What does it mean to design?
Interview with Daniel van der Velden /


What does it mean to design? Many designers say they do things because they “feel like it.” Of course, guts can be a part of what you do. But to what degree? Is design all guts? Or can design think with its brain too?


Intuition plays an important role in everything aesthetic and beautiful. As well as in everything political. The most important things in design are decided in a split second. Without any justification. And the crucial point is to talk about that moment; to talk about the moment when you decided ‘it should be like this’.

If someone brings up “they feel like it” as a justification for design, of course, that’s uninteresting. But if intuition tells you what needs to be what, that’s interesting. Because it refers back to the capacity of designers to observe. They observe a certain reality around them, a certain state of things around them, and at some point, they think: this is the best expression. That moment is important for design.


Not to say guts should be denied, but to what extent are they exercised? Ask designers about their aesthetic habits; those who always use the same forms or colors. They’ll tell you its because their intuition told them to. Aren’t they behaving like stylists who employ standards? Shouldn’t they be developing new standards for each new project or new context?


Those standards can be collectively re-assuring conventions. In the age of social media this is of course pervasive. You can be totally copying your friends’ friends aesthetics because these give you access to more “likes”, a bigger network, kudos from your masters, etc. That is being a smart entrepreneur, not a copycat. But does it make for great design? Not having enough time is also a decisive factor; if you opt for these standards you apparently don’t have time to make your own. How do you then create that time? And where do you decide to comply?


Maybe there’s nuance between gut feelings and a kind of comfy zone?


Exactly. There’s “I feel like”. Or there’s a gut feeling which brings you out of your comfort zone. Why are design students always perceived as better than their teachers? Even if they’re not good, or not always good. Maybe it’s because students, being younger than their teachers, have a more complete knowledge of their world as it is. Rather than how the world was. And, they have a readiness to embrace it.

That’s why I think our own practice would like to be—in some aspects—like a student’s practice, as some would say. Even though its a professional practice. I would say its about preserving the special quality of not having a routine formula. And looking for that moment when you think: this is the gut moment.

If you don’t address the politics behind the aesthetics, there will be no real change. Like in “critical design.” So basically, there’s are still people today, who do the stuff Droog designed back in the 1990s. They do it even better than Droog did it. But Droog did it when it was also politically relevant. Of course the politics of those aesthetics have been re-defined in the meantime. So you can’t do the same thing now, and imply the same thing. We perceive it differently now. We’ve all ingested that material and, in the meantime, we’ve seen other things. They don’t produce the same effects they once did.

Now I’m interested in the sort of politics that point to the hidden ideology of critical design itself. If you talk about the ideology of critical design in the late 90s, you could talk about Dunne & Raby, Design Noir and the hidden narratives of consumer objects. What are the secret narratives of electronics?

Its interesting that those were the politics of that time, defined by the information age, a global capitalist society, a post-Wall world, the idea of a risk society and hyper-individualization. But again, critical design from the 90s no longer produces the same effect. We’ve seen other things. And we’ve seen a total breakdown of the free market and social democratic ideology, yet without another model taking over. We fully experience the ‘lack’ or shortage of a new model that Ulrich Beck talked about in his “Risk Society” thesis, written over two decades ago.

There’s this group we’re interested in, called DSG, or the Deterritorial Support Group. They’re a self-proclaimed ultra-leftist propaganda group, based in London. And someone said on Twitter: DSG made Metahaven look like Adbusters. And I thought this was great, because that’s really how it should be.

It should be like in music. Maybe there’s a band. And then there’s another band, and they’re doing something even more extreme and heavy. The band that came before is labeled ‘sort of okay’, people say ‘but now you’re like Bon Jovi’ and that’s no longer interesting. That sort of evolution going in design is an absolute dream for me.


Going into places you’re not sure of, instead of settling into comfy zones?


Exactly. They challenged us. And that’s so valuable. That’s innovation. You can’t hold the truth. You can never really say ‘this is what we’re about, that’s the absolute’. If you start something successful, other people will do it too, and force you to do something else. It’s a healthy rebuttal.


Daniel van der Velden is a designer based in Amsterdam, co-founder of Metahaven with Vinca Kruk.


  • THOUGHT BY ALEX CAMERON — 2013/06/06 @ 15:19

    Talking about contemporary politics and how it might inform design and aesthetics is interesting. No more so because, if we were to characterise today’s political culture we would not be far wrong to say it is the politics of ‘difference’. Unfortunately it is perhaps more a question of ‘same difference’.

    There are so many groups proclaiming their difference, but doing so within a political framework that is ideologically the same as everyone else.

    There is only one Adbusters (as they were mentioned) but there are a myriad of groups who are ideologically identical. Anti-consumerism is presented as a radical alternative at a time when it is a mainstream idea.

    The ethical designer is a contemporary squatter in designland that has yet to be critically examined in any real sense.

  • THOUGHT BY SIKKO BALTUS — 2013/02/06 @ 11:48

    ‘Aesthetics’ is not about finished art, it’s about an appropriate design that touches me, that engages me as a viewer/reader. And forget the word: schmick, it won’t last.

  • THOUGHT BY TOBIAS OZANNE — 2011/06/20 @ 18:55

    “How do you then create that time?” implies the designer would rather spend “more time” at designing, perhaps meaningful things? Then how about: “What does desserve more of my super deluxe designer time?” Perhaps meaningful things? Oh well, that sets us back to the good old strategy of wrapping up the hideous corporate paying work, and paradoxically, spending more time at designing for the delicious glory of Art. Though, following that idea, it requires from the designer to have a set intent.

    In any case, Mr. David F. has focused below on the idea of efficiency in the process of designing and at making business with design. What was underlined in my previous comment had more to do with seeking the “sensational”, or the “more ,more, more” assuming there is a universal climax to be reached by design (or music).

    Mr. van der Velden, I liked your quote – why should I disagree with this? Being less economically knowledgeable, I read here that lucky accidents can disrupt the densest systems. Anyhow, you clearly have an intent in what you do and, therefore no, you’re not Bon Jovi and DSG doesn’t have anything comparable to your work. If anything, you may share ideals, but there is no race going anywhere since you set your very own track. Should there be a race, should you be a band, the timeless substance in your work gives you the best chances at being a Pink Floyd.

  • THOUGHT BY JOHN POISON IVY — 2011/06/20 @ 12:03

    Punk aesthetics sold in Harrods is a rebel sell. Vivienne Westwood’s bridal couture for Sex In The City is, well, that’s just sad.

  • THOUGHT BY DAVID F. — 2011/06/20 @ 11:48

    It’s interesting to see what dirty little word efficiency can be. The question was, how to explain designers who always apply the same style or aesthetic to things, especially when they do it because “felt like it.” The question was, what does it mean to design? Does it mean feeling things and following aesthetic standards?

    Mr. van der Velden proposed design meant keeping an eye on intuitive judgments. And, it meant a designer pressed for time can follow aesthetic standards, making them a “smart entrepreneur, not a copycat.” Enter efficiency. Is following styles, trends, looks, aesthetics, not an efficient move on the part of designers? Especially designers who freelance, or run their own practice?

    Psychologists would say yes. Heuristics are shortcuts, quick ways of getting to design solutions. When things seem too complicated, with endless visual codes and elements to pick from, its easier to substitute context-specific aesthetics with: this is what I like, it’s to my aesthetic taste, and this is what I feel is best at the moment. Global banks and local community centers would look the same if designed by a certain designer, having the same ‘signature’ style. Which is a stylistic gesture, not a design gesture.

    Here’s a clever quip we forgot about: “How do you then create that time?” Exit efficiency. Design takes time, but nobody has time. Nobody. Marketing managers have tight schedules, and anarchist book stores need flyers within the hour. How do designers find the time to design? And not resort to fast-food stylistic traps? Is there an inefficient design model out there?

  • THOUGHT BY DANIEL VAN DER VELDEN — 2011/06/20 @ 08:02

    Mister Ozanne, thank you, but no I haven’t talked about anything in terms of efficiency and I wasn’t implying that. What I am really tired of is self-important graphic designers and otherwise claiming to own an ideology or discourse and explaining us how things should be. There is a shift from academic and textbook notions of ideology to more practical and imperfect testing grounds. For example a book like “Capitalist Realism” by Mark Fisher really makes a case in point when he writes at the end, that “The long, dark night of the end of history has to be gasped as an enormous opportunity;” “the tiniest event can tear a hole in the grey curtain of reaction which has marked the horizons of possibility under capitalist realism. From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” I suppose you disagree with that?

  • THOUGHT BY TOBIAS OZANNE — 2011/06/14 @ 17:37

    Mister dan der Velden, your example of bands getting “more extreme and heavy” was perhaps a bit ill-judged. It seemed you talked of artistic endeavors in terms of efficiency, as if it were the benchmark of quality work. And so yes, sadly, this read a lot like some businessman’s thought: “pushing the limit”, looking for the new thing that “rocks”, far from any meaning or ideological implications… What would be the point of that if it weren’t for commercial success?

    As I am one to enjoy your work much, I was a bit surprised that is all. It felt like reading from The Rebel Sell.

  • THOUGHT BY DANIEL VAN DER VELDEN — 2011/06/14 @ 05:48

    Tobias Ozanne: I make no mention of selling template-based bands and am not interested in that at all. It is about design groups being driven by similar ideals, but working with them towards different outcomes that push the limit. What that has to do with “maintaining a prosperous capitalist state” is for you to explain.

  • THOUGHT BY LAO — 2011/06/13 @ 09:45

    The diference between “gut” and “brain” in this context is none, as our stomach makes up half of our neural system, ie the gut is the brain.

    The two faculties of decision making, in this case gut and brain, are also inseparable as they can never be isolated in any process. We can’t at any point turn off our mental and emotional faculties. When we later are asked to explain and justify, however, we are free to invent any reason or justification for Why we did it.

    An articulate person will probably explain as clear and rational as he or she is able to while a less articulate person will explain it more vague and perhaps resort to the explanation “I felt like it”. The explanation has little to do with “why” we did it though. It is just an explanation.

    It seems to me that the reason why we think that it is uninteresting when someone did something because “they felt like it” is because we at that point cannot understand Why they did it. As with all things in life, when we understand the why of something it suddenly becomes more meaningful to us.

    By not acknowledging the complexities of our decisions or of why things happen and instead resort to a simplified rational explanation of things, there is a risk/chance that we distance and separate ourselves from each other.

    This separation will in the end, though, create a forum for deliberation.

  • THOUGHT BY DAVID F. — 2011/06/13 @ 05:51

    To what Daniel said about time, this is spot on. Intuitive judgments are the most simple and efficient for when there’s no time.

    The mind is like a machine that jumps to conclusions. What some psychologists do is study intuitive thinking in the domain of judgement and uncertainty. They ask, how do people assess the probability of events occurring? And how do they forecast the future intuitively?

    And what they find is that people use heuristics, they basically use shortcuts. And psychologsts found some ways in which this is done. The most important is called substitution. This means, you’re asked a difficult question. You cannot answer it. But another answer comes to mind, and its an answer to a related question, which is simpler. And without being aware of it, you substitute the answer for the simple question in place of the answer to the complicated one.

    This is how most people come up with intuitions about very complicated problems, that baffle even the people who live with or study problems very closely. Some of these intuitions are good, others are not so good. Some forecasts come true, others don’t. But that’s the basic machinery. It’s called substitution.

    Heuristics are not based on visions, feelings or messages from the dead, they’re based on one’s personal and immediate experience. And heuristic methods, which many designers might have studied with web design or information design, are used to speed up the finding of solutions. Extensive research is not always possible, and can be expensive or impractical. Designers have heuristics like design principles, rules of thumb, educated guesses or “common sense.” Even a favorite color or typeface. Just think of all the work Jacok Nielsen has done with web usability at He’s got rules of thumb for everything. Heuristics is the fast food for decision-making.

  • THOUGHT BY C. MILANO — 2011/06/13 @ 04:38

    Intuition comes from the latin “intueri” which means to contemplate, or look inside. You know how psychologists love this. Carl Jung had a theory on the ego and defined intuition as an irrational function. But you know, what about rationality? Logic? Doing things for a reason? Maybe corporate strategists take their reasoning too far. Maybe they research, reflect and justify too much. But the opposite, of course, is relying on nothing more than the supernatural.

  • THOUGHT BY AUGUSTIN YANNICK — 2011/06/13 @ 00:56

    In music, this is the band that seems like they don’t give a damn about the rest that really leave a mark.

  • THOUGHT BY TOBIAS OZANNE — 2011/06/13 @ 00:00

    I’m getting a bit confused between the business driven thoughts, and the views on design. One may argue the two practices can’t be dissociated, but there is already a dialectic here applicable only to designers who are coincidentally business owners. If you operate only as a designer, why should you go after what is successful? For the client? For this client to have a fruitful and “healthy” business? And for your pockets to fill up, fatally?

    I can’t agree with this idea of not holding onto your ideal as a designer. This would be like calling yourself a politician, but not having an intent.

    Yes, being critical is still important and it is even more important to aim for something you can stand for when designing. Is that really a trend or is design mutating?

    Finally, this idea of music having a goal of ever-transcending its “efficiency” is great for selling template-based bands to teenagers. If this is what design should also be about, then it is a practice good only for maintaining a prosperous capitalist state and a well-swollen bank account. Win/ win right?