In the normal sense of the word there seem to be things with good design and things with bad design. We often remark of industrial products, for example, that some are well-designed, which means that they look fashionable and feel natural in their use, and therefore the products are successful, while others are badly-designed, i.e. their shape is unattractive or their interface is unnatural, and so the products are failures. We sometimes consider “bad design” as “lack of design.” I think this correct as long as we understand design as a kind of value.
In an essential sense, however, design is an inevitable aspect for anything to be able to take any shape in the world. There are things with bad design, or those lacking in a sense of design, but nothing can be without design at all. In other words, there are no such things as “bare” objects or “naked” functions, since this “bareness” or “nakedness” would mean something in a certain context where it is placed, and would come to be seen as a design. We cannot escape design, in this sense, whether we are aware of it or not. As we see the word “sign” already in the very word “design,” design is ubiquitous exactly in the same way that the “sign” is.
Minimalist art — for example, one of Robert Ryman’s “white-on-white” paintings — derives its artistic power from the decision to refrain from depicting anything. A Japanese retail company MUJI is distinctive in its design policy of applying as little design as possible. The name “MUJI” is the first part of “Mujirushi” (no-brand), but it also is an everyday Japanese word meaning “no pattern” or “no figure” when we talk about clothing. Absence of a sign can itself work as a powerful sign when surrounded by other signs. In a similar manner, lack of design may itself be a new and highly sophisticated design when considered in the context of competing designs.
Design presumes purpose or intention, but we don’t have to understand “purpose” or “intention” in this sense as something we consciously experience as human beings. Immanuel Kant, in the last (but not least) part of his program of critical philosophy (part II of Critique of the Power of Judgement), worked on the epistemological legitimacy of “teleological judgement,” which we need to understand the world of living organisms. Living nature inevitably appears as a system of signs, innumerably various forms and structures which we can only understood as if they were designed, though we perfectly realize that they are all mechanically determined.
I think the concept of “semiotics of design” has come to constitute one of the most interesting fields of semiotic studies, and perhaps semiotics has, to some extent, contributed to creating new designs. In a broader sense of the word “design,” however, semiotics is a discipline which has demonstrated that any academic research, including itself, is in a sense an activity of designing knowledge in its social, historical and linguistic context, rather than a noble episteme distancing itself from the world. I believe that design, style or fashion is becoming a crucial issue for our own research activities in this essential sense, and that semiotics should play an important role in developing this emerging intellectual awareness.