On design paradoxes and the poesy of three iconic chairs
“We are living in a time obsessed with actuality. People like immediacy, haste and actuality and poetry is, I repeat, timeless. This means it doesn’t correspond to what’s happening. It is out-of-the-moment”
— Jean Cocteau (Poet, visual artist, designer, critic and probably the first design poet)
Design praxis has continually evolved from a productised application of the arts (Arts and Crafts movement) to a professional practice that has numerous flavours (UX design, service design, design research, design strategy and so on) that befuddle the practitioners themselves. The volatility of “popular” design practices and methods (in contrast to, say, the longevity of the scientific method) leads me to believe that the steps in the “design process” are immaterial and only purposeful for consumption and reproduction. The contexts within which these methods of practice are applied are the operands to investigate, critically.
In this piece, I will begin by identifying some design paradoxes (part I) and end by demonstrating how a poetics-infused approach to design could illuminate those paradoxes, revealing the extent to which they influence our prevalent modicum of praxis, as well as helpfully reintroduce authorial expression, whim, and/or delight — as Robert Frost says, “a poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom” — while broadening the horizons of the matrimony between function and form (part II).
Part I: On design paradoxes
Let us adopt the popular methodology of ‘human-centered’ design (HCD) as a methodology of practice to focus our investigation. A structured way to approach this critical investigation is to ask what the fundamental premise of this method is, who it serves, and how it serves them.
Human-centered design focuses on transcending human-related systems, experiences, objects, and communications from a current state to an aspirational state. Very evidently, the hope is that, if more human-centered and considered solutions move us towards aspirational ways of living, as a collective, these solutions would improve our overall quality of living. HCD methods operate within a context that attempts to serve all of humanity by segregating the species into demographically, socially, or economically diverse communities in the hope of being able to understand each group better and serve them better. Finally, human-centered design methods place the human at the center of all operations and translate human interactions with their surroundings from real to aspirational.
It is easy to digress into a series of observations on the sickness that plagues the field of design as a result of the formulaic nature of HCD.
What interests me more is the paradoxical nature of the aspirations of HCD methods versus their actualization in the praxis of design:
- Human-centered vs. humanistic: Because the human is placed at the center of the larger universal system, a rather misunderstood, or poorly understood, perception of ‘humanness’ drives this entire methodology. It is very difficult for humans to create an objective heuristic that adequately describes what it would mean to be human. Varying perceptions of ‘humanness’ consequently make anything premised on the idea of humanness volatile.
- Equity vs. segregation: HCD reduces ‘human’ to segregated groups. While the intention behind creating similar clusters of human beings in order to better understand them is superficially comprehensible, it is the largest paradox within the scope of HCD methods. In order to understand something, to service an equity, we segregate the thing into very specific groups that do not adequately define the thing as a whole.
- Real vs. aspirational: While this begs a lot more explanation given the fluidity of each of these concepts, we can simply state that reality and aspiration are too volatile to premise a practice upon. HCD attempts to define a singular human reality that is experienced in different ways, contingent upon the group(s) to which a specific person belongs. But a single human being’s reality is always undefined, and their aspirations are constantly changing based on their reassessment of their individual realities. These realities and aspirations can never be understood by anyone but the person who revels in them. So designers are often trying to aspire to understand others’ aspirations in order to attempt to actualize their aspirations into a world that may or may not be suited for them. Thus, HCD does not transcend a reality into an aspiration but translates ‘the reality’ into ‘the aspiration.’
- Inclusivity vs. reduction: The previous observations cascade into a very reductive method that tends to produce only quasi-inclusive, semi-adequate, and semi-efficient solutions. The distribution of these solutions are controlled by people with capital advantages. These have produced an image of the HCD method of design practice as replicable, broadly efficient, and sensitive. Critically, we can cite numerous occasions upon which these methods have not serviced humanity but have instead intruded upon human experiences by virtue of its myopia and reductive attempt to reconcile aspiration with a single reality. The “One Laptop Per Child” project is one such example. The intentions of the designer may have been undeniably virtuous, but no solution is ever as simple as parachuting low-cost computer systems that look child-friendly into rural environments in countries tagged as “less privileged” or “developing.”
Within the scope of prescribing a distasteful medicine that may or may not heal the sickness that is design praxis today, we have few directions. Some have attacked the methods and specific steps that are sequentially laid out to create a replicable process. Others borrow principles and methods from other, more mature disciplines with the hope of developing a more rigorous practice. Yet others have changed the context of operation and the inflection points of design.
Part II: On a poetic approach to design
My proposition seeks to borrow a way of ‘seeing’ and understanding experiences from the realm of poetry and use that to broaden the scope of vision that currently consumes design practitioners. It is, strictly, not concerned with replicable methods or processes that can be translated. More importantly, the introduction of poetic approaches is not in an attempt to overthrow existing practices. It is an attempt to open up the scope of what a design practitioner is able to do with their processes and outcomes.
Let us then examine the specific traits of a poetic approach to design and how I see them evinced in three chairs that have attained the status of design icons. The poesy of each chair is visualised as a quadrilateral radar plot based on the degree to which the chair represents the traits listed and explained below.
- Transcendental (over translational): Poetry has been a form of expression that uses linguistic panache, finesse, and mastery to present one’s experiences to others. As Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi said, “Poetry is inherently performative.” It assists others in noticing things about themselves and their lives that they otherwise wouldn’t. It is a medium that transcends the mundane to the extraordinary and the extraordinary to the mundane. Focus is given to the specific instance and experience of the author as opposed to translating experience(s) of the audience.
Grcic’s classic is an exploration of the concept of sitting. By developing a chair that rejects a single way to sit, he uses the form of the chair to gently coax people into exploring their own ideas of comfort. By doing so, he also draws attention to an activity that is so deeply conditioned in our bodies and cultures — transcending the act of sitting into an act of consideration and sensitivity.
- Reflective (over observational): Where design is predicated on making inferences on observations (or, in popular lingua, “drawing insights from observation”), poetry embraces the instability of a singular reality. In poetry, each observation is a unique material to be shared, whereas in design, observations are abstracted into a generalized truth. Poetic works spur the audience to reflection by sensorially placing them in the midst of a cognitive and emotional stimulus.
Maarten Baas’ graduation project at the Design Academy, Eindhoven, was a true act of poetic merit. He purchased a number of design classics (including the Zig Zag Chair by Gerrit Rietveld, 1934) and set them on fire. The resulting pieces, and the process itself, challenge the very value of designed objects. Baas is forcing us to ask ourselves: Why do we really uphold these culturally appropriated “classics”? — inciting justifiable doubt around all other societal constructs.
- Supervening (over intervening): George Santayana noted, “Religion is poetry when it supervenes life and poetry becomes religion when it intervenes life.” Poetry, in its craft and method of presentation, is stylized. As a result, poetry never seeks to represent singularity. It is a treatment of specific reflections upon an experience that often leads to introspection. No one really reads Keats with the hope that they would know how to love upon studying his works. However, we are compelled to ask ourselves, “What is it to love with passion and in good earnest?” more often.
- Fantastical (over factual): Poetry is not constrained to a specific realm of reality. The inherent onanistic nature of the medium makes it easier for poets to remember that they represent nothing but themselves at a given moment under the influence of specific stimuli. Even that is a stagnant snapshot of select aspects of the said moment and not a definitive comprehensive tale that uncovers a common truth. This immediately makes room for the introduction and exploration of themes that are fraught with ambiguity. By using fantasy and concepts that draw from alternate realities, poets are able to open up the scope of interpretability of their work, which in turn causes the work to encourage conversation as opposed to deliver an answer or solution.
Muecke’s approach to objects is truly fantastical, in and of itself. While most artists and designers focus on conveying a certain intention or fulfilling a specific need, Muecke “works forwards” and discovers an intention of the object that he creates in the process of exploring form, material, and construction. There is no sense of intervention, no singular intention, no translation of one intention or need. It is a complete meditation on anything that one wishes it to be.
Poetic approaches can lend the practice of design a more subjective edge, something that decades of professionalisation and commercial application have distorted.
One way of understanding the evolution of design practice is to think of design as a form of applied art, applied purposely, that drifted into a practice of processes and procedures and is today intent upon scalable benefits and driven by the movement and mobility of economic, political, and social capital.
Poetics affords design a chance to go back to the untied knots, loose ends, and unfinished stories that foster conversation. It brings back a sense of freshness, spirituality, and a different cadence to design practice and fosters deeper reflection, greater sensitivity to experience, and more expressiveness and experimentality to the nature of the practise itself. As Cocteau points out in the epigraph to this piece, poetry is timeless and is not a translation of our current moment. The fact that it reflectively and fantastically transcends and supervenes reality makes it a powerful medium of emancipation and liberation of anyone or anything it represents.
While poetics is an optimistic direction for design practice, I am the first to admit that it has immediately foreseeable drawbacks.
The colossal effort is required for one to invest into the viewing, comprehension, and conversation activities that surround design poetics. This could be too much for some people and could cause the work to settle into obtuseness and unpopularity or, still worse, misinterpretation and misrepresentation. This is a rather unresolved argument.
Similarly, such poetics-inspired design work will be engaged very differently by different audiences. Certain audiences may approach these works as works of art, while others may approach the work as critiques of classical design approaches. Still others may approach the work as if it were classical poetry. Thus, the environment in which poetic pieces are presented would make a huge difference in the manner in which the work is experienced, received, and interpreted.
Finally, but very importantly, there are many definitions of what poetry is; a single model is impossible. The four traits of a poetic approach to design, as described above, are ripe for adaptation and plasticity. They are meant to constantly reassess the manifestation of a poetic approach to design.
Literary and theoretical sources
Agential Realism: Feminist Interventions in Understanding Scientific Practices, Karen Barad
A Common Faith, John Dewey
Poetry, Beauty, and Contemplation: The Complete Aesthetics of Jacques Maritain, John G. Trapani Jr.
Design as Participation, Kevin Slavin
Aisthesis: Scenes From the Aesthetic Regime of Art, Jacques Rancière
Image Sources (for the three chairs)
Jonathan Muecke — Chair: http://wvvolumes.com/exhibitions/open-objects-2/
Maarten Baas — Smoke: https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2009.116/
Konstantin Grcic — Chaos: https://www.classicon.com/en/product/chaos.html
Zachary Pino for the countless discussions on the quest for poetics within design.
John Cain for the incessant encouragement and sharing in the pursuit of theoretical rigour within design praxis.
Laura Forlano for the guidance, mentorship and the opportunity to pursue this work within the scope of her class at the IIT Institute of Design (titled “Critical Contexts”: Spring 2020).
Kristen Gecan for patiently editing and sculpting this piece into something that is legible and to Nuria Sheehan for editing and logistical assistance.
To colleagues and faculty at the IIT Institute of Design with whom my intellectual fate has been entwined forever.
Finally, to Maya Angelou, Patti Smith, Jean Cocteau, Bob Dylan and many others who are true poets in essence and in practice.