The Shape of Design

Frank Chimero

Chapter Five Illustration

Chapter Five Fiction and Bridges

No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be….This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking. Issac Asimov

There’s something about speaking, even if only to oneself, that makes the mind work. Our verbal cowpaths are paved through conversation. Speaking to ourselves is a crude tool to hack our way toward clearer thinking. But in spite of its obvious benefits, I become self-conscious when I’m caught talking to myself. I freeze. I try to find a chair to hide behind. I cover my eyes, pull my cap down, and pretend that if I can’t see them, they won’t see me. I’m not here. I’ve just disappeared. The man you saw talking to himself was only a part of your imagination.

Perhaps my embarrassment comes from a private activity made public by its discovery. Or it could be that to be caught speaking without a listener is suspicious and embarrassing. Speaking requires an audience; the speaker and listener are bonded. The Russian polymath Mikhail Bakhtin declared that the primary position in conversation is the one listening rather than the speaker. One must have an audience to begin to speak, and perhaps this is a clue as to why we talk to ourselves: we monologue to listen.

The point of speaking, and likewise creating, is to have someone there to receive. The results of our efforts must move toward others; similarly, design must move to be effective, whether by filling needs or communicating with an audience. It should move like a provocative word: out, and then around. One set of hands makes the work, then it passes to another to use. The presence of the audience is what imbues the designer’s work with its worth.

As such, it is never just the designer’s hands doing the shaping. All design springs from a complex social ecosystem created by multiple parties’ interests weaving together to produce the design. The players in the arrangement are familiar: the client, who commissions the work; the audience, who sees or uses it; and the designer in the middle, who produces the artifact that will join the client and audience to one another in a relationship. The needs and desires of the audience are bonded to the capabilities of the client under the auspicious hope that they complement and enable one another. In this guise, design not only becomes a way to push toward a desirable future, but also works to establish the vocabulary we use to define the terms of our engagements with one another.

The best way to describe design is that it seeks to connect things by acting as a bridge between them. The design of a book connects the author and her ideas to the reader by complementing her writing. The design of a restaurant is meant to fuse with the chef’s culinary approach to create a more provocative and full dining experience for the eater. Web design connects the user to the site’s owner and offers a venue for the connection to develop and grow.

Design’s ability to connect requires it to be in the middle position. The work’s qualities are defined by the characteristics of what surrounds it, like how the negative space between two closely placed parallel lines creates a third line. We’re that third line, frequently shifting in order to serve and respond to the elements around us. As the elements connected by design change, so, too, does the design. The field is in flux, always being neither this nor that, which makes it frustrating to try to pin down. It is, like all shape-shifters, evasive and slippery.

The qualities of design consistently change, because there is a wide variety of characteristics in what design connects. It means that design lives in the borderlands – it connects, but it does not anchor. The work must provide a path without having a specific way of its own. The design is always the middle position, but rather than acting as an obstruction, it should be the mortar that holds the arrangement together.

One way that design finds itself in the middle is by its ability to establish the tone of the work. As described earlier, design seeks to negotiate the qualities of the content with the affordances of the format to produce a cohesive whole greater than the sum of the parts. This situation largely describes many of the formal challenges faced by designers in their work. A wise design choice finds the tone that can slip between the content and format, snap into place, and bond one to another.

Design also finds itself in the middle of art and commerce. The practice’s hybrid quality breeds different opportunities than either practice can alone, allowing for a special sort of influence on culture. Design can speak the tongue of art with the force of commerce. The products of design maneuver in the streets of the city where people live, rather than the halls of a museum where they must be visitors. There needn’t be the pressure of artistic credibility or commercial profitability always present, which means that the work of the designer can go further in shaping culture than a traditional piece of art, and make money in a way that has more soul and spill-over benefits than straight commerce.

Design’s connective role is meant to support the movement of value from one place to another for a full exchange. It means that the products of design are not autonomous objects, but are creations that bridge in-between spaces to provide a way toward an intended outcome. The design must be transformative for it to be successful. It must take us somewhere. Airports and train stations are other examples of non-autonomous creations that exist as in-between spaces, because they have been built out of our desire to go somewhere else. Even cathedrals could be considered spaces of transit, because they seek to connect the physical world with the spiritual realm. Design is akin to these places in that their usefulness is defined by the consequences of the connections they facilitate. A train station that doesn’t create a lust for exploration is flawed, just as a cathedral that doesn’t inspire awe is a failure.

Design’s middle position requires it to aid movement in both directions. The most useful bridges, after all, allow traffic to go both ways. If value is expected to be mutually exchanged, it means that influence on the design will come in both directions from the things the design connects. The content and the format, for instance, both mold the appropriate choices for the tone. Art and commerce each push and pull on the design, because the work must be artful as well as profitable. From a social perspective, the client and the audience both have a say in the design decisions.

The last is perhaps the most complicated, because the designer adds a third influence to the mix. She is trying to satiate her own creative needs in the work as well. There is no guarantee, as many experienced designers can attest, that the requirements of each individual in this tangle of interest will be the same. Each comes to the design requiring something different. Those differences mean it is design’s job to negotiate the problem space – to create a way for the connection to be built. The parties’ values don’t have to be in parity, their desires simply have to be compatible for the work to have a chance at success.

One point of complication is that these negotiations frequently happen during production, so the audience is not yet present.

The designer, therefore, acts as a proxy for the audience’s needs while arguing for her own creative concerns. This makes the whole arrangement precarious, because it means that the designer is being paid by the client, but is obligated to the audience, for it is the audience’s presence that imbues the work with its value.

It is a double-allegiance, a necessary duplicity. Design’s two-faced behavior is a product of its middle position between the elements it connects. Bridging two things means a bond with both of them.

Our duplicity is no bad thing; in fact, it is necessary, simply because things must move two ways at once for a full exchange. We are molding a complex, multi-faceted setting, so our approach to improving our conditions and shaping the world should be the same way. Nothing is ever clear-cut when working in a shape-shifting practice to negotiate complicated terrain. Some trickery is necessary to get things moving once they are connected.

Untruths are what initiate change, because they describe an imagined, better world, and offer a way to attain it. Tantalizing visions of the future are the lure that gets us to bite. The only question is whether the fabrication improves our lot or buckles under us.

The future is pliable, unknown, and weighty. On the other side of today there is vagueness – a multitude of directions the world could sway. The areas of uncertainty get filled up with speculation. We’ve invented a suite of ways to grapple with the future throughout the course of human history, from the perceived ethereal wisdom in the entrails of ritual livestock in ancient Rome, to the calculated metrics in the odds of a boxing match in Vegas. We flirt with the future and poke at it in order to believe we exert some control over what’s to come. If this means divining some imposed meaning from tea leaves, so be it.

Modern people, unlike the ancients, have a different relationship with the future, because we understand that it’s something to be made rather than a destiny imposed by the gods or the whims of fortune. Future arrangements begin in our mind as images of things that don’t exist. Our interpretations of tomorrow are productive fictions that we tell one another to seduce us into believing our ideas are possible. We speak beneficial untruths that act as hypotheses, forcing us to roll up our sleeves and work with cleverness and dedication to bring them to fruition. We work to change fiction into fact when we attempt to better our condition.

An alluring, productive untruth is frequently what’s necessary to get things going. Consider how we behave on New Year’s Eve when we make our resolutions. We weave an illusion and imagine ourselves fifteen pounds lighter, giving more time to our community, or phoning home more often. We fabricate ourselves into better people to inspire the actions necessary to become the fitter husband, the more loving daughter, or the better citizen. We use that image of ourselves as motivation as we work to close the gap between what we’ve imagined and what is true. Molding the world works the same way.

Every untruth forks reality and opens up a gap between what is imagined to exist and what actually does. Each fabrication creates a second version of the world where the untruth is true. Consider an entrepreneur standing before a few investors describing a technology she’s developing. She is speculating about the potential applications of her research. The work, at this point, hasn’t been applied in the market, and all she has are promising lab tests. Her proposal forks reality: we live in a world where the technology hasn’t been applied yet, but the vision that the entrepreneur weaves about potential opportunity and profit determines whether or not the investors choose to risk their money. They invest if they perceive she can close the gap between the world as it is that day, and the world she wants it to be.

In an ideal situation, all fiction would improve our collective condition, but as we know, not everyone is interested in making good on their promises. Fiction can also be corrosive and deteriorate the foundations of what’s already been built, undermining the stability of our arrangements rather than helping to build new things or strengthen existing structures. Lies corrode our understanding of reality by misrepresenting it, like a snake-oil salesman that goes from town to town promising medicine, but selling swill. Snake-oil salesmen fork reality just like the visionary, but they have no intention of closing the gap that opens up with their lie.

The salesman doesn’t tell an untruth in order to get us to work towards it. Instead, he misrepresents what is in front of us so that we buy into a mirage. It’s a messy distinction, and it’s why design, rhetoric, and politics are so sticky and often mistrusted: the language we use to build the world is so close to what can be used to undermine it. Design and persuasion are manipulative, and if we have the skills to seduce others toward green pastures, we can also lead them off a cliff.

But the threat of a cliff is the cost of the pasture. The world swells, pivots, and grows when we close the gaps of our untruths. A willingness to imagine things differently and suspend our disbelief for one another are the interfaces we create to shape the world. Every time we tell an untruth, we confess that the world is not yet done. We have a hunger for a better condition, and we are, if nothing else, optimistic. The only way forward is through something we’ve never done, so we run full speed into the great imagined unknown to make this world for one another.

Continue to Context and Response Chapter Six