design is shaping

about the Series
Design not only shapes our world, and solves our most pressing problems; but also stages mesmerizing experiences, constructs speculations of what our future might behold, and plays a role in setting thresholds or benchmarks of what a product or service could, should or rather ‘ought’ to be.

In this series, I attempt to articulate the nature of design. The esses (S’s) as I call them, or ess(enc)es as I understand them, are the elements of this story, told in five parts; each pocketbook devoted to one ‘S’ - Shaping, Solving, Staging, Speculating and Setting.

about the Pocketbook

This book is the first in a five part series on Design. In this photo essay, I introduce the reader to how design shapes the everyday. While the categories and examples are not exhaustive, they suffice to establish the extent to which design shapes our lives.

We shape materials, which shape artefacts. We obsess over our possessions, and in their use, form relationships with objects, which in turn shape us. Design constructs new meanings, whether through a logo that shapes a brands identity; an advertisement that influences our consumption, or the design of a gesture that governs interactions with devices. As form-givers, designers shape the appearance of objects. seducing our senses and shaping our desire to possess things of beauty.

Characteristics of Shaping

Shaping is characterized by its pervasiveness, precariousness and undesirably, by its perverseness. The pervasiveness of shaping is evident in the fact that everyone shapes, everything, and everywhere; while its precariousness lies in the extremities of our shaping - our quest to shape the highest, deepest and farthest places on earth and even beyond. The perverseness of shaping is visible in the unseen, unknown and unanticipated ways in which we alter the world.

What do we shape? At the very least, materials.

For example, shaping a lump of clay into a brick,

or a vessel;

cutting and polishing a diamond into a jewel,

and moulding plastic or blowing glass into a bottle.

Shaping coins,

The value of a coin can be recognized not just by its weight, but also by its shape. Historically, coins have appeared in shapes such as a rounded square, a hexagon, a septagon and so on. Sadly most coins today are uninspiring circles!

shaping dung,

shaping dough into bread,

and bread into a bowl.

The inside of a sourdough bread is scooped to form an ‘edible tableware’ bowl that is used to serve soup.

We go to such great lengths to engineer the shape of pasta!

Cascatelli pasta for Sfognili by Dan Pashman.

Image credit: Filibustre, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

In the right hands, the forms we shape material into become beautiful. In contrast to the natural world, beauty is acquired through shaping in the man-made world.

This beauty is not just visual, but sensorial.

For example, a mobile phone start up tune,

Users of early Nokia feature phones would be greeted with a sequence of two hands embracing each other, with a snippet of the ‘Gran Vals’ tune playing in the background.

the texture and arrangement of dots,

the fragrance of incense or perfume;

and the taste of coffee.

Coffee beans fed to elephants or civets, are extracted from their poop, to produce one of the world’s rarest and most expensive coffees. Often, shaping sidesteps ethical concerns.

There is great joy in giving form to materials; to almost imbue this ‘stuff’ with life; to shape it - material - into a ‘thing’ that begins to inhabit our lives. We live amongst things and vice versa. Our environment is too full perhaps, of things, designed or not, that we encounter everyday. Someone thought of them, and someone made them.

We build or make things with things.

Robots make cars,

and AI chatbots make small talk with us.

These are ALL acts of Design.

The spectrum of materials we shape and forms we shape them into is astonishing. We shape materials, and hence form. Form shapes artefacts. Artefacts shape our relationships with the world, and with ourselves.

Shaping material thus shapes us.

Often the shape or form we give to materials acquires meaning. Logos and taglines are examples of conscious meaning making that companies engage in around the world. A graphic designer shapes material - point, line and colour - to create a design that is not just memorable, but also carries meaning; a brands message.

next update soon.