Designer Theory for Designers

Today Bruce Sterling linked to an article on his blog by Bruce and Stephanie M. Tharp about the "Four Fields of Industrial Design". (The article is here; Bruce's original post is here.)

The article is pretty simple: basically, they feel that discussion of design and design itself is complicated by the fact that it has trouble defining its intention. In order to melt this complication, they devise a rubric of the four fields of industrial design, as such:

Commercial Design (design intended to turn a marketable product)

Responsible Design (design motivated by altruistic concern for a typically un-marketable group)

Experimental Design (design that pushes the limits, trying unconventional methods and motivations for 'pure research', for lack of better term)

Discursive Design (design meant to "communicate", much as one expects the more confrontational forms of art to do)

They conceded that most projects will overlap, but these general categories will hold. That's all pretty straight-forward and reasonable. The purpose is that:

"understanding the design landscape through these four, simple categories—Commercial Design, Responsible Design, Experimental Design, and Discursive Design—will help the profession, our "consumers," and ourselves better understand design activity and ultimately its potential in an increasingly complex world of ideas and objects."

And they enumerate how in more detail than I will.

But it got me thinking (as I often do): why don't we look at writing this way?

Well, for starters, the four categories are all based upon the intention of the work. Writers, while certainly taking their own intentions into account when considering their work (wait, what?) also have other factors in mind. I think there is much more concern for the "Craft" itself.

One might argue that the Craft falls under experimental or discursive, the two artier of the categories. Which it does, but also it does not. Both the experimental and the discursive intentions of design view their work reflexively, in terms of what it does to/for other people. Some writing could be taken this way, especially writing that does break some sort of barrier or cross some sort of line. For example, any work of fiction that was the subject of an obscenity trial could be said to be both experimental and discursive, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and the definition of artistic literature by questioning current discursive definitions. But what about someone who simply writes in the style of Burroughs or Ginsberg, now that both texts are recognized as valuable contribution to literature? That really can't be said to be experimental, and its discursive value would not be much different than the discursive value of any other piece of writing.

Most writers, I believe, would choose to write in a particular style because it is what is appropriate for the work, and stimulates them to write it as such. Far be it from me to argue that writing has any intrinsic qualities or essential characteristics to itself--writing is nothing without a writer and a reader. In this way, intention, as a force from outside the writing itself, is an axis that pins the three together: writer, writing, and reader (even if the reader and the writer are the same person). So intention plays a role, but the relationships between intention and these three planetoids are more complex that an analysis of the post-design market as relates to the product. The realm of ideas, conversation, and morals are negotiated markets just as much as the world of consumer electronic sales, and hence, simple "intention" falls a bit short in description. Why does a product do well? Simply because it was intended to do so? Or why does it stimulate conversation, or push the envelope? Even in the non-commercial markets, currency, exchange value, and commodity have various, complicated roles to play outside of simple intention--you don't need me to tell you that. So there are many different markets interacting, adjusting values and the status of objects, in a densely complicated web that pretty much defies anyone's intention.

But are these end, consumer markets the only thing that defines the creation of the product? Any designer could tell you there is much more to it that that. Many factors go into the design and production of an object; from cost of raw materials, to equipment needed, to durability of the design in shipping. Most of these, in times such as these, are monetary based--but they don't have to be. Ergonomics is a selling point both on the product end and on the worker end--because I guess it turns out that safety is more affordable than accidents in the long term. But what about other things like enjoyment of the task for the worker, or harmonious installation of the factory in its neighborhood? Are these foolish notions, or interesting design problems?

For the writer, they certainly aren't foolish notions. While it is not necessary for a writer to enjoy what he writes, I can assure you that the writing will be much higher quality (by any measure) if s/he does. There was once a fancy term for all these design problems in production, called "means of production". For a lot of people, it is still an important concept, no matter what you call it.

So what have I proved? That writing is not intention-oriented, or that it is? The relations of production, whether or writing or manufacture, are certainly symbolic, physiological, and capitalist markets of their own, and rightly so. So perhaps it is that our intentional scope must only be broadened: intention not only extends from the designer through the product to the consumer, but must extend in a web in all directions, from the designer to the product, to the worker, to the factory, to the city, to the transit system, to the sewer system, to copper piping, and back again to toilet design.

But I think I was right originally: there is a lot more to writing (and design) than even the most complicated "intentions" can encompass. Intention, after all, is merely what we discover after the fact. Why did you use that drill as a hammer? Oh, I intended to save time. No, you were lazy--because if you had though about it, then you would have easily come to understand that using an expensive, electric tool as a blunt force object would break it, wasting lots more than just the time to get up and get the hammer. Or a better example--why did you sell bad mortgages? Because you intended to help people into homes. Bullshit: you were greedy, and didn't care whether the person filling out the application was a family, a developer with no capital, or a con-artist. And even saying that is giving you too much of the benefit of the intentional doubt--greedy wasn't what you felt at the time, it was simply what we call your actions afterward. The strange machinations that make design, or any other procedure succeed or fail only later can be labelled as "good intention". To return to design as an example, the iPhone is only an example of good design after the fact, because it made a lot of money. If it had not, then it would have been bad design. The list of things that should have many money but didn't is as long as the list of things that shouldn't make money but do.

In the actual process of writing, and I imagine, in any other creative endeavor, there is a moment where production clicks, both in the hands and in the mind. This is about as far from intention as we could get. An author doesn't intend a verb to signify action, anymore than he intends to write the next great American novel (well...) because it is only in doing so that a verb is a verb, as it is only after the novel is finished that it could be considered within history. Symbols, like objects and people, do not intend anything, they simply do things in relation to other things. This is no more intrinsic than it is intentional--the fact of meaning is, as the philosophers might say, "relative," and by this I mean relatively meaningless. The fact that meaning occurs is, for all intents and purposes (no pun intended) miraculous. By this I mean as good as un-caused, and also as important as an act of god. The reasons behind it are theological in scope, and while arguable, certainly not directly relevant in their real importance. Just to be clear: I don't mean that the meaning of words comes from another dimension or streaming in heavenly rays from the firmament, or otherwise spontaneously bursting into existence. If god turned Lot's wife into a pillar of salt, he must have done it somehow, but I doubt that Lot or Lot's wife gives a good goddamn how he did it.

Back to the point: despite the unconscious, miraculous machinations behind words (ah... hint, hint!) the author, in lining them up one word after the other across the page, is working with them as unintentional fragments, using his own consciousness and intention like a needle to sew them together. This is a little sharp bit of an axis, but hardly one piercing them altogether. There are many more important factors to the author (and likely his audience as well), such as things as esoteric as plot, voice, and characters. Of course, we intend all of this to be "good", so that the writing is "good". And we intend them to do various things amongst themselves, organizing little markets of our own in the text. But knowing this and intending it is hardly a lesson on how to write well, is it?

Can you teach creativity? Can you make a rubric of the different categories of creativity? Can you intend creativity? There are lots of other things you can do, but I don't think any of these work. Creativity is, in a way, the opposite of intention, and its partner. You may intend something going into production, or afterward, say that you had such an intention. You might do the same with creativity--hoping for it in the future, and attributing it to actions in the past. But the difference is that at the very moment of production, in the act of producing, creativity may occur, where as intention never will. You might realize creativity when it hits, or not until afterward. Maybe you will eventually deny it, though others laud you for it. But when words flow out of the mind to the hand, creativity is the force that guides them, and this is where intention can simply not go. Intention can aim and pull the trigger, but creativity is the bullet that will or will not hit the target. Because, in actuality, it is the target as well.

So in the end, I suppose my point is this: the authors of that article are absolutely right. By thinking and discussing the role of intention in design (or anything else for that matter) the practitioners and users thereof will likely benefit by guiding their practice and recognizing their own potential. However, we all wish and intend lots of things--I hope that this thinking and discussing doesn't end there.

But maybe after reading this, you will wish that it did!

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