Tropes and Zeit Geist

It is an assumption that a good industrial designer is great; at drawing (sketching), rendering and photo realistic illustration of the concepts; at CAD (computer aided design), at generative digital manipulation and able to produce accurate manufacturing drawings; at operating a laser cutter, CNC machines; at making and running 3d printers; at making prototypes using wood, metal and miscellaneous materials; at writing software and being able to construct an electronic prototype using Arduino/Raspberry Pie; at writing a social and cultural account of the contemporary design condition, and then to position their design idea within martial culture theory; at working with graphic design software (InDesign) and producing quality minimalist books.

Or this is what defines the territory of design education. In my account above this defines the individual designer. Within the framework of a meritocratic account of excellence – such as would be constructed to define a future Nobel Prize winner in the sciences. Okay that is a trope. Great students, great scientists do not make – at least not always. The memes about Gates and Jobs in the contemporary period have established the other trope about intellectual billionaires having a patchy university career. So its possible the design students who don’t do well at university are likely visionaries. By the same token there exists the trope, voiced to me, that those that do well in university become teachers (or university academics).

So that takes care of students who don’t do well. They have an assured future – potentially.

What then of the model of design education that we have today? I want to take a few tropes that are voiced within design schools and see if they provoke an alternative account/ing of the capabilities of design people.

  1. Those great at sketching make good illustrators.
  2. Those amazing at CAD make good digital scupltors (CAD operators in the car design studios)
  3. Those amazing at prototyping make good model makers.
  4. Those awesome at InDesign can make a career change to Graphic Design.
  5. Those awesome at design studies (history and theory) make good curators.

By this time you may have been able to put a name of a real person to each of the above categories of of awesomeness. Which makes these tropes true – at least for the purposes of partially validating stereotypes. Great to make memes from these statements.

Design Education in the abstract past, remember the past that was heaps better here, was a place to produce particular kinds of minds. That was after we had effectively progressed from/beyond the craft-guild-apprentice model of cloning the designers of the day. Cloning – or design school as a rite-of-passage to enter a closed society have been valid paradigms for developing design talent. The notion of apprentice does not quite capture the scope of indoctrination that is common even today in design academy, for the word apprentice has been effectively managerialised into a functional utilitarian artefact. The cultural nuances, the aesthetic dogmas, have been excised. Minimalism and Design-Milk are inoffensive and ineffectual in the managerial discourse. Cloning as practice produces a mode of design criticism – an authoritarian persona – and a tableau of the gatekeeper going nah nah nah.

Very different from my oft repeated story – which in my memory I have picked up from the book Notes on Poetry by Ezra Pound. I have looked for this story in that book – and haven’t found it. So its possible that evening when I encountered this reading ( I was with Ananya, a Pound tragic, 26 years ago) I may have been juggling two books, one of them Pound. The provenance of this story thus merits further exploration. For now lets assume this is a Pound class on how to write poetry.

A student approaches the master and asks; show me how to write poetry. The master instructs the student to go fish and come back with the fish. The student returns hours later – fish in hand. Now go off and write about the fish the student is told. He is back hours later and tries to hand the writing to the master. The master waves the paper away and says; No, go off and write some more, come back in a week. The student goes off, fish in hand. He is back a week later, rotting fish and sheaf of writings in hand. He is sent away again and asked to come back a month later. A month later he doesn’t show up. He is potentially a poet now.

Is it then possible that the mind of the poet is developed in this way? Is this mind the same as a creative mind? The poetic mind that can think design?

(At this point in this blog post we have shifted from skills to capabilities. And now we are at a point where I am mentioning the notion of the ‘design mind’. )

To hold the notion of the poetic as a valid mode of design practice we need to have a reasonable appreciation (and belief in) the criticism of the functional and utilitarian. While common in social science – this form of criticism is not common in industrial design discourse. When it is made the response could often be to bracket the critique as privileging ‘design as art’. Within the notion of appreciation I would hold that (like Herbert Read’s Film and Art) design can be unpacked as art. Design can be practiced as an art form. But that side steps the issue of the tension between these polar positions of functional-utilitarian and the poetic. In the past I have referred to this polarity and tension as – “The poetics and Pragmatics” within design practice.

Eco in his piece The Poetics of the Open Work proposes the notion of the closed and the open work. I have spoken to students in the past about the Closed Work as a way to describe the practice of Product Design. Which is a form of the functional-utilitarian practice of imagining useful artefacts. Within this practice the utilitarian-functional can dominate the project to a large extent. Limiting thus the scope for improvisation – we are thus extending the notion of ‘performance’ in Eco’s account of ways to perform works. I have then also adapted Eco to explain ways of thinking about design by changing the terminology to “the closed and open project”.

At this point a reading of this extract from Eco is open to multiple interpretations (of meaning) and adaptations – and especially the notion of being able to design “without being influenced by an external necessity which definitively prescribes the organization of the work”.

Pousseur has observed that the poetics of the “open” work tends to encourage “acts of conscious freedom” on the part of the performer and place him at the focal point of a network of limitless interrelations, among which he chooses to set up his own form without being influenced by an external necessity which definitively prescribes the organization of the work in hand.

To continue the exhortation for freedom – there is this passage:

“man opts out of the canon of authorized responses and finds that he is faced (both in art and in science) by a world in a fluid state which requires corresponding creativity on his part”

Authorised responses, fluid state – very useful phrases – to key signposts for a narrative that claims leeway in how design progresses through the project.

This is a link to the article The Poetics of the Open Work By Umberto Eco. (PDF)

This the link to the book review for Open work by Eco.