Editor's Note

Okay, What Exactly Is Design?

We have a running joke at the magazine: If it’s pretty to look at, it most likely counts as design.

By Marty Patail October 16, 2019 Published in the Design Annual: 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

The Oregon-created tater tot—not necessarily pretty, but certainly "designed." 

Image: Michael Novak

What is design? And what kinds of things belong in a magazine that calls itself a “Design Annual”? That is a surprisingly tough question to answer, but one that Portland Monthly tackles every year as we gear up to make this issue. 

One possible answer: the Pretty Test. We have a running joke at the magazine: If it’s pretty to look at, it most likely counts as design. Because, in fact, many things that are designed—from iPhones to tulip tables to Ultrafragola mirrors—do share a certain undeniable beauty.

Indeed, many subjects in this issue pass the Pretty Test with flying colors. Our cover story, for instance, written by local architecture critic Brian Libby, features three stunning homes that were remodeled for a new generation of local families. They’re real pretty. We tracked down adorable greeting card lines and peeked inside a new Instagrammable Icelandic-owned hotel. We cover a local maker of gorgeous ceramic bongs and coffee mugs and profile our favorite new furniture stores, all hawking things to make your home look as magazine-ready as possible.

But the Pretty Test has its limits. A painting, after all, can be pretty, but art for art’s sake feels like something purer than design. Design needs function. Design traffics in needs—no matter how base or elevated. Buildings are designed. Software is designed. Fashion is designed. The branding and packaging for fancy sex lube is designed. (And we cover that, too.)

Many of the stories in this issue speak to the more functional aspects of design. We talk about the handful of people who keep architects from making hideous buildings that would make the city a less harmonious place to live and navigate. We investigate “inhospitable” design, a controversial trend in urban planning to keep certain groups of people out of public spaces. And we have an entire photo feature devoted to things that were invented in Oregon. The tater tot? Not necessarily pretty, but it certainly fills a deep Oregonian need.

So what is design? Maybe it’s best that we keep struggling to define it. After all, it’s always nice to be surprised.

Filed under
Show Comments