“Ten thousand instances of Design, cannot but prove a Designer.” This sentence from Bishop Joseph Butler’s 1736 Analogy of Religion serves to clinch his argument for a (Christian) God made manifest in Nature. Almost three centuries later, the notion of “intelligent design” remains not only active but energetic. Butler, writing 50 years after Newton’s Principia, sought to convince rationalists of a world created and shaped by God. Our era continues this conversation between those who believe in a God-shaped universe and those who believe the secular power of science will reveal every seeming mystery of nature. Although many other religions also posit a divine origin to the universe and our planet, it is Christian theologians who developed the theory of “intelligent design.” So this profound debate about design plays out most vociferously in the nation defined by both its strenuously Christian majority and its cutting-edge science: the US.
Design is a vigorously contested term in the debate. The word refuses to draw the line at religion (though “to draw,” dessiner in French, encodes what might be called its etymological DNA); but design has always had an edgier, artier side as well. The energy of design moves from metaphysical to material, arcane to mundane. In several of its definitions the OED characterizes design as operating according to both “aesthetic” and “functional” criteria. Part of the word’s power comes from an apparent promise to combine artistry with science and engineering: the sundered halves of the modern “two cultures,” each of which claims autonomy from the economy. Despite such claims, however, design has become integral to commerce. Thus the late Steve Jobs of Apple was anointed “the most consequential figure in the history of design.” The age of science has its own gods and they, too, are designers.
The polysemy of design has prompted the recent adjective designy. For a postmodern speaker, ever keen to irony, a pretentious and over-elaborate design warrants the dismissive “y.” After all, the best designs don’t seem designed at all, but natural. And if designy seems jejune as a term, consider the Stephen-Colbertish word designfulness, which at first sounds truthier, or at least more weighty. The OED illustrates this form with citations that almost add up to an antithetical couplet:
1982 Brit. Jrnl. Hist. Sci. 15 49
Natural theology, through the argument from design, provided a way of understanding the designfulness of nature.
2006 P. Dear Intelligibility of Nature iv. 106
[Natural selection, which] Darwin has proposed as a way of giving a natural explanation for the apparent designfulness of organic things.
The verb design and its somewhat later attested noun come into English with a substantial history in French and Italian, and before that Latin. Strikingly, the “sign” in design is a true etymon; the word really does come from the realm of signification, but has lost its active connection: the verb designate is found in C16 and took over a range of usages that had pertained to design since C14. Two major semantic clusters remain thereafter: the first relating to the idea of conception or intention as a mental activity (previously expressed by OE forethink or ME imagine, image (v.), or contrive); the second relating to the practice of verbally sketching or visually drawing (previously expressed by OE write or ME descrive/describe). The two clusters keep coming together, as they do in Apple’s products.
The first OED sense for the noun, dating from 1565 and remaining current, is “A plan or scheme conceived in the mind and intended for subsequent execution.” Many of the usages that build from this sense have negative senses of appropriation (e.g., “designs upon”) or alternatively hypocrisy (“a designing wench”); but at the end of the metonymic slide from intention to thing intended, we reach the highest positive value, illustrated by the citation from Butler above, defined as: “Fulfilment of a prearranged plan . . . . Chiefly in theological contexts.” This meaning underpins the “argument from design” most influentially posed by William Paley in Natural Theology 1802, which used the example of finding a watch in a field and realizing there must be a watchmaker.
This design perspective provoked counterarguments philosophically in David Hume and scientifically in Charles Darwin, reflected in the following OED quotations:
2009 S. C. Meyer Signature in Cell (2010) xvii. 383
Hume refuted the classical design argument in biology by showing that it depends on a flawed analogy between living forms and human artifacts.
1860 C. Darwin Let. 22 May in Life & Lett. (1887) II. 105, I cannot see as plainly as others do evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us.
The phrase intelligent design has continued to have currency into the C21, but it goes back at least two hundred years, and was first cited 1816, along with its early C19 counterpart "argument from design". In C19, religious use of design reflected common usage of design at the time, in contrast to accident, conveying a sense that the world as it is did not arise through randomness or chance but through a divine plan. God’s design in C19 was often discussed alongside the issue of whether evil could be a part of God’s design, as well as in relation to theories of evolution. The updated OED crisply puts down the current state of intelligent design: “now used chiefly with reference to a modified form of creation science which promotes teleological explanations while minimizing the use of religious terminology.” This formulation glosses a 2005 citation: “With their ‘creation science’ strategies struck down by the Supreme Court, anti-evolutionists...morphed into defenders of ‘intelligent design.’” Glossed in different terms, after the Supreme Court banned the teaching of “creation science” in state schools (Edwards v. Aguillard, 1987), design replaced creation; for legal reasons, intelligent design discourse in the US today is careful to avoid use of creation. The most influential recent codification of intelligent design is generally considered to be Davis and Kenyon's American secondary school textbook Of Pandas and People (1989), which denies evolutionary theories of biology in favor of the claim that life was designed by an intelligent agent.
The semantic range of design reaches in one direction towards creation, and in the other fingers towards fashion: both terms that contain some of the same complexity. Fashion derives directly from Latin facio, “to make”; and creation is both what we call the universe and a fashion designer’s newest gown.
In charting recent compounds derived from designer, the OED vividly demonstrates the continuing polarities of design. The modifying term designer can refer mockingly to “anything apparently created by a designer, or regarded as fashionable, exclusive, expensive, or conferring status, as designer haircut, designer lifestyle.” Designer products, clothing in particular, are thus branded to communicate designed identities. Alternatively, the word can be used in “Designating products which have been modified (esp. genetically or chemically) or created to have a particular appearance, function, or composition, as designer gene.” Since the 1980s, as attested by a cluster of OED quotations, these two poles have both operated in the phrase designer baby: such a baby may be (a) a baby wearing or having designer clothes or accessories; or (b) a baby selected by prenatal testing to ensure the presence or absence of particular genes.
The design industry began to appear in the UK in C19; but new digital technologies and contemporary higher education have recently expanded that industry dramatically. The relevant OED definition subordinates design in this context to commerce: “design as applied to industrial products.” The illustrative citation (1967) limits Industrial Design to the “range of products in which aesthetic appearance and convenience in use are very important, such as in furniture, domestic appliances, and office machinery.” Yet the current website of Rhode Island School of Design suggests an alternative emphasis: “Industrial Design (ID) is about a lot more than the design of commercial products. It involves looking at innovative ways to use creative thinking and the design process itself to do things better.” The design industry tends to posit that products and services, and even environments and experiences, can be creative expressions shaped to serve individual identities rather than commodities mass-produced and marketed to consumers. The COHA corpus suggests that product appears as a common collocate of design only in the 1980s (broadly, at the same time that product comes to refer to mass-produced goods valued mostly for their commercial marketability rather than their artistic character, see the OED entry for product). Examples from COCA and the BNC, as well as from contemporary newspaper databases, also suggest that design is often used interchangeably with product, even if design further suggests that the goods in question are not to be viewed as products but as works of creative expression. Design, therefore, can both replace product and stand in opposition to product. The discourse surrounding design shows embodies exactly this contradiction. At such shows, attendees inspect and assess designs as artistic creations rather than as products conceived as market commodities, even though the background process of the two approaches (i.e. industrial production), and the end goal of the two perspectives (i.e. market consumption) remain the same.
The argument from design arose in response to an Enlightenment emphasis on science, while C21 prestige and hyperbole related to design arguably feed a fantasy of reconciling art and industry through the very means of commerce that earlier tore the imagined wholeness of life apart. William Morris represents an early version of such a hope, and Theodor Adorno a classic articulation of its critique.