Styles Come And Go. Design Is A Language

Design is a Language to Learn at Grenville School

Language is ever-evolving, fluid, and fundamental. While I can understand words written 100 years ago, language evolves. That’s why English is different from Shakespeare now. Sometimes it takes hundreds of years for a language to change, and sometimes it can change in an instant (see: yeet). Language a system of communication, with meanings that are then interpreted by the listener. I believe that Industrial design is very similar.

Design is a language that can be learned. Moreover, it’s a language that must be learned to communicate the desired meaning to an audience.

We often say that each product has a different design language. Google’s industrial design language is soft, inviting, homely. The Xbox series X is monolithic, stark, minimal. Adjectives like those help to describe the intentions of designers. Each product that we interact with is a message from the designer not spoken with words, but with the language of design.

Being able to interpret these messages is a valuable skill to have; to look at a product and decipher what feelings it evokes, along with what meanings others will take from it. These meanings can be complicated as each individual has a unique history with the world. A different world experience probably means a product has changed meaning from one culture to the next. After all, a shopper selects a product as an extension of their personal beliefs. Choosing Sony headphones vs Beats says a lot about the individual wearer.

The two options both produce music, but the design speaks two different languages. Only those who connect with the language will buy the product. Being able to design your product with a visual language that your audience will resonate with is invaluable. Just like spoken vocabulary, a design needs to be understood. By that, I mean it needs to look like what it does (a phone should look like a phone, and a chair should look like a chair). Without foundations that can people understand, there is no language.

Even the original iPhone, the device that changed communication forever, vaguely looked like a phone. It’s partly why the skeuomorphic app icons replicated their physical counterparts – they needed to be understood before things could get abstract. Learning a new language takes time. Word by word, phrase by phrase, we can build up a vocabulary that others can understand. The important thing is to carry on learning; first by learning how to read design and second by learning how to write design.

By writing, we can create the stories and meanings that resonate with our audience. By writing design, we can write the future. Over time, design will change and evolve in the same way that language does. Just as words and phrases fall out of fashion, so will design trends. However, in 400 years, as we do Shakespeare today, I hope that designers can look back on today’s products and still understand them. And perhaps, even admire them.

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