Design or Decoration?

by Mackenzie Brookshire    January 28, 2013

We designer types here in the office have been doing some talking about some heavy philosophical "design stuff" lately.

I love this kind of discussion. I’m not going to get too deep into defining design or art…because I’d be writing for a lifetime and/or my head would explode. But, one topic I’d love to raise question about is design and decoration.

Design is a far more complicated concept than what you’ll get from the dictionary, but for the sake of this discussion here is how defines it:

“To create, fashion, execute, or construct according to a plan”

When we are designing according to this plan, we use lines, colors, shapes and ideas like balance, rhythm and unity in consideration of context, content, and an audience. We generate and execute on ideas that are appropriate for those parameters.

Now read the definition for decorate:

“To make (something) look more attractive by adding ornament to it.”

I think that is a fairly broad description and leaves plenty of room for thought. But still, when I hear someone say “that’s just decoration”, my immediate thought is “dang…burn”. I’m guessing most designers feel the same way. But why is that? Why does that word hurt our designer-y feelings? Read and think about the definition above. Nowhere in it says decoration can’t be used to “create, fashion, execute, or construct according to a plan”.

With this in mind, I want to challenge the thought that decoration is some kind of golden rule we shouldn’t break if what we’re doing is to be considered Design. If I’m using decoration, but I’m doing it in respect to aesthetics and the content and the goal, I am designing.

So when is decoration definitely not part of a design process? If intuition and/or research tells me that adding some ornamental scrolls on an interior decorating blog will help clarify and enhance the content for its readers, for example, I think it’s fair to say that those decorations are serving a purpose and is therefore a legitimate part of my design process. But if I added those scrolls “just because” to a website that sells minimalist home furnishings, I’ve disengaged from a design process. Here’s a final thought…what if for some weird reason, on that same minimalist home furnishings site, the client really likes those scrolly embellishments even though it’s a contradiction to the content – does my goal to serve my clients’ needs mean I am in fact engaged in a design process?

Here are some images related to this discussion that I think are thought provoking.

Textile pattern: design or decoration?

Calyx, by Lucienne Day


Wrapping paper: design or decoration?

Kittens Wrapping Paper, by Marian Bantjes


Fabergé egg: design or decoration?

Peter The Great Egg, by Peter Carl Fabergé


Custom lettering: design or decoration?

Moonrise Kingdom, type by Jessica Hische

4 thoughts on “Design or Decoration?”

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