Wasn't Leonardo da Vinci a designer? Marc Baroud, Head of the Design Department at ALBA (Beirut), opens the question for us.
When I first read the title of the ongoing Palazzo Reale exhibition catalogue; Leonardo da Vinci: the Design of the World, it triggered a question in my mind: was Da Vinci really a designer?
Through the reflection one can engage with this given topic, a vital question every designer asks himself arises, one about the meaning of his work, and the reach of his discipline: What is the definition of design?
Da Vinci’s incomparable understanding of the human body, nature, science, engineering and systems, to name only a few of his fields of expertise, led him to imagine human aspirations and needs, leading him to develop drawings of almost all artefacts in our lives today; from bridges to flying machines, from musical instruments to war engines.
His production was unprecedented, placing him way ahead of his time, and weighing in today’s design debates, as his thinking was not bounded to final object, but also tackled processes, and was not limited to function, but also encompassed purpose. His production also influenced practice and culture. Today, it is largely agreed, that design lies at the crossing of these two vectors. I will not comment on aesthetics, as each sketch or side note is a masterpiece by itself. And in many ways Leonardo’s work was a perfect overlap of technique, aesthetics and function.
But why wasn’t Leonardo Da Vinci a designer? Da Vinci researched, imagined, drew, invented, but did not design.
A designer’s main tool is prototyping. Designers conceive and build user centred objects and solutions. They test their prototypes and confront them to their end-users. This last step, separates ideas from design. We can admire Leonardo's projects, but his concepts were never confronted to his contemporaries. Designed objects involve interactions, and engage people.
In today’s practice of design, it is not expected to follow the form and function paradigm anymore, but rather purpose and process; and this has largely released tension and debate between technology and the handmade, the unique and scalable. When it comes to objects and products, designers today have been given access to two growing and highly interesting sectors of research. The first being digital manufacturing; a great tool of prototyping of course, but one that can also be regarded as a very interesting production method for highly customizable products and small series. The second sector is collectible design, as the interest in this field allows us designers, to experiment, develop and confront our work to a growing public of curators of design. Combined together, these two opportunities can help us develop a new model of advanced craftsmanship, allowing us to use high end objects, to impact an ecosystem of designers, manufacturers and users, allowing for more sustainable production methods targeting a wider audience.
In 1988, Andrea Branzi had already predicted in learning from Milan, that the conflict between industrially manufactured products, and crafted pieces would be deemed irrelevant in the post-industrial society and the postmodern era. Indeed, today the quest for the mass-produced and identical object is over. The standard that once pleased everybody –and therefore nobody in particular- is today inapt.
Today, even the largest corporations in the world, with oversized production facilities and manufacturing millions of products, have embodied this new paradigm, and propose personalization or even co-creation tools to their customers. Whether this new system is translated through personalized shoes of the likes of ‘NIKEiD’, or incomplete electronic products such as our smartphones that need differently applications to run; a user today is expecting an experience and a service.
Should it be a one off or mass-production, highly crafted or DIY, cheap or extremely expensive, design is at stake as long as it results in usability, experience and purpose. In its essence it all resides in the difference between the objects we look at, and the objects we use.