An Essay on Design
All the lights are off, save for the one on my desk. It casts a stark diagonal line separating the light and the dark across the keyboard where I type these words. I just put two ice cubes in a small glass and poured some Bulliet whiskey. I take a sip and sit down under the light.
There is a common phrase that goes writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I think Theloneous Monk said it. Or was it Elvis Costello? No one seems to really know for sure. Whoever it was, I think they meant that using one medium to discuss another medium never works—you can’t talk about one thing through another. The work must speak for itself. But it feels fitting to be writing this essay on design because I’ve started to see design and writing as the same thing—both of them are a way of forming ideas and giving ideas form. In fact, the Dutch word for designer is vormgever which translates literally to “form giver”.
I’m writing an essay on design but the more letters that appear before this blinking cursor, the more convinced I am that I don’t even know what design is anymore. I feel like it used to be easier to define. I remember when I was in high school and I discovered design and knew immediately that that is what I would do the rest of my life. I remember the first time I opened up Photoshop and the way my world changed after that. I remember my first college assignment—the first time I had to design something for a grade—and the feeling it gave me. I think back to these moments in search of clues, trying to find a definition for this thing called design.
The problem is the more I look for answers, the more questions arise. The more I try to narrow down a definition for design, the bigger it seems to get. I used to describe design by its parts—color, shape, form, typography—it was visual. Then I described it by the end result—a poster, a book, a website, a business card. You can define design both by its components and its finished product yet neither seem big enough to encapsulate everything design is.
It was in one of my first college classes that I heard that designers were problem solvers. I liked the sound of that—the idea that we find solutions for our clients’ needs—but it has somehow always felt to limiting and vague to me. Most professions involve problem solving. what makes that unique to designers? Designers like to use this definition to separate us from fine artists. We use it to say that we’re concerned with more than aesthetics but then we organize exhibitions of our work and pour over galleries and blogs displaying work completely removed from the context for which it was created. We try to have it both ways; we want to be a problem solver and an artist and end up being neither.
The melting ice is starting to water down the whiskey. I take another sip, feeling it move down my throat, and I realize I’ve been interested in design for almost a decade now. When I was just starting out—like many designers in my generation, I’d imagine—I wanted to make album covers. Some of my earliest work were covers and posters for my friends who were in bands. For a while, I wanted to art direct a magazine before realizing all the excitement was in websites. I had a brief interest in designing iPhone apps.
In school, I used my projects to explore things I was interested in. I designed a magazine about craftsmanship, made a logo for a fictitious Woody Allen museum, and after watching a documentary on factory farming, I made a series of posters on genetically modified foods. After I started listening to jazz, I designed a book about five jazz legends and deep into watching Lost, I made an annual report for the Dharma Initiative.
My interests and my “design style”—whatever that means—has changed a lot in those ten years and in looking back, I can better see that design was never the end. The one thing that hasn’t changed is that design has always been a way to explore my other interests—a vessel I can fill with whatever has my attention and help me better understand it. At the time, I thought the goal was to produce a book or a logo or an annual report but now, leaning back in my chair taking another sip of whiskey, I can see that those were just the byproducts—the result. Design wasn’t the end, it was simply the beginning. The design wasn’t found in its components or in the artifact but in the process—design became a form of inquiry.
If design is not the end, then design must be in the process, in the discovery. “The word building contains the double reality,” writes Stewart Brand in his book How Buildings Learn, “It means both the action of the verb build and that which is built—both verb and noun, both the action and the result...a building is always building and rebuilding.” The same is true of design—it can be both the the verb and the noun, the process and the result.
What, then, is a marker of good design? I start reflecting on process, on the verb design—instead of critiquing design on objects, products, or results, I am now forced to look at ways of thinking, approaches, and philosophies. I start looking through the books of my favorite designers and pour over the work that has shaped me and I find that good design reflexive—it provides an insight into its own creation, letting the viewer know how it was made. In writing about film, Rob Giampietro defined reflexivity as:
The degree to which the film is about its own making, to which it foregrounds its own construction, to which it deals with filmic qualities like nonlinear time, voyerism / observation, movement through space, montage, etc.
What does this look like for graphic design? How do we invite the viewer into our process and highlight its construction? Andrew Blauvelt, in his essay Towards a Critical Autonamy writes:
Graphic design, precisely because it is an instrumental form of communication, cannot divorce itself from the world. Rather graphic design must be seen as a discipline capable of generating meaning on its own terms without undue reliance on commissions, prescriptive social functions, or specific media or styles. Such actions should demonstrate self-awareness and self-reflexivity; a capacity to manipulate the system of design for ends other than those imposed on the field from without and to question those conventions formed from within.
He writes that design that is reflexive allows it to exist in the world while also challenging the notice of design itself. I’m reminded of the famous Roger Ebert quote, again using film as a definition for reflexivity: “A movie is not what it is about, it's how it is about it.” I think the same is true of design. Perhaps that means that regardless of the brief and the subject, design can be a way to explore the interests of the designer and in doing so, provide a look into its own making. Design as problem solving means that we follow a set of patterns and processes to find the one solution but a design that is reflexive sets out to discover those patterns and processes, creating multiple solutions.
By designing reflexively, the designer is not invisible; her point of view and her process are on display embedded within the work. In revealing its making, the designer invites the viewer into the process, revealing how we got there, and then, where it could go. Brian Eno said:
An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still a part of one. They are not dead yet.
Maybe that’s what I’m doing with this essay, too. I’m giving you an insight into its writing. Hello. Nice to see you. I pick up my glass for another sip.
Leonardo da Vinci supposedly said that “art is never finished, only abandoned.” I guess the same is true for design: a website is never finished, only launched. A poster is never finished, only printed. The process continues forever.
And maybe, then, an essay is never finished, only published. I don’t know if I’m done here. I take the last sip of my whiskey from my glass and I click the button on the screen in front of me that says POST.