What We Talk About When We Talk About Design: A Diachronic Investigation Into the Word ‘Design’

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Nathan Matteson
Associate Professor
DePaul University

This project looks at the changes in the meaning of the word ‘design’ throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. ‘Design’ and its cultural impact have changed significantly between the advent of typographic printing and the 21st century. Understanding these transitions is compelling in its own right, and may allow us to anticipate future developments.

This investigation relies on ‘word embedding’, which has become widespread in the field of natural language processing. Word embeddings convert texts into quantities with each word represented by a multidimensional vector of real numbers. They have seen use in a range of applications including sentiment analysis, language translation, and, happily, investigating semantic change of words over time.

A comparison of the changes among the semantic neighbors of ‘design’—the words that are ‘close’ to design in this multi-dimensional vector space—provides insight into what we mean when we say ‘design’. Early results suggest that two significant shifts have occurred.

  • During the late 19th century, design’s semantic neighborhood moved away from words like ‘plan’, ‘arrangement’, and ‘interpretation’ towards ‘mechanism’, ‘device’, and ‘apparatus’.
  • The neighborhood was further displaced during the mid-20th century by the likes of ‘model’, ‘construct’, and ‘prototype’.

What might be behind these supposed changes in meaning? Perhaps it suggests that design reinvents itself in response to disruptive technological changes, if one assumes these time periods correspond, respectively, to the industrial revolution and the nascent digital age. More investigation is required—performing analyses over other words and corpora—before any useful conclusions can be drawn.

This design research was presented at Design Incubation Colloquium 9.2: Annual CAA Conference 2023 (Virtual) on Saturday, February 18, 2023.