Image by Mitch Goldstein and Anne Jordan from walking.designcrit.com

Your Own Personal Cubism

Marshall McLuhan notes in Understanding Media that cubism seizes total awareness of everything at once, and “…drops the illusion of perspective in favor of instant sensory awareness of the whole.” (p13) Cubism acts as an early precursor to the media landscape that McLuhan sees today: a world of hyperlinked existence where everything relates to everything, and everything is available nearly instantaneously. As makers of media, designers have no choice but to work within this post-cubist existence. We teach that design does not happen alone, inside a locked cabin in the woods. We talk about how design becomes design when it helps others understand content, when it becomes not about the designer but about the message everyone else is seeing.

What happens when a designer chooses to ignore this immense landscape — if they can? If McLuhan’s cubism is everything, all at once then what is the other side of the discussion — a few things, one at a time? The question I am not asking is “what happens when the designer locks themselves in a cabin in the woods and starts making?” Too often this kind of self-reflective, internalized making is cast aside as “just art” — and done so with a dismissive wave of the hand. The argument about art versus design is one I no longer take part in — whatever answers are found quite simply do not matter. You may as well debate if red is a better color than blue, or if Star Wars is more entertaining than Star Trek.

What I am wondering is simply what happens when designers make work that happens inside of their own, personal cubism? When we ideate within a small, internalized landscape of interconnectedness that relies on ourselves to provide the context? Designers love to categorize what they make as “personal work” or “client work.” I think this is — at best — a fallacious idea, and at worst a destructive and harmful classification. Designers are quick to dismiss work that is done just for the sake of the making as a masturbatory exercise in selfishness. I believe that the really interesting, really deep conversations with design can come from inside the process, not only from outside the deliverable. Making work that worries about itself, instead of worries about how everyones else reacts to it, can be as valuable as any other design activity.

I do not classify what I am thinking about in this writing as “personal work” — all design is personal to those who make it, and to those who experience the result of the making. Design forces the brain to make connections and relationships based on social, cultural, and personal contexts of the designer and the viewer, therefore how can design not be personal? I have heard this kind of work called many things, like process driven or experimental or un-programmed, but none of these terms really seem to say what we are trying to say. It is worth consideration that there is tremendous value in the making for the sake of making — climbing Mt. Everest is not about standing on the peak, it is about getting up and back down alive.