What is Design and Why Does it Matter | 449 | A Psychological Approach to Understanding the Design Industry

I’m Josh Cooperman and this is Convo By Design. What is design? Is design the process of finding pretty, cool, unusual things, objects, artifacts and materials and then placing them in an order to appear pleasing? Is it a method of material placement, functional arrangement or is it something else? And, why does it matter? Right about now, you might be wondering what the hell. What’s up, Josh? you good?

I am. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I just recently completed a no code AI course through MiT. Yes, THAT MiT and while I can tell you that the math was a real challenge,, the concepts I learned were thrilling. And, it left me with more questions than answers. While everyone is talking about AI, I am hearing and seeing some things that I find disturbing. An example. Recently on Instagram, a notable personality in design was self-congratulating on the new product they created using nothing but AI tools thereby creating something that nobody asked for, nobody expressed a need for the design of this object and there was such glee in the idea that something had been created without any human influence save for the prompts used in a Midjourney rendering which was then given dimensions and finally produced.

Designer Resources

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Design Hardware – A stunning and vast collection of jewelry for the home!

Okay, cool right? That is what I thought at first glance until I really started to think about it.  I started this show 10 years ago, I’ve been publishing at least one new episode every single week since 2013. I love design and I love the creatives that make up the industry. I think anyone who spends a fair amount of time around people understands that there always have been and always will be people who don’t really understand the subject matter in which they work. It’s the difference between a Bunny Williams, Alex Papachristidis or Martyn Lawrence Bullard and a designer who spends a few years designing their own home, realize how hard it is and then drop that to be a design business consultant. The industry is littered with them and ultimately, the clients they consult are usually out of the business in a few years. When I was in broadcast sales, it was the same. Someone would take a job selling airtime only to leave in a few years to start their own radio buying service. They were always a one-dimensional enterprise that would last a few years and then, off to something else. 

Why am I asking about the “true” nature of design? We are at a bona fide turning point. There is an emerging technology in the form of AI that is going to change our industry forever. I think we are also in a place and time where there is a loss of respect for the creative side of the work in favor of less expensive, although it still has to look expensive. A new mentality that in someway makes if okay to take other people’s ideas and creativity and change it just enough to make it seem new. It’s not a legal question or even a moral one but a question of  ingenuity, creativity and the idea that creatives create new concepts, new designs, break some ground for goodness sake. I’m seeing less and less of this from those who are new to the industry.

Designers and architects are creatives who make better the lives of those who inhabit the spaces they create. Full stop. it’s not about how many awards you win, the lists upon which you find yourself and lord knows there are a lot of lists out there. It’s not about the coverage in the trade pubs, because there are fewer and fewer of those every year. And it’s not about making rooms look pretty or high luxury because at the end of the day, form is meaningless without functionality.

“Form follows function-That has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” – Frank Lloyd Wright

But even Wright got it wrong sometimes. Blasphemy, you say. After touring the Price Tower, I learned some things about Frank Lloyd Wright.  Things that everybody knows about his work. It’s too rigid in places. Like solid concrete walls that are impossible to access electrical and flat roofs that leak. Spaces that are too small like hallways & corridors. Furnishings that are neither comfortable nor functionally exceptional. But, Wright was a dreamer, an artist, the ultimate creative who thought in color, spoke his mind and had zero concern for what others thought when it came to his work. Being an artistic creative isn’t about being perfect. It’s about possessing a willingness to fail in pursuit of something meaningful.

AI is real, and if you read all the posts on social media, you know as well as I do that people in the business are nervous about their future prospects. And you should be. The individual who created a project from thin air using AI tools and finding a company to produce it… It’s novel now, but there is plenty of real stories about idea theft, plagiarism, copyright and trademark infringement or being labeled as a fraud and you don’t have to work too hard to connect the dots…

The true pioneers of the electric car. Elon Musk, right? Nope. Have you ever heard of the EV1. The first, most advanced automotive feat ever created by General Motors between 1996 and 2003. The car was introduced at the LA auto show in 1990, and by 2003, the concept was killed and almost all of the vehicles that were distributed through a lease-only program were collected and destroyed. The idea that technology had created something so dynamic it could literally destroy the auto industry as we know it. Why would you buy a car every 3 years if you could invest in a far superior product that would remain on the road for 10 years or more. You wouldn’t and the car companies knew that. And they also knew they would not survive if you could.

So, designers. Why would a client retain the services of a designer if all they had to do was input a series of well written prompts into a set of AI tools and receive back a fully rendered, CAD design.  I haven’t, but someday in the future, I will be asking the individual who created the AI product and the company that produced it if they were thinking about your future. If they are honest, the answer will be “no, not really.”

To me. Design is truly an art form that captures the essence of an individual (client), pairs it with true desire both spoken and not to produce spaces that provide a superior quality of life. 

Please note, I did not mention products, budget or anything outside of the application of skill, nuance and communication. I don’t think AI means “artificial intelligence”, it is more about ‘acquired intelligence’. I think that because it is only and always going to be rear-facing, it doesn’t posses the computational power to think and process in a forward thinking process. In other words, it can only tell you what’s been done in the past. If this were music, it could only share what has been played in the past to come up with new work product. But, that which it used to create the new work is still a derivative product from what has already been created. And the musician who created that receives no credit. Te designers who worked on products in the past made the new product created possible. If you are a designer, are you okay with others taking bits of your work to create new work product?  As a creator who has published over 450 interviews that are in the digital universe and part of the AI collective, I’m not. So what is the responsibility we all in the industry share to do AI responsibly? Well, I would say that you need to understand the technology you’re working with and not abuse its power. If you are a manufacturer, show some integrity and don’t just jump to create a product whose mere presence with negatively affect the very specifiers that keep you in business. But that won’t happen.

Have you ever heard of the Dunning Kruger Effect and the idea of illusional superiority. You may not know the name, but you know the idea behind it. The Dunning-Kruger effect is when someone’s lack of skills and knowledge in a subject permits them to overestimate their own competence in that subject. Do you know someone who always interjects with advice in matters of which they have no functional understanding or abilities? You do, we all do. Usually, it’s just a friend who shells out bad advice. But what if that person heads up a division in a popular product manufacturer. What if that person is a consultant in the business with resources and a persuasive personality. 

What if that person convinces the first person to produce a design product strictly from AI tools. It’s a gimmick that will get some ink and it might get coverage from some larger media players in the shelter space. But once that gimmick gets some oxygen, its precedent. Once established, why wouldn’t everyone do it until the novelty subsides. Do you understand that if there are no more designer lines, that is yet another profit center removed from the creative side of the business.

There is another idea called the mere-exposure effect that makes a lot of sense as well. It’s this idea that people not only become more comfortable but actually like stimuli to which they are increasingly exposed. It’s this concept that after someone is exposed to something, they will like it more due to a greater familiarity. In design, we call this a trend, right? Trends only become a bad thing, when they are trendy or popular for no other reason than others “like” or promote it. And, by “like” I mean in the social media sense of the word. The Mere Exposure Effect highlights how style familiarity, where some are drawn to a past connection to things or ideas. 

This is why you might see a design in one of the shelter pubs and think, WTF, but later perhaps finding yourself more familiar and liking it a bit more.

The Mere Exposure Effect, also known as the familiarity principle, suggests that people tend to develop a preference for things they are exposed to more frequently. While this effect is typically associated with psychology and marketing, it can also be reflected in interior design choices. Here’s how the Mere Exposure Effect can influence interior design:

  • Familiarity with Styles: People often feel more comfortable and drawn to interior design styles that they are familiar with or have been exposed to in the past. For example, if someone grew up in a home with traditional decor, they might naturally gravitate towards similar styles when designing their own space. This preference for familiar styles can be seen in the selection of furniture, color schemes, and overall design aesthetic.
  • Repeated Exposure to Trends: Trends in interior design often gain popularity through repeated exposure. As certain design elements or styles become more commonly featured in magazines, websites, or social media, they become familiar to people, which can make them more appealing. Interior designers and homeowners may incorporate these trends into their design choices to create a sense of modernity and relevance.
  • Showcasing Personal Belongings: Displaying personal belongings, such as family photographs, cherished heirlooms, or travel souvenirs, can create a comforting and familiar atmosphere within a space. These items hold personal significance and evoke memories and emotions, contributing to a sense of familiarity and belonging.
  • Consistency in Design Elements: Repeated use of specific design elements throughout a space can enhance the sense of familiarity and cohesiveness. Consistency in color schemes, patterns, or materials can create a harmonious and comforting visual experience. This can be achieved through the use of recurring colors, textures, or motifs in furniture, fabrics, and accessories.
  • Subtle Repetition: Incorporating subtle repetitions in design can create a sense of familiarity and harmony. This can be achieved through the use of repeating patterns, shapes, or textures. For example, a repeated geometric pattern in wallpaper or tile design can contribute to a cohesive and familiar visual experience.
  • Gradual Exposure to Novelty: While the Mere Exposure Effect suggests a preference for the familiar, it also indicates that repeated exposure to novel stimuli can lead to increased liking and acceptance. In interior design, this can be seen when introducing new design elements or styles gradually. Initially, a new and unfamiliar design choice might be met with resistance, but with repeated exposure, it can become more familiar and ultimately well-liked.

By understanding the Mere Exposure Effect, interior designers can leverage familiarity and repeated exposure to create spaces that resonate with individuals and elicit positive emotions. Whether through incorporating familiar design styles, showcasing personal belongings, or employing consistent design elements, designers can create interiors that feel comfortable, appealing, and aligned with the clients’ preferences.

What do these two ideas have to do with AI, and interiors? Back to the original idea. If we find a liking due to familiarity, and we have those, not with a talent or skill but a following or influence, speaking out of an assumed expertise, begin to produce objects from what is familiar through AI, remember, AI produced imagery can only be tethered to what was previously created, not a completely new work product, so there would be a certain level of familiarity with the object and it is then promoted or seen at trade shows, it is entirely plausible that these products would become popular. It is also completely plausible that the work of true design talent does, in fact become obsolete. Think it’s not possible?

Radio Vs. Record Companies. When I was in broadcast radio, something happened in the 1990’s that I found shocking. Around the time Napster come out, the record labels were freaking out about people being able to freely download, upload and share music without paying for it. At the same time, radio leadership was freaking out for the same reason but in their case, the fear was radio listeners would stop listening for the music because they could get it for free. Decades later, we have the luxury of looking back and evaluating the outcome. Remember that by the 1990’s, when I would go and buy a CD, unless it was a rarity, like Guns and Roses, Appetite for Destruction, Nirvana’s Nevermind or Depeche Mode’s Violator, you got a 13 song record with 2 great songs, 4 b-sides and fillers that you could tell most bands just cobbled together for the record. The labels lost control of their product. Bands learned that touring could beat publishing revenues and it became all about the singles on iTunes. What does any of this have to do with design? Everything because it is exactly the same idea. History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes, right? thank you , Mark Twain.  But it’s true. 

As an industry, we need to be very careful, as does everyone with the ideas revolving around AI, because, like I said I don’t believe AI is artificial, but accumulated intelligence and once designers give up the creative activity that is creation of a dedicated line, you will never be able to get that back. And, any creative who has had their ideas hijacked and reimagined by someone else knows how that feels. So, here’s another concept to chew on. Have you ever heard of the 30% rule? It’s the false concept that one can change the intellectual property of another persons work and have that satisfy that the work is fundamentally different and not a copy. The idea itself is flawed because there is no such rule. If someone feels like you stole their intellectual property, they can sue you. It’s not what anyone thinks, it’s what you can convince a judge or jury. But a creative would still need to defend their IP and there are no guaranteed outcomes. So, what stops someone from taking a sofa, rug or console that was created and manufactured by someone else, prompt ChatGPT to change the concept by 30% and put the final product into a CAD drawing for production? Absolutely nothing. One step further down this slippery slope, ask Midjourney, through a series of prompts to create a design for a piece of furniture using a series of popular keywords. The work product created will be drawn from other ideas, again, recreating the work product from another into a “new” design. But it isn’t new, is it?

I think AI tools are properly positioned to decrease the amount of time it takes to ideate and create new products. But, as long as you have the Dunning-Kruger Effect and people who just want to capture short term gains without really understanding the potential pitfalls, the industry, like every other industry is going to find itself with ethical, legal and other issues as of now, unforeseen. But through trial, they will materialize. Don’t take the bait, this business is not easy, if it were, everyone would be doing it. What if it became so easy that everyone could do it?

A while back I was on social media and there was a graphic designer who was blasting AI tools saying that they couldn’t handle it if a client provided abstract feedback like, “I want it to pop more.” I asked ChatGPT how it would respond to the following: Imagine that I am a client of yours and you are a graphic designer. I  gave you the task of creating a visual project and upon review of the first iteration, I said to you, “make it pop more”. What would you do? And here is the response…

As a graphic designer, if you asked me to make the visual project “pop more” after reviewing the first iteration, I would understand that you want the design to be more eye-catching and impactful. Here’s what I would do to achieve that:

  • Color Enhancement: I would consider adjusting the colors to make them more vibrant and visually appealing. This could involve increasing the saturation or contrast, selecting bolder color choices, or experimenting with complementary color schemes to create a stronger visual impact.
  • Typography: I would revisit the typography used in the design. Making it “pop more” could involve selecting a more attention-grabbing font or adjusting the size, weight, or spacing of the existing typography to create a stronger hierarchy and visual interest.
  • Visual Elements: I would assess the visual elements within the design and look for opportunities to enhance their impact. This could include adding graphic elements, such as icons, illustrations, or patterns, to make the design more visually engaging. Additionally, I might explore the use of gradients, shadows, or other effects to create depth and dimension.
  • Composition and Layout: I would review the overall composition and layout of the design. Making it “pop more” might involve repositioning or resizing elements to create a more dynamic arrangement. Adjusting the placement of key elements, such as focal points or call-to-action elements, can help draw the viewer’s attention and increase the design’s impact.
  • Contrast and Visual Hierarchy: I would ensure that the design has sufficient contrast between different elements, such as text and background, to make the important elements stand out. By establishing a clear visual hierarchy, I can guide the viewer’s attention to the most important aspects of the design.
  • Experimentation: If the current design iteration is not achieving the desired level of visual impact, I would explore alternative design concepts and iterations. By experimenting with different approaches, I can discover new ways to make the design more captivating and visually appealing.

Ultimately, my goal would be to create a visual project that captures attention, communicates effectively, and aligns with your vision and requirements. Through the iterative design process, I would work closely with you to ensure that the final outcome fulfills your expectations and successfully “pops” to grab the viewer’s attention.

If you can ask a machine that has been trained to use specific influence on the creation of “new” work, it is by its very nature a derivative work. Meaning, it’s not original. The argument then is, well, what is? If we are okay with using derivative works to and calling them new, that’s fine because at the end of the day, all a creative can really do is their best work. Limited by creative flow, time and energy. This is only one part of how AI will change our industry. Many I have spoken with say they don’t have the time to learn how to properly use these new tools. If you don’t have the time to stay current on new tech like this, you risk becoming irrelevant.

Design Out Crime is a concept the Los Angeles Police Department has been engaged in since the late 1990’s. You never heard of it, right? I hadn’t either until recently while working on a project for a client. Design Out Crime is based on an idea a city government, municipality or police department can apply strategies and techniques that prevent crime, before it happens through the application of design principles. This is a really interesting idea because, as a society, I think we feel unsafe. When I was a kid growing up in Southern California, I was afraid on one thing. The bomb. The Day After was a made for TV movie that came out in 1983. Scared the hell out of me because it could happen. To be frank with you, prior to the pandemic, I never believed it could happen here. Third-world countries, of course, but not here. The smash and grabs happening by large groups in many major cities is completely unacceptable yet it keeps happening. Water in Flynt, Michigan. Floods, fires, violent crime, mass shootings, wind events and unpredictable weather of all kinds… Feeling safe, feeling secure is an issue that affects all of us. 

As if all that isn’t enough, it’s difficult to remember sometimes that we are in a service industry. I had a recent reminder of sorts what that means and why it’s important. I recently made a switch in cell service. I was with my former mobile provider for 22 years. And in that time, there was never any “service” provided, just the product. Over the years, the “product” degraded and the customer service became completely unacceptable. It was not the pain I expected to switch service providers. Not only did I switch, but got better service for half the cost I was paying before. Designers I speak with all tell me that their number one source for new business is not advertising but word-of-mouth. I believe that is true because they don’t advertise but it also begs the question, why do clients recommend you? What you do now is wonderful, but as the world keeps getting smaller, the need to raise your level has increased and you don’t get any additional time to learn how to navigate these new challenges, but there are others who will. If you’re standing still, you are falling behind. And the level of urgency and ability to adjust will determine your success. Not to pile on, but look at the recent developments with Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. As of this writing, they have been shuttered for over a week and you can still order product on the website.  Will it arrive? I have no idea but it does draw the memory back to Laurel & Wolf’s spectacular collapse. Service and reputation matter because there is always someone else out there to replace you. If I have learned anything throughout my career, if you make a mistake, own it. If you own it, clients will respect you for it. If you don’t own it, you will become obsolete.

Finally, the second question…Why does it matter? That is almost more important than, what is design, right? What is design is personal and subjective. Why does it matter is more important because it represents the future of the industry. Going back to examples like radio, music and cars… Radio was once a personal friend and now it’s a utility to deliver music, news, sports and information. Radio stations used to have a personality all their own, they had exclusive dj’s talking to local listeners like they knew them personally. Music was once delivered in a packaged format, on a record with a jacket, cover art and liner notes. Now, it’s delivered as a genre, collection by artist or format. If you use Spotify, Apple Music or any of the other delivery systems, AI selects the tracks for you. Automotive was once a passion and to many, it still is. But it’s not mandatory any more. You can live in NYC, Boston or even Los Angeles and not own a car. This was previously unheard of. Not anymore. It matters, because it is a unique form of art and it should last.

As I said when I started this episode, I love designers and architects. That is why I do what I do. If design DOES matter, here is my recommendation for those new to the industry as well as those who want to reset:

  1. Return to Learning. If you have become dependent on any form of technology that, in its absence you could not continue to do what you do, look at ways to extricate yourself. For example, if you are using 3D modeling software for all your renderings, learn to draft by hand. Learn to sketch with a pencil, graph paper and ruler. Acquire the ability to draw your designs on a napkin that convey your ideas.
  1. Tune Out. Social media isn’t real. Fans and followers are fake, images aren’t real and the ideas conveyed, obtaining value from a quantity of likes and emojis isn’t real. Disconnect emotional from social media and use it for what it is, a communications tool.
  1. Reconnect. Answer the phone, make a call, send an email intended for just the one person to whom you are sending it, take the time to ask questions, listen to the answers, have a conversation, slow down and hear. We are losing our ability to connect 1 on 1 because social media, something of which we are always exposed places a currency on volume. how many likes, how many followers, how many posts. It’s not real, but the individuals are. Real connections make for real relationships which translate to real engagement.
  1. Unplug. AI can really help you do your work in amazing ways. But you first must learn to use it and use it for what it does best. The skill set is what makes designers amazing, not how they can manipulate tools to do it for them. If that ever becomes the rule, designers will cease to be special for what they do because any project manager will be capable of doing the work with the same level of proficiency. Digital artists have a real skill, but they will never replace a fine artist or sculpture artist. A concept like wabi-sabi is real and because it is imperfect, it is naturally authentic, not manufactured. It’s the imperfections that make something unique.
  1. Think for yourself.10 years ago, there were very few design or architecture podcasts. All the information shared with the trade came from the shelter publications. They were neatly packaged and offered like the art magazines. Now, you can see all of the shelter pubs are more real and authentic because they have to be. Podcasts are the same way. But there are som many of them now. If you listen to podcasts, you listen most likely because you appreciate what the host has to say. But you also need to accept that not all podcast hosts know what they are talking about. I hope you love Convo By Design and that you glean new information from every conversation, story and episode. If you have a host that was once a designer telling you how to run your business, think about why they are doing that instead of running their own design business? If you want to learn about contracts, find a really good legal podcast episode about contracts. If you want to learn about keeping your books, contract negotiations or business coaching, find professionals who do that and host a podcast to learn that. Everyone has advice, myself included. I’m confident in my abilities and I know what I have learned through real world scenarios. Your time is valuable, connect with experts who aren’t sharing what they never did, but instead those who know the specific vertical of which you want to learn.

I am posting this episode now because I am working on the Convo By Design 2024 Editorial Calendar and I am absolutely thrilled to share new ideas, conversations, guests and ideas with you. 2024 will bring the long-form interviews with creatives that you have come to enjoy, More Drinking About Design episodes featuring incredible but real stories behind design, Business of Design, BookLooks, recordings from live events from around the country and so much more.

Thank you for listening and subscribing to the show. If not already, please do subscribe so you don’t miss a single episode of the show. Subscribers receive the podcast episodes automatically in their podcast feed. Thank you to my remarkable partners and sponsors, ThermaSol, Moya Living and Design Hardware. If you are not familiar with these brands, they are the best at what they do and will help make you the best at what you do so check the show notes for direct links. Thank you to Convo By Design guests for taking the time to share your stories and skill. Until next week, be well and take today first. – CXD