Design for the public domain

Design can be classified in many ways. As objects of design Buchanan distinguishes between symbolic and visual communication, material objects, activities and services, complex systems, and environments. More usual is an arrangement according to the nature of the design discipline or the designer’s speciality (fashion, architecture, landscape, print media, industrial products etc.). Another arrangement is according to types of client: politics, culture, business, non-profit organisations. Less common is distinguishing design activities according to the private or public character of the domain to which they relate.

This division allows of a dual perspective of design, from the individual point of view and that of the community. It corrects the methodological individualism practised not only by many designers, but also, in their wake, but design theoreticians and critics that designing is seen first and foremost as an instrument for the private sector. Producers see design as a means of seduction, marketing, branding, gaining attention, positioning, whereas consumers view it as a means of self-express, a way of setting themselves apart from other consumers. In the private domain the chief functions of design are differentiation and individualisation. The public domain, by contrast, is the territory of generality, of what binds people and transcends them, of their common interests and identity. These interests are defined and sustained in an unceasing and dialectical process of power and counter power, of images and counter-images, of proposals and counterproposals.

The heart of the public domain is the state, its organs and apparatuses, for it is the state above all, that is charged with looking after the public weal. Second, the public domain encompasses the public sphere, in which state and civil society interact. This interaction takes the form of communication amongst government agencies and public authorities on the one hand and the public on the other, and vice-versa, and between citizens. Also part of the public domain is public space in the physical sense. And finally the public domain includes the institutions within which culture and knowledge are produced, distributed and preserved.

Hugues Boekraad, My work is not my work; Pierre Bernard, Design for the public domain