On the Curse of the process 

by Trygve Ask
Ph.D. student at the
Institute of industrial design,
Oslo School of Architecture.
Oslo, 1998.

"Process" has been a frequently applied concept both within industrial design and architecture in this century. In this essay I would like to focus on the use of the "process" concept within industrial design. But due to the close relations in this century between the development of industrial design and architecture, the architect reader might find that some of my observations also can be applied on developments in architecture.

I would like to suggest that the concept of "process" has been used, and can be read, in at least two, to some extent, contradictory ways. On the one hand the concept of "process" has been used to identify the focused, rational effort that lies behind a good product design. On the other hand has "process" also been used as a mystifying and concealing label on what is going on in the designer’s head when he or she sets out to create a product. The rational and analytical use of the term "process" can be seen as a direct legacy from functionalism and the subsequent development of design methodology as the core area of study within industrial design. The mystifying use of "process" might best be understood as a integral part of the romantic perception of the artist-as-genius, and the following art historical canonisation of pioneers and heroes within the design field.

Both these understandings of  "process" have strongly influenced and helped constitute industrial design, both theoretically and professionally. On a more abstract level they can be read as indications of the inherent conflict between sense and sensibility that continues to be present in industrial design. On the one hand industrial designers have been fighting to rationalise and improve the design process through the use of  methodology and analytical tools in the planning and development of products. This focus on predictability and accountability in the design process, has to a great extent also served as a legitimisation and documentation of the choices and solutions the designer has put forward for his clients. This was particularly important in the modernist search for rational and objective "good form"

But designers have also fought for the understanding of a more individualistic, unpredictable, and creative design process as a defining aspect of industrial design. Empathy, poetry, emotions and the designer’s ability to surrender and flow with his own process have been emphasised as important abilities in being a good designer. This understanding of design is reflected in the comparing of design to art, the perception of the designer as a mediator of a "Zeitgeist", or the designer as the user’s advocate who can relate to the "real" needs of people.

Although different in approach, both the designer eager to rationalise and control the process, and the designer seeking to identify with, and "live" the process, often end up in regarding the quality or experience of the process as a goal in it self. The end product or the result of the process is in some way reduced to a bi-product of a more or less successful process. This constant interest and endless investigation of the mysterious and complex world of "process", has in many ways developed into a what I would call a process-fetishism. The methodical and rationalistic designer constantly seeks to reveal how the process affects the product and gets caught up in the never ending complexity of analyses, testing, planing, team work, managing and all the other aspects of product development. Likewise does the empathy-oriented designer seek to experience and "get into" the process to the extent where fascination and personal thrill takes over and the end product is valued according to the quality and value of the process.

In other words, the focus on the concept of "process" has in this sense become paralysing, instead of liberating, for the design profession. The idea was that the designers would gain authority and legitimisation of the work laid down in a product design through this emphasis on process. It seems quite clear that the autonomy achieved in this manner, also has led to a marginalisation of the design profession through a introvert devotion to all the special features of the profession. Industrial design has in many cases rendered itself irrelevant to other than those with a dedicated interest in design.

If designers still think they have something to offer to society and industry they should seek to escape this marginalisation. Both the rational and the empathy-oriented focus on process tends to overlook that industrial design is, after all, about designing products for industry. Products for industry are usually developed by a team of professionals and experts in addition to the industrial designer. It is in this interdisciplinary context the industrial designer is asked to participate and contribute with his disciplinary knowledge, experience and talent. The ability to be analytical or empathy-oriented in the developing process are generally thought to be useful skills in most disciplines, not only design. The designer is therefore expected to also contribute within his own expert field. And the expected task of the designer is to decide what the product should look like (or better still; to decide the gestalt of the product). The question is: Does a constant focus on the process of design really qualify the designer to make better product designs? Do we achieve successful products for industry through our preoccupation with a rational or empathic process?

If designers are to have expert knowledge or training in deciding what industrial products should look like the focus must change from process to the result and effect of the process. This calls for a pragmatic approach where the choice of process or methods should be measured by their ability to produce the desired effects or results. This approach might lead to changes in the process of industrial design, but it might as well lead to changes in how we perceive industrial design or how we train industrial designers. If we are to perceive the industrial designer as "gestalter" for commercial industry he will need more than just a extensive experience in "process".

The preoccupation with process only makes sense within a functionalist or modernist perspective (form follows function) or in a design-as-art perspective (design perceived as a vehicle for personal expression). None of these perspectives seem to give a satisfying answer to the question of what the product should look like. The modernist perspective supposes a universal or rational answer that has been, and is continuing to prove wrong. The design-as-art perspective is only useful in cases where the company agree with the personal expressions of the designer. The value of this perspective is best shown in the success of star designers like Philipe Starck or Jasper Morrison. But then we can’t all be star designers and not all companies are producing for the category of people buying Starck or Morrison products. The question remains what should the products look like for all the other companies designed by all the other designers? The answer is definitely not to be found in the process.


Ask, Trygve, Mot en kulturorientert produktutvikling, theoretical diploma, Oslo School of Architecture, Oslo, 1996.

Cross, Nigel, Development in Design Methodology, London, 1984.

Gelernter, Mark, Sources of Architectural Form : A Critical History of Western Design Theory, Manchester, 1995

Lundequist, Jerker, Design och produktutcvekling, Metoder och begrepp, Lund, 1995

Michl, Jan, "Form follows WHAT ? The modernist notion of function as a carte blanche." 1:50 - Magazine of the Faculty of Architecture & Town Planning 10, Winter, Israel, 1995

  Updated 10.12.98 by Trygve Ask