Spoons, bricks, modern art – towards a design for design

The user experience (UX) of a spoon: the mouth end has to be the shape it is. It can’t be too deep because we couldn’t take all the food off it with our lips or tongue. It can’t be too big, or square, because it wouldn’t fit properly inside our mouth. It is so specific to the imprint of a particular part of our body that, in truth, there is hardly any product design to do. This is good for spoons and bad for product designers.

But most of the artefacts in our world – like bicycles, computers, phones, cars, houses, information and financial systems – need more and better design. Upstream of the object – how things are made – design is good because most objects are less highly evolved, or more complex, than a spoon. Downstream – how we use or respond to these objects – the part of the body imprinted in the product is often more complicated than the mouth. By imprinted in I mean ‘bearing the shape of’.

Bricks have to be small and light enough to pick up with one hand. They used to have to be double-square oblongs so they fit together sideways as well as lengthways. But we can shelter our bodies, in the twenty-first century, with thousands of other kinds of materials. Our product choices are enormous. Our buildings are stamped with our bodily need for shelter less than our wish for the expression of identity. The part of our body imprinted most complexly in designed objects and systems is our mind. But what does it mean to say that we design things for our mind?

Marcel Duchamp’s Feuille de vigne femelle (‘Female fig [vine] leaf’, bronze, 90 x 137 x 125 mm 1950, cast 1961). Image from http://www.toutfait.com/issues/volume2/issue_5/articles/powers/powers4.html

To save this discussion becoming too abstract, and staying with the word imprint, let us look at a reproduction of Marcel Duchamp’s Feuille de vigne femelle. I risk giving offence, but it seems to me that this object is most offensive – if, that is, we are predisposed to take offence – for its prickly refusal to comply with our conventionally prurient expectations. There is surely a play here on the impression – with Duchamp all puns are permissible – an object makes on or in our mind. Note that the impression is both literal and metaphorical. Duchamp, like Claude Shannon, reminds us that communication is information that changes the receiver – and has this piece been in-formed or out-formed? A female body here is, in terms of casting terminology, ‘the male’ – a trope much used later by Rachel Whiteread. The object itself (‘the female’) is bronze, hard and cold, and a distortion/inversion both of the vegetal leaf of the title and the warmth of the human figure. You are looking at a reproduction here; let us consider that Duchamp would like us to make a connection between this art-technical sense and its sexual counterpart. We can also imagine Duchamp characteristically sniggering at his own joke when we consider to what extent this work bears the stamp of the artist – not, presumably, directly. It is also a metaphor of generativity/fecundity along the lines of Gustave Courbet’s astonishingly in-your-face (so to speak) Origin of the World (1866), owned at one time – perhaps not surprisingly – by the French philosophical psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. It seems to me that this piece is itself generative of responses at so many levels that – along with Duchamp’s oeuvre in general – it can represent the very idea of design for apperception/reception rather than simple utility. And this is one of the most wonderful things about the finest works of art. They quicken our faculties of perception because they communicate a sense of life fully lived.

Marcel Duchamp playing chess in his studio, 1952. Photograph by Kay Bell Reynal. Image from Smithsonian Archives of American Art

I am not saying, though, that we should like Duchamp’s piece or think of it as beautiful. Is the point of art only that we should know what we like, and like what we know? Is the eye the only human faculty of understanding? After 1912 Duchamp systematically removes aesthetic values from his work while at the same time filling it with the fullest resonances of meaning – at least for those prepared to be open to it and respond to it actively. And if they are not, what more can an artist or designer do? After the growing crisis in representationality in art caused by the invention of photography c. 1840, Duchamp takes the notion of abstraction in art to its logical conclusion: the creation of effects inside our head. But note that even though he publicly claimed to have given up art for chess in the 1920s, he secretly carried on working on physical objects; Feuille de vigne femelle was a study for his culminating and even more enigmatic Étant Donnés. His later compulsive commitment to the physicality of art is as movingly flawed as some of the shambling figures in the work of his friend Samuel Beckett.

So, in terms of a design of design I can make three points:

1 The more general the problem – in terms of both production and consumption of the object – the more the opportunity for creative solutions. Creativity may indeed be defined as the quality of the variety-reduction strategies/heuristics, reducing all choices to the solution that seems right. The fullness of the rightness, the fitness (in Darwin’s terms) of the object to its environment of production and reception, defines what is good about the design.

2 The number of solutions is further amplified by the sheer variety, in our age, of product and production choices. It is of course easy to say the world is getting more complicated – and thereby miss the point, because …

3 The more choices, the more the search for the satisfaction of an object or solution that will express not necessarily the subsistencies of bodily survival but the culture of our wishes and desires – one of which, of course, is the yearning for simplicity and elegance. In spite of Friedrich Kittler’s mischievously nihilist claim that the machines have taken over the asylum, the human experience of the object world is the crux from which design starts and ends, and it is never arbitrary. Against Kittler, there is such a thing as human nature. As modern art powerfully reminds us, human experience is rich and complex but it is always finely sensate, ultimately deeply embodied. Our task as designers – whether of material objects, or of experiences of cultural consumption, or indeed of systems of economic utility – is to be fully alive in ourselves and empathic to the fullness of the humanity of others.

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About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at david@propagandum.com
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