What exactly i do, when i say “I design”.
One fine morning, my curious 3 year old daughter found me accessible, asked a simple question (which later turned out to be quite profound)“Appa (Dad) what are you exactly doing?”. I stopped to answer casually, asked for some time. I realised I was not sure what i was exactly doing! I wanted to avoid by saying “ I am working”, and that should have convinced her. But this question poked me to “soul search”, travel on a long journey of discovering fascinating things about ourselves!
I had just finished sketching an interaction flow for a new user to find new ways to organise his gadget world. I used a mixture of elements -Text or Language, a series of screens that show up on a mobile device, Graphical symbols depicting a story that hoping to make it interesting, computer language or “code” to make it work on a device that user sees and reads, Color and organization of these elements composed to make it easy on the eye as well as exciting for the user to engage with this new “Idea”. I used tools(PC) to design my artboards, functionalities, prototype and give specs to my programmer.
So what exactly was I trying to do?
We keep shaping our thoughts all the time. Designing often involves a process of trying to give a shape to something that does not have a shape yet(abstract). These could be physical or mind driven. We end up creating things that seem to represent or stand for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract. We call these symbols.
“ I brew symbols !”
I continuously spend time “making, using, manipulating, shaping, coloring, sketching, imagining, organizing” symbols (language and shapes).We are, “all of us” are essentially a symbol making, symbol using, symbol misusing animal. If I take my creation and lay them out on a table and essentially look at each one of them carefully, i have created a set of “Symbols” arranged with logic, reason, appreciation that are known to some other set of individuals who are able to decipher my symbols with a good guess and use them in their operations that benefit them or give pleasure.The actions may be called “Symbolic Actions”. The act of attending to a work type, like going to a meeting or taking a bath is a symbolic activity organised around a central symbol (meeting/bath). So these are often described as ritualistic activities.
Kenneth Burke nails down with great level of clarity. His rhetorical analysis of language and literature as “Symbolic Actions” gives us enormous insights on our capacities and limitations of human actions due to symbolic thinking, views and questions the very cultural foundations of “Designing”. Interaction design for me today looks like design of symbols (Visual, Textual, Sensorial, interactive) in order to accomplish a purpose.
Burke’s states “Man is a symbol-using animal”.In support he offers two anecdotes about birds (one concerning a bird trapped in a lecture-room, the other the efforts of a mother bird to get a stubborn chick to leave the nest) in order to stress that the difference between men and other animals is that the former makes use of symbols which allows him to conceptualise and communicate with others. To illustrate this point, Burke recalls seeing a bird trapped inside a college classroom. The windows were open, but the bird kept flying upwards to the ceiling, rather than through the window. If the bird could use symbols to communicate then one could simply inform the bird of the open windows and it could fly out to freedom. Its natural instinct to fly up coupled by its inability to use symbols, however, prevents its escape. Burke, also argues that not only does man use symbols, but concedes that man makes and misuses symbols as well
Burke then stresses : do we realise, he asks, just how overwhelmingly much of what we mean by ‘reality’ has been built up for us through nothing but our symbol systems? Take away our books, and what little do we know about history, biography, even something so ‘down to earth’ as the relative position of seas and continents? What is our ‘reality for today (beyond the paper-thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present? In school, as they go from class to class, students turn from one idiom to another. The various courses in the curriculum are in effect but so many different terminologies. And however important to us is the tiny sliver of reality each of us has experienced firsthand, the whole overall ‘picture’ is but a construct of our symbol systems. To meditate upon this fact until one sees its full implications is much like peering over the edge of things into an ultimate abyss.”
Designing is an act of symbol making and symbol using systems to accomplish tasks for a certain purpose.
As I add color, typographic style, transitions and illustrative characters trying to charm the story with life, or I am pleased by the drama of the morning light lighting the courtyard of a house I have designed, I begin to realise that I am in a zone of “indescribable” or “Non Verbal” zone. My sensorial attention on these experiences of light, texture, color, sound, taste, shapes, touches and presence of a person etc extends my curiosity into a land of “Non-Verbal” world that precedes the symbolic limitations. Most arts, certain spiritual practices aim to access these “Non Verbal” states using their own symbolic structures in promise to make you see the “Ultimate”. As i attempt is to drive my process in this direction, I again struggle to use the “Artifacts” that need my attention and affection to create the “Sensorial”.
“I explore the ‘sensorial”
To counter symbol making , that we often cling to a kind of naive verbal realism that refuses to realise the full extent of the role played by symbolicity in his notions of reality, we begin to explore the “Non Verbal”. Burke points out that we are normally ignorant of the “kind of relation that really prevails between the verbal and the nonverbal. In being a link between us and the nonverbal, words are by the same token a screen separating us from the nonverbal” . He points out, though, that “so much of the ‘we’ that is separated from the nonverbal by the verbal would not even exist were it not for the verbal” or “symbolicity in general, since the same applies to the symbol systems of dance, design, music, painting” , etc. Moreover, language “referring to the realm of the nonverbal is necessarily talk about things in terms of what they are not”. Language is “but a set of labels, signs for helping us find our way about” but “even accuracy of this powerful sort does not get around the fact that such terms are sheer emptiness, as compared with the substance of the things they name”. All symbols, verbal or non-verbal such as dance, are merely “abstract”, rather than concrete in the manner of things themselves.
“I persuade (brainwash?)”
I script my story of “Persuasion” to make my user believe in the idea, my purpose is to engage him in my story, allow him to access the symbols which captures his imagination to create a need or a desire to read my story with attention. I copy, replicate, compose, invent do all kinds of things to get a grip of this attention and make him immerse in what i want/plan to say.
What, Burke asks, is the source of any “bit of talking” ? “Just where are the words coming from? Some of the motivation must derive from our animality, and some from our symbolicity” . He compares symbolicity with “brainwashing” and “ideology”, which is “like a god coming down to earth, where it will inhabit a place pervaded by its presence. An ‘ideology’ is like a spirit taking up its abode in a body: it makes that body hop around in certain ways; and that same body would have hopped around in different ways had a different ideology happened to inhabit it”.
At this point, Burke expands the clause to: “symbol-using, symbol-making, and symbol-misusing animal”. With regard to the misuse of symbols, he has in mind not only “demagogic tricks” , but “‘psychogenic illnesses,’ violent dislocations of bodily motion due to the improperly criticised action of symbolicity” , e.g. hexes or foods which are perfectly good for us but which one is taught to despise and, in response to which, even to vomit. When the “body rebels at such thoughts, we have a clear instance of the ways whereby the realm of symbolicity may affect the sheer biologic motions of animality” . This is why it is crucial to ask, which “motives derive from man’s animality, which from his symbolicity, and which from the combination of the two”.
My Professor often discussed an idea that of how we are able to push numerous specific names like two seater, sofa, dining table or any such objects into a category called “Furniture” that can be used by others to add their own. These are visible in our interfaces in the form of “Menus” or “Top Navigation” and many such instances which give us clues to move around exploring the content of the system.
Symbolic processes are “not confined merely to the symbolism of dreams and neuroses, but are also an aspect of normal symbol systems” because a “fundamental resource ‘natural’ to symbolism is substitution” , hence our use of the “paraphrase” , “translation” (e.g. from “English into French, Fahrenheit into Centigrade” , “abbreviation”, etc. . All of these are examples of displacement. Condensation takes the form of substituting the term “furniture” for “tables,’ ‘chairs,’ and ‘rugs’” or “‘parents’ for ‘mother and father’” , etc. This helps us to understand how “once emotional involvement is added to symbolism’s resources of substitution . . . the conditions are set for the symbol-using animal, with its ailments both physically and symbolically engendered, to tinker with such varying kinds of substitution as we encounter in men’s modes of penance, expiation, compensation, paying of fines in lieu of bodily punishment, and cult of the scapegoat”. Substitution “sets the condition for ‘transcendence,’ since . . . the name for a thing can be said to ‘transcend’ the thing named.
Burke’s defining of man in these terms leads to man’s quest for identity and social belonging. Burke sees all human action as infused with symbols. These symbols are used to help create our sense of who we are and where we fit. In order to accomplish these, man seeks for differences and commonalities respectively.
Quite often designing can be paradoxical. What did i just create? Is it a plan for a certain style of living? or plan not of all other possible kinds of living? Is it a flow to accomplish a certain task? or a flow to accomplish only a certain kind of task and not any other? How come a unique set of requirements define a brief that even after questioning and evolving ends up still with an unfulfilled expectation?
“I choose a possibility and negate the rest”
Trying to achieve this, we set out to refine, polish, poetize, get still, dissolve, express how things works and so on.
Burke is concerned here with the “fact that there are no negatives in nature, and that this ingenious addition to the universe is solely a product of human symbol systems”, a view he derives that “we cannot have an ‘idea of nothing’” and must instead “imagine a black spot, or something being annihilated, or an abyss”, etc.
The “negative is a function peculiar to symbol systems” . Though a table, for example, “is exactly what it is, you could go on for the rest of your life saying all the things that it is not” . The negative is often used “with regard to unfulfilled expectations” : when I expect a particular situation, but another occurs, “I can say that the expected situation did not occur” even though “so far as the actual state of affairs is concerned, some situation positively prevails, and that’s that” . Where he agrees that we cannot have an idea of nothing, Burke claims that “we can have . . . an ‘idea of don’t”. This negation — and that of “Laws” in particular which are “essentially negative” becomes the basis of our “character” which is “built of our responses (positive or negative) to the thou-shalt-not’s of morality”. For this reason, “all experience” must “reflect the genius of this negativity” . Burke argues that there is an “implied sense of negativity in the ability to use words at all. For to use them properly, we must know that they are not the things they stand for” . Moreover, “since language is extended by metaphor which gradually becomes the kind of dead metaphor which we call abstraction, we must know that metaphor is not literal”. In addition, we “cannot use language maturely until we are spontaneously at home in irony as when “if the weather is bad, and someone says, ‘What a beautiful day!’ we spontaneously know that he does not mean what he says”. “Dramatic irony . . . carries such a principle of negativity to its most complicated perfection”. There is also negativity implied by the existence of all religions which are “so often built antithetically to other persuasions” .
The screens, spaces, details, shapes I make are a part of a object that enabled my user to perform ceratin tasks benefitting him in his action. By doing so I am alienating him from his natural setting and giving him promise to do more than he can in his current capacities. This process is called capability building. Is he (end user) in his own world of “Symbolic objects” that persuade him to take “Symbolic actions”.
“I make tools using tools”
Burke admits that there is a “close tie-up” between tools and language, the development of the former requiring a “kind of attention not possible without symbolic means of conceptualisation” and the absence of the “‘reflexive’ dimension” in the use made by animals like apes or bees of “certain rudiments of symbolism and rudimentary tools”.
If there are such similarities between symbols and tools, Burke wonders, why prioritise the former? This choice, he argues, is “implicit in the very act of definition itself”. “Inasmuch as definition is a symbolic act, it must begin by explicitly recognising its formal grounding in the principle of definition as act. In choosing any definition at all, one implicitly represents man as the kind of animal that is capable of definition (that is to say, capable of symbolic action)”. Language he argues is a “species of action, symbolic action – and its nature is such that it can never be used as a tool”.
Man’s “toolmaking propensities” result in the “complex network of material operations and properties, public or private, that arise through men’s ways of livelihood” and the “different classes of society that arise through the division of labour and the varying relationships to the property structure”
If my arrangement and working (design) is effective and elegant then I begin to spend time perfecting it hoping to reuse. The window details we design for a house design, a product detail that has worked well with people, an interaction flow that do not confuse our users (sometimes they are also called patterns) ones who have succeeded in real life, we study it, reuse, and try to perfect it again and again. It is a natural way to be efficient.
Burke argues (in linguistic framework) that the “principle of perfection is central to the nature of language as motive” because the “mere desire to name something by its ‘proper’ name, or to speak a language in its distinctive ways is intrinsically ‘perfectionist” . He asks, “What is more ‘perfectionist’ in essence than the impulse, when one is in dire need of something, to so state this need that one in effect ‘defines’ the situation?” . Even the poet and his “cunning ways of distorting language” does so “with perfectionist principles in mind”, even though his “ideas of improvement involve recondite stylistics twists”. There is a “principle of perfection implicit in the nature of symbolic systems; and in keeping with his nature as a symbol-using animal, man is move by this principle”.
A digital device is a good illustration to see “Units with no inherent capability of meaning making — switches” interacting perfectly in Binary fashion to process information. They accomplish a certain kind of tasks too. Electrical signals are broken and processed to either calculate or to get shaped as a symbol that can be interpreted by a man. Hence there is a great desire to use digital tools in creating objects, suggestions or in your tasks.
Burke concludes with a summation
“Man is the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal inventor of the negative (or moralised by the negative) separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order) and rotten with perfection.”
I hope this discussion is worth it, hoping to answer my curious daughter who one day will be filled with our symbolic world to get engaged in sensemaking process.