On Definition, Etiquette and Fruition

Mahima Pushkarna
Digital Dialects
Published in
10 min readFeb 23, 2015


As a part of my ongoing graduate education, we have monthly workshops with Hugh Dubberly from DDO. As we navigate through so many different theories of communication and design, it’s always a humbling experience to hear about the journeys of senior designers over the years. This month, Nathan Felde joined us for a brief yet immersive hour, narrating his experiences with design. This article is my personal reflection and interpretation of his journey.

To say that one is a designer, is an almost conceited idea. Unlike engineering, there’s no certification as such: the practice of design evolved as a result of change. The context of design changes as we progress in time, and this change generates a reaction. The reaction often results in the creation of new models of design that address these changes, and these models use repurposed words for their nomenclatures.

So the question reduces to
“Do you feel like a designer today?”

Nathan is a trained violist, and often looks to music in search of metaphors that can be used to explain the program and parti of design. The practice of design is greatly influenced by the skill that one possesses to use an instrument. The instrument of choice in design being the pencil. Nathan describes the perception of his transition from being a musician to a designer as a shift from creating music, to creating a strange form of drawing. The voila was replaced by the pencil, and musical notations by discursive drawing, but the intent remained the same: expressing what you could talk about, but couldn’t see. Design is about recreating what is in your head, arguing about it and manifesting it in it’s accuracy.

On Performances and Interests

Notational styles create an abstract experience. Notations allow every to perform a set of complex abstractions, and create an abstract experience for the audience to experience, and then do or not do with it what they want. Design holds a sense of performance, allowing the viewer or experiencer to stay or to leave. It creates an invitation to pay attention to something. Something, that is created through making. Inventing, making, varying repeatedly over and over, iteratively results in a rhythm, which holds the potential to create a performance that garners interest. The relationship between objects is central to the “made objects”. To understand this relationship better, it is important to understand the applause that is generated in the world of visual and tactile form.

Once interest enters the picture, design is no longer isolated. Who all are interested, who else is interested, why are they interested? Design asks that designers care about other’s interests. Certain people listen to certain music because it emerges from a precise skill and an interest that not everyone possesses. There is the public and then there is the other, which distorts the practice of design, the playing out of design.

As designers, we look to fix a problem or problems. These problems entail that we ask ourselves “How do we communicate and negotiate understanding?” Because the designer is pretty much the person who knows what to do when others don’t. The spreading of interests, causes design to migrate into trade, creating new contexts. These new contexts each reward differently, creating a mosaic for designers, by designers. These “rewards” expand our knowledge, and expanded knowledge creates new applications of design by designers, which creates new contexts, and the cycle continues.

Nathan asks us (his students), “As a designer, what is the kind of design brief that you want today?”. It points to a valuable line of inquiry for our practice: What interests us as designers? Why the interest in that? The idea of the ideal brief is very revealing, and the changing contexts and definitions of the ideal brief is a good measure of our progress in design, and the pervasiveness of design.

As Nathan very simply and effectively puts it,
Design is a way of improving the quality of the question.

Design allows us to ask if the table that we are on is really a table. The legitimacy of a design question is measured by interest created by the artefacts and questions. The more complex, the more challenging and the more precise the question, the more it informs the verb and noun of design.

On Answers and Aesthetic Experiences

There was a first time for and of graphic designers. That was when we were able to put text and form together, rather than a bunch of written words. When unknowingly, people with Apple computers had the option to pick between fonts and formatting. The members of the graphic design community, increases exponentially every 10 years, at least. So the relationship of the designer and the client changes. Design essentially migrates towards becoming more strategic. As Nathan laughs, he says that designers gravitate closer to becoming counterfeiters: they make something appear to be something that it isn’t.

Several problems have been solved in many different ways over time. There is a lot of value in knowing what has already been done, because we shouldn’t be re-inventing the wheel. At this point, Hugh brought to attention a definition of design brought to class by Xiangyi Fu (a classmate of mine) earlier in the morning, as a matter of interest.

“Santayana taught us that those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it. That surely is true in design as in anything else, but in design there
is a corollary: those who do know history are privileged to repeat it at a profit.” — Ralph Caplan, By Design, 1982

Nathan told us that there are no right answers in design; there are many right answers, each evaluating and accounting for changing contexts. This is (a version of) something that I was told as a freshman studying design, and something that has stuck with me since then. What I was told, which I later experienced, was that there is no right or wrong in design. What is wrong can be corrected, and what is right can be made better. Nathan describes the many right answers as being right for some users, and not right (or as I would like to say, unright) for others. He prefers using the word ‘beneficiaries’ instead of ‘users’, because they benefit and gain value from design, rather than simply use a designed solution.

Earlier in the morning, some of us had a discussion on the importance of aesthetics of design, mediated by Hugh. To me, the value of aesthetics in design is determined by the definition of design. If aesthetics is bound by synonyms like “pretty, visually pleasing and appealing”, it leans too much towards ‘form’, and there is often a risk that functionality is compromised. This leads to a larger discussion about form and function, form and emotion and form and behavior, and so on. My own views are rather complex and would require a different hour and different article to be opened out to adaptation (I prefer adaptation to debate). We asked Nathan about the value of aesthetics in design, and his response was savory.

What etiquette does the split tree coffee table by Link Studios support or not? Image Source: http://bit.ly/1DffFyl

Aesthetics in the traditional sense, is that what comes through our senses. Nathan defines aesthetics as different from senses, and relates it to “good form” and etiquette. Our designs cause reaction, so they either support or do not support etiquette. He elaborates, a table may have sharp corners in order to wake you up, but the sharp corners will hurt you. In that, the design has hurt the beneficiary, and thus, does not support etiquette.

As designers, we deal with making the world we live in,
and one of our primary motivations is to improve our qualit
ies of life.

On Result and Intent

By creating the world, we take the responsibility to create the world, and therefore, we take the responsibility of our actions in the world. Our intentions are a prime mover towards accomplishing things, and we are able to measure results, by weighing them against our intentions. The fine tolerance specification for the ‘intention’ to satisfy an ‘expectation’ is based on a certain ‘context’. These expectations create experiences that are surprising, till they become familiar. This familiarity of form becomes conventional wisdom with ideals. The ideal form, is a form that matches the idea. The definition of aesthetic, as such, is the role that it defines for itself in design. The intention and the result can be correlated to a promise and the delivery of the promise. This makes us, designers, as those who know what to do when no one else knows what to do. We work from the history of objects. It creates a relationship with engineers, who Nathan feels over-engineer rather than engineer. He illustrates the capacity for over-engineering as redesigning rather than designing. A bridge over a river can be engineered and built to spec, but the considerations that the bridge will have to deal with the future, in the form of traffic, wind, current and so on, create a state of ‘over engineering’. These multiple states create ambiguity, for which we need to over-engineer.

The capacity for such ambiguity causes us to dive into fight or flight mode, which are natural. What makes us different or similar to engineers, how you may have it, is that instead of fighting or flying, we pause. At that moment, we can define our role, be it eliminating choices, offering choices, coming up with something else, or nothing else.

Thus, design is an intelligent response to uncertainty.

In doing things differently, there is always a fear of uncertainty of the results of the investment in doing things differently. That’s what the client almost always feels, and that’s what we work with. In design, there is always a way to make something out of nothing. The opportunity usually has an infinite Return on Investment. As designers, we offer a promise of an infinite ROI. We operate from an understanding of the value of things. Money moves to value, and the competition is kept high by a comparative analysis of what was, what is, and what will be present. This comparative analysis, points us to the fact that the music is in between the notes. The differences between objects are the point of interest. The differences are based on the difference between the economics, the social and the cultural values of objects. The context is composed of multiple parties that are working towards a return on investment. But how do we know it’s working? And what is it working to do? We go back to measuring intent vs. result, knowing that social capital allows us to generate market capital, which drives the history and the future composed within the object.

A mobile radio telephone: predecessors of the first generation of cellular telephones. (Image and information courtesy: Wikipedia / Wikimedia Commons)

60 years ago, the idea that we could carry a phone in our pockets, let along a little supercomputer, was dismissed as ludicrous. Today, it is so widely accepted that it is dismissed as the norm. Design can create change, and it is the disruptive nature of design that creates change. We can create uniformity, monoformity and monocultures and provide options and generate diversity. We have the skills to create models and abstractions, refining them with production tools, where the difference between skills and production tools are critical. Production tools bring us the gift of high resolution and high precision. But sometimes, they can be too specific, and too accurate. The skills, as seen with a pencil, give us a different gift — the ability to leverage a rough idea or a notion, to create and support conversation. Skills let us produce evidence of what we may think are dumb or stupid ideas, ideas that we would never consider. But the idea of producing evidence of dumb ideas is for the ideas to be provocative, in the healthy sense of the word.

On Form and Fruition

Form is no longer isolated to its relation to function. Form is also related to behavior, belief, emotion and effect. Deformity and deform is just as much related to behavior, function, emotion and effect. Function determines shape, which determines behavior. Behavior determines shape, which can determine function. Emotion can elicit style, a certain way to do things over and over again, creating a signature. The signature is revealing, and is contained within indigenous form, which contains more variation than what meets the eye. A line and a sign is enough to reveal much more than we would expect, but Nathan decided to reserve that exercise for another day. I’m curious to know more about this.

Eventual design is an idea that Nathan has long played with. It is a metabolic model of design that accounts for anabolism and catabolism of work. It symbolizes a move from net to mesh, and integrates a large timescale in an immediacy. In eventual design, we design objects around events that we wish to happen. In effect, it is design for future events, eventually rather than eventuality. We align cues that lead up to an event, balancing form and fruition on a tightrope as we create for the dynamic and the organic, ‘bio’ over ‘techno’. The process of design becomes an “improv” in considering what the consequences of our outputs will be. We can’t predict how, we know that they will. Thus, it’s imperative to design for fruition, with a careful consideration of the past, present and future.

Nathan Felde is Professor and Chair of the Art + Design Department in the College of Arts, Media and Design at Northeastern University. He holds a Master of Science from MIT’s Department of Architecture, was a founder of Lightspeed Computers and Executive Director of broadband media research laboratories for NYNEX (now Verizon). His design work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum and the Musée de la Arte Decoratif in Paris and has received recognition from the American Academy in Rome, AIGA, International Union of Concerned Scientists, NEA and the Aspen International Design Festival. His projects include work for Bitstream, Fujitsu, Mercedes Benz, Samsung, Harvard School of Business and Orange Labs. Nathan trained and performed for many years as a classical violist, is a Colonel in the Commonwealth of Kentucky, has sailed across the Atlantic and works with semper fiber to promote creativity and innovation amongst young people in devastated regions of the world. — See more at: http://www.northeastern.edu/camd/artdesign/people/nathan-felde/#sthash.wvF8SI0M.dpuf



Mahima Pushkarna
Digital Dialects

Design @Google, People + AI Research. Designing 'stuff' for human-AI understanding since 2017. Opinions mine.