Video Series (Part 3): The Purpose of Design

September 30th, 2009 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

Part one and part two of this series focused on the definition of design and the Christian view of design. In this third part the focus shifts from the definition of design to the purpose of design. Why do we design? What is the real goal of our vocation?

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II. The purpose of Design

    A. Broadening the Question

        1. Design as a human activity

We talked about the Christian understanding of what design is and how it fits into reality, but that doesn't really answer the question of why we do it. Several of the popular explanations of design we looked at earlier defined design in terms of its purpose rather than in terms of the characterstics of the designed thing. For example Bruce Archer said that (II-A-1_001_bruce) “Design is that area of human experience, skill and knowledge which is concerned with man’s ability to mould his environment to suit his material and spiritual needs.” So for Bruce Archer the purpose of design is the fulfillment of man's material and spiritual needs. It's difficult to define a human activity without at least implying a purpose. And you'll find that a well-thought-out purpose always points to or emanates from an individual's understanding of the ultimate purpose of humanity as a whole.

        2. Design as a human activity

So, in order for our understanding of the purpose of design to make any real logical sense, we have to broaden the question first. We have to ask (II-A-1_002a_labor a-d) what is the purpose of human activity in general, and then where does design fit into that broader understanding. I've found Archer's answer to be a very popular one as I've talked with other designers on Mirificam Press. Most designers I've encountered have a humanist or pragmatic understanding of the purpose of design, and so we can intuit that they have a humanist understanding of the purpose of human activity in general. So, the purpose of mankind, for them, is to aid mankind. Man is the measure of man's purpose. This should strike you as somewhat circular and it gets worse when you start working this view out practically. I've seen several models and equations but they all become problematic in short order. And this is mainly because human happiness is a finite, fickle target, and many times that target has grown out of a sinister appetite.

        3. The purpose of human activity

But Christianity offers a solid alternative. In the Christian worldview, the purpose of all activity, really all finite existence, is to bring glory to the creator. (II-A-1_003_wmsc) "Bringing glory", just means to please or honor. So, as we discussed in the first session, at the foundation of the Christian understanding of purpose lies this three-in-one creator God who is unchanging. Our understanding of His nature and how we go about bringing Him glory may change, but He will never charge—the target is fixed in that respect. And that gives us a solid logical starting point for our endeavors as humans. But, of course, we need more than just a general mandate to "bring glory", we need to know what that means practically—how do we go about doing that. And that's why the Bible is crucial to the Christian worlview; in it we find the specifics that bring all the pieces of reality together.

    B. The Three Roles of Creation

        1. The Aspects of Bringing Glory to God

There are two aspects that characterize our bringing glory to God. (II-B-1_001_glory a-b)1. Structural Imitation, and 2. Moral Imitation. We'll talk more about moral imitation in the section about design and morality, but for now we'll focus on structural imitation. Structural imitation is that part of our work that emulates the structural characteristics of God. And we see God's command for structural imitation in the very first chapter of the first book in the Bible, Genesis. (II-B-1_002_genesis a-c)

"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them and said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'" Genesis 1:26-28

This is called the "Dominion Mandate" or sometimes the "Cultural Mandate". It's the very first instruction ever given to mankind and it's reiterated throughout the Bible in various forms. (II-B-1_003_dominion) It's a command to imitate God, not in the moral sense, but in the structural sense. He commands us to justly rule and create in the earthly sphere the same way he justly rules and creates all that is. So here at the dawn of time we see man has already received critical instruction on how he is to go about living, how to go about bringing glory to his creator. Of course, this purpose was twisted and clouded in the next chapter of Genesis at the fall of man, but the goal itself has never been rescinded.

Now, there are three inescapable aspects of productive human activity we should take note of: (II-B-1_004_activity) Planning, building, and maintaining.

a. Planning - (II-B-1_005a_activity) Planning includes any mental or material work done in preparation for a productive act. This can be as elaborate as a set of architectural plans or as simple as a single rational thought prior to action.

b. Building - (II-B-1_005b_activity) Building is the act itself. Planning + Building = the created product.

c. Maintaining - (II-B-1_005c_activity) Last there's maintaining. Once a created product has been planned and emerges in the physical world, there's always a condition of maintenance attached. The maintenance aspect of a created work determines the endurance of the work. For example, a firework display is designed with only one condition of maintenance—that you keep your eyes open when it is taking place. And this ensures that the work will be ephemeral. On the other hand there are ancient Greek sculptures still being maintained and preserved thousands of years after their emergence.

So those are the three aspects of productive human activity.

        2. The Work Trinity

In our earlier discussion I showed how function and form intermingle and overlap to produce a created thing in a kind of Trinitarian imitation. (II-B-2_001_activity) This is the same Trinitarian model that we see here with planning, building, and maintaining. These three activities imitate the roles of the Trinity in the creative act that produced the world. We see God the Father planning or decreeing what will be, God the Son is the builder or executor of God the Father's plan, and God the Spirit is the maintainer or the seal over the work of God the Father and God the Son. These roles are repeated throughout the Bible, but you'll notice that they aren't precise. The jobs of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit tend to overlap in many instances. And this is the same way we experience the reality of planning, building, and maintaining. Sometimes the planner of a work is also the builder and the maintainer. Sometimes the planner plans and maintains; sometimes the builder builds and maintains. The point is that we see each of these roles in ourselves and through our relationships with others. There is no legitimate vocation in the world where any one of these roles (planner, builder, or maintainer) isn't necessary. So that at least gives us a general picture of glory-bringing activity. That picture, that stamp, replicates down into all legitimate jobs, and that's where we find design. We'll come back to this graphic in a later discussion and add another dimension to it that will protrude the model and make even more tangible. That'll be in the section called "What is Good Design?"

    C. Placing Design

        1. Design and the Dominion Mandate

Design is an exciting vocation to be involved in because it's so close to the heart of the dominion mandate. Where many jobs indirectly fulfill the dominion mandate, design is right there at its essence. We can see very clearly how we're molding and harnessing the created order. In our work we get to intensely experience planning, building, and maintaining. All three are on our minds. And the things we do very closely resemble God's own act in the creation of the world. I think especially of my own field of web design where (I-C-1_001_activity) I'm responsible for conceptualizing the style and layout of a new site, and then my responsibility shifts to the building and implementation of those concepts, and I'm also responsible for maintaining and updating the site after the work is complete. And this give me great fodder for contemplating the nature of God every day as I go about my work. Not only am I helping others, that's a great side benefit to the purpose God has charged us with, but more importantly I'm bringing God glory by imitating him with my work. That means something very important and unique for the Christian designer. It means we're participating in a work that's both earthly and transcendent, simultaneously. And that's not to elevate our work above all other work. Every person participating in every God-sanctioned job is given the same privilege. But some vocations afford a more clearcut picture of the imitation of God, and design is definitely one of those vocations.

        2. What we learn from God's works planning, building, and maintaining?

So now to recap, we know that the ultimate purpose of design is the same as all productive human activity—(I-C-2_001_glory)to bring glory to God. And we go about bringing God glory by obeying the dominion mandate (II-C-2_002_dominion), by ruling the created order and harnessing its power for good, beauty, and truth. Now remember, things that are "good and useful" in the Christian worldview are not confined only to those things that meet physical needs, but "good and useful" encompasses all those things which satisfy the whole human being, physical and spiritual. And that leads us to our next question: (II-C-2_003_good) What is "good" design? We know what design is supposed to do, but how do we analyze it and make a distinction between the good and the bad in terms of degree of excellence?


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