Vormgeving and Ontwerpen, a much needed distinction in design

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“In Holland, we have two words for design. One is vormgeving; in German formgeben. And the other word is ontwerpen; in German entwurf. In the Anglo-Saxon language there’s only one word for design, which is design. That is something you should work out. Vormgeving is more to make things look nice. So for instance, packaging for a perfume or for chocolate in order to make things fashionable, obsolete and therefore bad for society because we don’t really need it. While ontwerpe means, and the Anglo-saxon word, but its stronger, means engineering. That means you as a person try to invent a new thing—which is intelligent, which is clever, and which will have a long-life. And that’s called stylistic durability. It means you can use it for a long time.”
— Gert Dumbar (via Swiss Miss < Frank Chimero < BanquetHall)

Design by itself is something very difficult to define clearly, for many reasons, so while from one perspective I believe that design needs to be holistic, from the other I welcome definitions that help understanding the discipline better.

This quote made me think two things.

First, it made me wonder a bit about how the discipline evolved. Right now, I suppose that it evolved from a specific perception of the results of the design process. If you think about it, we can simplify by saying that any product passes through roughly three phases:

  1. Functional, where the product does something, but that’s it (think about just wrapping a sheet of cloth around you)
  2. Usable, where the product does something and it’s usable (think about a normal apparel)
  3. Pleasurable (think about a great dress)

I think it’s normal for a new product to start at first with Functional, then Usable, and only then we evolve trying to make it Pleasurable. Think about clothes, houses, cars, and kinda everything. Design in its common perception happens when you reach the last phase (even if, clearly, you have to apply design to both the Function and the Usable phases as well, and that adds confusion). Also, a product, and a company, may choose to stop at just one of these phases, to reduce costs.

This theory explains a bit to me why design and “how it looks” – or vormgeving – is often perceived as the same thing: it’s because design have to do 1, 2 and 3 all together to be good design, and so great product emerge and will look good. And since being pleasurable is what everyone will perceive in the end, it’s why it skews the perception of what design is.

It skews it at the point that there are of course people – and companies – that say, do and sell products that are only Pleasurable without being Usable or Functional, and sell it as design. And that’s where the confusion begins. I won’t make examples here, but think about all these products made with poor or common materials, with poor or common functionality that are sold as “design products”.

Second, I think that there is a plus in considering the two aspects of design distinct as above, because it clarifies better the scope and the focus of two parts that are necessary in the design discipline. On the other side I think that a hard split between these two can be also a problem, because it creates a barrier between two things that needs to go together. For example, Niels pointed me that in Holland people that do “Vormgeving” are studying in Art schools, while people that do “Ontwerpe” are studying in Engineering schools. We need these, as well we need Design schools, that teach both – and how to do both together. ;)