What is design?
Interview with Gert Dumbar


What is design exactly? The word is so overused, it seems to mean everything and nothing. Design as style. Design as social. Design as policy. Design as politics. And the list goes on. But what exactly is it?


There are lots of things you could ask yourself about design. Especially in Holland. Marcel Wanders is this sort of clown in design, and makes absolutely not interesting pieces of furniture.

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.

Carrying this even further, consider an American definition of design. As we all know, America is a capitalistic state and was the source of most recent economic crisis. Americans are all about money; money is status. And they have invented a variation on engineering called “Sloanism,” which is a term from before the war that came from a General Motors director, Albert Sloan. When they were designed the car, Mr. Sloan said “give it a little change, then it looks new.” And so people start buying it, as well as a status symbol. Sloan was not a designer or engineer, but a true capitalist. His idea of design was to make money by making things look new and fashionable.


Do you think there’s confusion about design for English speakers? Because they only have one word—design—for all these different definitions?


Yes, it’s a language thing. It’s a philosophical thing as well. I must say, I was educated also at the Royal College of Art in London. And it was a bit decadent. They really cared for how a chocolate box looked like, and toilet soap. And it tends towards advertising as well. And then we have this terrible word, which is marketing. And marketing is also from America, which spoiled a lot of spontaneity in design, and in general.


What do you mean by marketing? Are you referring to a few too many layers of focus groups, surveys and sterile business strategies?


Yeah, but marketing is not a form of knowledge. It’s slow, dull and often repeats itself. Marketing applied to design is terrible. I’m the only Dutch designer who was against this and shouted, for years and years, in interviews and everything.

And there is for instance a lot of designers in Holland that design chairs. Yes, chairs. Now I come into another thing: design and politics. The Dutch embassy is saying Dutch design is world famous, which is in a way true. But they forget it was the Dutch graphic designers that were famous. That is the difference. They changed it into product design, because you can see it and hold it in your hand. The embassies, the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is now giving a sort of message to its cultural attaches at embassies: promote Dutch design. Dutch design is a word that I invented—personally, 25 years ago—for graphic design. But they have adopted it, bla bla bla. And they promote these total clowns in design who are very well-known in Holland—those terrible, terrible designers who just do exhibitions of chairs in museums.


Gert Dumbar is a designer based in Amsterdam, and founder of Studio Dumbar.



    […] That New Design Smell […]

  • THOUGHT BY CLIVE GRINYER — 2011/07/13 @ 17:53

    Disappointing piece, and doesn’t relate design to the decision making process that by default designs the world around us, whether a designer was involved or not. And what is decadent about designing the shape of soap? Someone is going too, it might as well be us. From a UK Design Thinker ?


    The distinction between ‘vormgeven’ and ‘ontwerpen’ in Dutch is practical and it is smart that TNDS and GD point out the difference. But the English ‘design’ has been so strongly present that the Dutch use the two as indistinct. Too bad. Vormgeven for me refers to the historical (and geneological) separation between form and content and a vormgever was a person concerned with the appearance and not function. But such distinction has never been there in complete form. Form and content were always interdependent. I am just guessing, because I like to put my thought in the here and now, that the font size of the text, which seems a design thing is bigger than other magazine sites because there is some concern on the side of the designer about the size of the content on the page, which is smaller than what we are used to read on a magazine or news website. I’m not objecting to this. I like smaller content (kort en bondig).

  • THOUGHT BY C. MILANO — 2011/06/20 @ 12:12

    There is nothing wrong with believing in capital markets, having corporate clients and doing corporate work. You can still hate marketing executives. They are a useless middle-manager that lie between entrepreneurs, designers and people. Marketing managers take bright entrepreneurs, they take bright designes, and put them through the mud of public screenings, community consulting, focus groups and market testing. Why is being anti-marketing always assumed to be anti-commercial? Without commerce, we’d still have Medieval economics. Maybe we need that. Without marketing, business and design would be so much more interesting.

  • THOUGHT BY RUBEN PATER — 2011/06/14 @ 11:17

    I don’t doubt the quality of Dumbar’s design legacy, but we should known he was also owning a design office that produced annual reports for Shell and worked mostly for major Dutch corporations like KPN, randstad and TNT, generating most of the revenue. It’s at least ironic to say he is ‘the only dutch designer against marketing’ with a history as his.

    The problem with of lot of these famous designers that start talking about ‘anti-commericalism’ after retiring, is it is merely symbolic when one’s career was built on marketing driven design. The problem we are left with is a highly commericalized Dutch design landscape in which marketing and design are no longer distinguisable, which is in great part caused by studio’s like Dumbar.

  • THOUGHT BY GIGLIO — 2011/06/13 @ 21:48

    Interesting, I had never thought of ‘design’ as an Anglo–Saxon word, but much more as a latin word linked to the idea of “designo”.

    In latin, “designo” means to mark out , to trace, to plan, to point out, to indicate, to signify, to portray, to delineate. Also, in a political context it is related to the idea of nomination or election.

    One of the most beautiful and defining aspects of this word is exactly its embedded notion of designation or intention. It is this very notion that makes design to still be a possibility.

  • THOUGHT BY A OLSSON — 2011/06/13 @ 12:28

    Very interesting!

    The english word “design” is ambiguous to me. Design in Swedish, my mother tongue, you mean only the graphical look when you say design. You don’t, for example, design a product. You construct it to give it its mechanical shape, so to speak, and to give it an aesthetic shape is the work of a form-giver or shape-giver. You engineer it to predict and decide its physical qualities and also how it best can be manufactured. The designer makes it look nice graphically such as with colour and patterns.

    Furthermore, there is no “product design” in Swedish but rather “product development”, which leads me to believe that the word design is synonymous with development. It kind of makes more sense to me as development more clearly refers to the process rather than the object. Does that make sense to an English speaker as well?

  • THOUGHT BY C. MILANO — 2011/06/13 @ 04:46

    You know these chairs, it’s like the trendy thing to talk about how useless chairs are. This is true. But every designer who wants to be in magazines has to make a chair. Chairs, they bring in the money. Every new house, office needs new chairs. People like to buy stuff for their other new stuff. And so what can you do. This is fine. Make money, why not.

    What’s surprising is how designers tell you this chair is good, and that one is bad, like morality police in Italy. This chair is eco-friendly. This chair is personal. This chair is limited edition. And because of that, the chair is very, very expensive. And this is when the circus come out.

  • THOUGHT BY COGNIVORE — 2011/06/13 @ 02:02

    Why is it designer still do chairs? Aren’t there more important things in the world to be done?

  • THOUGHT BY RORO — 2011/06/13 @ 01:56

    hahaha, Marcel Wanders is a “clown”.