The Dutch Have Two Words for Design

“In Holland, we have two words for design. One is vormgeving; in German formgeben. And the other word is ontwerpen; in German entwurf. In the Anglo-Saxon language there’s only one word for design, which is design. That is something you should work out. Vormgeving is more to make things look nice. So for instance, packaging for a perfume or for chocolate in order to make things fashionable, obsolete and therefore bad for society because we don’t really need it. While ontwerpe means, and the Anglo-saxon word, but its stronger, means engineering. That means you as a person try to invent a new thing—which is intelligent, which is clever, and which will have a long-life. And that’s called stylistic durability. It means you can use it for a long time.”

—  Gert Dumbar

(via frankchimero)

19 Comments leave a comment below

  1. ontwerpen = to design
    vormgeven = to shape

    don’t believe everything a Dutchman tells you, I’m sure it is exactly the same in German ;)

  2. I think Herr Dumbar needs a new word for “Anglo-Saxon”. Unless he’s familiar with the finer workings of medieval languages, it’s called English these days. hahaha, cheeky Dutch.

    It’s true, though, we could use a better word for design-for-use. If you read it with liberty, it kinda looks like “form given” or maybe “form-giving”

  3. I thought we English-speakers had three words: styling, engineering, and design, which is a collaboration between/combination of both styling and engineering.

  4. this is an old debate and not a very ingenuous one. (

    why shouldn’t chocolate and perfume boxes be pretty? is it because they’re meant to be consumed – because they’re necessarily ephemeral? is there no pleasure to be had in simply observing the product before one uses it? (and curious that both examples are feminine.)

  5. His linguistics are correct, more or less vormgeven/Formgebung is different from shaping something, at the very least it’s used differently. Also, there is a properly close translation for to shape (formen) on its own. And at least in German, styling something is a different thing than vormgeven/Formgebung. Also engineering is something else altogether (on its own anyway). So yes, there are some more words for this in Dutch/German, but his conclusion is kind of silly, and I agree with Noah on that. He doesn’t really have a point there. Beauty without functionality is bad for society? So clearly we should close all art museums since nobody needs them and they are therefore evil. Sheesh.

  6. In graphic design, to me the words Vormgeving and Formgebung means to visually compose existing shapes or elements, while the words Ontwerpen and Entwurf actually means to ‘create’ the shapes or elements out of nothing.

  7. In graphic design, to me the words Vormgeving and Formgebung means to visually compose existing shapes or elements, while the words Ontwerpen and Entwurf actually means to ‘create’ the shapes or elements out of nothing.

  8. and nobody talks about the latin origin of the word “Design”?

    present active dēsignō, present infinitive dēsignāre, perfect active dēsignāvi, supine dēsignātum.
    To mark
    To trace out
    To outline or describe
    To indicate or denote
    To earmark or choose
    To appoint or elect
    To order or plan

    English: designate, design
    French: designer
    Italian: designare, disegnare, disegno
    Romanian: desemna, designa
    Spanish: diseñar, diseño

    So why complicate with more words if one is enough and sums up all ideas from drawing to planning?

  9. Let’s take this a few more linguistic steps:

    ontwerpen -> entwurf -> enthrown -> to conceptualize (to size up the situation and make a mental model of it, understand it, delineate it, frame it, etc)

    vormgeving -> formgeben -> form giving (to give form to, to make, to build, to sculpt, to actualize, to formalize, etc)

    design -> [previous comment above’s latin] -> french “dessin” (drawing)

    You know what this reminds me of? the fact that english has both “freedom” and “liberty”, where as german only has Freiheit and french only has liberté… ;)

  10. It’s curious to see this quote outside the context in which it was created: as part of an interview with That New Design Smell magazine ( Since when is anything understood outside its context? This is design 101. So it’s curious, indeed, to see it floating around here without proper credit. (Whoever frankchimero is does not matter, the link is already broken).

    The original question in the interview, which generated this answer, was about how the design field constantly misrepresents itself to a public: from clients to publications, classrooms and conferences. Design is imagination. Design is planning. Design is products. Design is interaction. Design is conceptual. Design is style. Design is everything; and becomes nothing.

    What Dumbar is clearly pointing out, is this confusion between styling and designing. There is nothing wrong with styling; I have many talented colleagues who excel at styling and love what they do. The distinction is worth making, however, not because one is better than the other, but because they are different. And its cruel to keep mixing the two together. Mostly because its cruel to misrepresent oneself in the eyes of others; its confusing. Imagine hiring a surgeon, only to find out they’re an astrologer. It’s very, very confusing.

  11. thanks @Ced L.T. for the full context, though it’s really more of the same:

    “I must say, I was educated also at the Royal College of Art in London. And it was a bit decadent. They really cared for how a chocolate box looked like, and toilet soap. ”

    Because all designers should instead care about, what?

    Perhaps, some designers can care about chocolate boxes and the others can care about chairs or whatever, and, as a result, the world will be a better place.

    In this case, denying that packaging plays a role in culture is to deny the way humans perceive information; how bias is overcome, etc.

    You might as well argue that chefs who go through a great deal of trouble to prepare a dish (say Beschuit met muisjes) are being decadent when all we need for survival are boiled roots.

  12. >>> It’s true, though, we could use a better word for design-for-use. “

    Perhaps we just need to grasp that design divorced from function is abortion.

    R.M.Persig,in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” (which ought tobe required reading to graduate from high school):

    “Sometime look at a novice workman or a bad workman and compare his expression with that of a craftsman whose work you know is excellent and you’ll see the difference. The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. His motions and the machine are in a kind of harmony. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the
    nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the materials at hand. The materials and his thoughts are changing together in a progression of changes until his mind is at rest at the same time as the material is right.”
    “Sounds like art.”
    “Well, it IS art. This divorce of art from technology is completely
    unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long that you have to be an
    archaeologist to find out where the two separated. Rotisserie assembly is actually a long-lost branch of sculpture, so divorced from its roots by centuries of intellectual wrong turns that just to associate the two sounds ludicrous.”


    “The ugliness [some people are] fleeing is not inherent in technology. It only [seems that way] because it’s so hard to isolate what it is within technology that’s so ugly. But technology is simply the making of things and the making of things can’t by its own nature be ugly, or there would be no possibility for beauty in the arts, which also include the making of things.
    Actually, a root word for technology, ‘techne’ originally MEANT ‘art’. The ancient Greeks never separated art from manufacture in their minds, and so never developed separate words for them.
    Neither is the ugliness inherent in the materials of modern technology — a statement you sometimes hear. Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren’t in themselves bad. They’ve just acquired bad associations. A person who’s lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it’s also the prime material of sculpture. A person who’s lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky
    consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly. Bu the real ugliness of modern technology isn’t found in any material or shape or act or product. These are just the objects in which the low Quality appears to reside. It’s our habit of assigning Quality to subjects or objects that gives this impression.
    The real ugliness is not the result of any objects of technology. Nor is it… the result of any subjects of technology, the people who produce it or the people who use it. Quality, or its absence, doesn’t reside in either the subject or the object. The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use.”

    If you have not read this book, you are seriously missing out.

  13. My essential point is, the Dutch are going in the wrong direction, not the right one. The idea that all of this is not and/or should not be all a part of the same creative process — regardless of what one is dealing with — is flat out wrong-headed.

  14. Having one word is preferred. As everything that is designed should not only be engineered well, it should also look good.

  15. a really round about way to talk about the difference between decoration and design…

  16. Design has become a buzzword in many branches. I believe that Gert meant to say that in the Netherlands we have multiple words, for what in English the word Design stands for.

    @Bloody Hell, if anyone ever said that vormgeving, ontwerpen, etc. are words thats are not “connected” to each other, he or she lied to you. But each have a slightly different meaning, so that everyone knows where you’re talking about.

  17. “While ontwerpe means…” needs to be “While ontwerpen means…”

  18. @ O Bloody Hell : Of course design is an art; but more specifically, it’s an applied art. In other words, it’s applied to people and life. If design IS ONLY applied to symbols floating around in art magazines and art galleries, then it’s fair to say its art. Which is not “good” or “bad”; it just IS. And that’s okay.

    @ Flying Dutchman : What Gert mean to say was that there are NOT multiple words for “design”. What Gert meant to say is that there is 1 word for “creating new things that have long value” which can be equivalent to engineering, or inventing… and there is 1 word for “giving shape to things” which is equivalent to styling. That said, there are two main elements which “designers” deal with: First is context and content, Second is how that context and content takes form or shape. So “shaping things” is PART of designing; but not the END of designing.

    Have you noticed how many “styles” of chairs there are; despite how Frame or Wallpaper have you believe there are many “designs” for chairs.

    Why are people so affraid of the word style anyway; 99% of design is styling. Why not just be honest and straightforward about what is REALLY going on in design REALITY?

  19. Ced L.T. That’s exactly what I meant. Thanks for understanding and ‘styling’ the right words into something understandable.

    Oh, and it’s “Ontwerpen” instead of “Ontwerpe”, like Kris mentioned.