry. Symbol Sourcebook.  1972.  New York, NY, McGraw-Hill.

W.  Sustainable Design. Three primary principals of sustainable design are: 1. impact minimally on the environment with manufacturing and construction processes; 2. respect and promote the interrelation between the environment and people; and 3. use renewable resources and recycled materials.  Creating packaging that has a minimal size – and uses minimal materials -- for its purpose, uses recycled materials procured with the smallest possible carbon footprint, and is imprinted with vegetable based inks is an example of sustainable design.  This is also referred to as Green Design and Environmental Design.

US Green Building Council. Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh PA, Sustainable Design, Architecture Department. Also, Aaris Sherin. SustainAble. 2008.  Beverly, MA, Rockport Publishers.


X.  Universal Design. One definition of universal design is: Physical sites, systems, and attitudes that are envisioned and built to accommodate as wide a range of people as possible without the need for special considerations or custom adaptation.  A ramp that is installed primarily for use by people in wheelchairs is also convenient for people pushing strollers and people who are tired or have mobility issues (and coincidentally, young children who enjoy swinging on railings).  This is one example of universal design.

Center for Universal Design, North Carolina State University.  Also, William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill Butler. Universal Principles of Design. 2003. Gloucester, MA, Rockport Publishers.


Y.  Wabi-Sabi. More of a not-easily translated aesthetic mode than a true design movement, wabi-sabi is a relatively recent incorporation in such movements as minimalist and modernist design, and yet has been associated with Zen Buddhism and the sacred tea ceremony in Japan for centuries.  The wabi-sabi universe provides an approach to the ultimate nature of existence (metaphysical bases), sacred knowledge (spiritual values), emotional well-being (mental state), behavior (moral precepts), and the look and feel of things (material qualities).  Incorporated into material objects and environments, wabi-sabi embodies natural processes, irregularity, intimacy, unpretentiousness, earthiness, obfuscation, modesty, imperfection, impermanence, simplicity, and things unconventional, incomplete, and humble.

Leonard Koren. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. 1994, 2008.  Point Reyes, CA, Imperfect Publishing.

For next time: Observations on Design and Illustration #6: Design Recourses.

Comments, anyone?  To find out about my background and experience or send comments, go to

Dennis O’Brien