Archetypal nature of exceptional design
“God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good”. Take a glance around. The Sun, a butterfly, or a rose — would it be possible to redesign them? How are icons being created? There’s a reason why some objects are immortal. This reason bears a glamorous name — archetype.
In the above picture, you’re seeing a shape reminiscing a rose. Its form is so distinctive that your brain receiving this stimulus immediately creates a percept of a rose. You’re subconsciously experiencing archetype.
ἀρχέτυπον — Greek “archétypon” — original pattern from which copies are made. Philosophers also translate this notion as ‘essence’.
That ‘essence’ is what we are far more able to discern than to articulate. A part of a product deciding not only on its commercial success but firstly on its relevance. Panton Chair, iPod, Glass Coca-Cola Bottle, 302 Telephone, Porsche 911, Braun Sextant Razor. They resonate with sincere essentialism. This phenomenon was once very honestly described by an American cognitive linguist George Lakoff: “make the thing what it is, and without which it would be not that kind of thing”. This reduction of what’s pointless and simultaneous emphasis on the object’s core extracts substance of which its essence is made. What is the substance of archetype?
- Intention. An investigation into a purpose. Why is it like this and not like that? What problem are we trying to solve? Who are we going to embrace? A vision driving the creative process and firmly engraving particular feelings that are going to be subconsciously discerned by people. A way of how we frame the problem is a fundamental factor of every following stage of the creative process and its final consequence.
- Function. A method for an intention. A framework to make even the most complicated activity obvious, natural, unobtrusive and deferential or even enjoyable and delightful. The most favorable is the one utterly blended into its context, requiring no explanation.
- Beauty. A sincere balance between function and aesthetics, an embodiment for an intention. Derived from finding excellence in quality and selection of assets. An enchantment.
Design is a process of crystallizing intention into a form and function. If successful, then it results in the birth of an archetype — highly memorable thereby timeless object. A design can’t be good or bad. A designer accomplished the design process successfully or unsuccessfully. Something became better or irrelevant. Someone’s problem was solved or new problems were created. This nuance was once aptly articulated by broadly admired Antoine de Saint-Exupéry:
“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”
The successful design speaks for itself. It doesn’t need clarification. The masterpiece “The Passion of Joan of Arc” a story about the trial, produced in the era of silent film still dazzles after over 90 years. Its narration based on extraordinary frames and unprecedented acting remarkably communicates the meaning of scenes. Likewise, design doesn’t use words to tell stories. Furthermore, it provides confusion or even frustration when it’s incapable of wordless communication. Design is supposed to be obvious yet compelling. Archetypes are what they are because they require no explanation. They silently manifest their idiosyncratic meanings.
Archetypes tend to be design icons. Knowing that, we designers are oftern tempted to create for our individual pride, for vanity. It’s our responsibility to use tools and skills that we were given, to create relevant things, to take care of as societies as individualities, to create something better for everyone. Another threat which uses to haunt us is inadequate comprehension of contrast between “different” and “better”. Instead of questioning “is it good enough?” we rest on laurels without being sufficiently inquisitive. We let us being poisoned by cynicism and seduced by stereotypes — archetypes antagonists.
At the beginning of this article, you saw a pink shape reminiscing a rose. Even though a commonly know poem says “roses are red”, we know that many species of rose exist, and some of them are decisively not red. That mentioned poem uses a stereotype. So do we designers. Too often we’re constrained by dogma, best practices, unceasing hunt for inspiration by mimicking others’ work instead of stepping into inventor’s shoes.
The year is 2007, Nokia dominates owning 49.4% of phones market share. Enthralled by its past success, Nokia becomes a victim of its myopia losing 90% of market value over just six years. New competitors had emerged and challenged the status quo of the phone, its stereotype. While the core purpose is still on its place, the phone’s form, aesthetics, and functionalities got changed. The plastic keyboard was taken over by a widescreen display. Binary interactions gave a way to gestures. Software once passive, became a flexible medium between humans and technology. The fundamental intention behind the phone remained the same: it provides connectivity, even though it not necessarily means a phone call. The new embodiment inherited its purpose but got unleashed due to its new interpretation of an original archetype.
We designers lose our potential by making things only different. We should always question ourselves and others by asking “is it good enough?”. Our goal is to strive for better, even though it means facing a tremendous challenge. Our responsibility is to push things forward to simultaneously embrace individuals and societies, nowadays and for generations to come. No matter what century you currently live in, this is time to explore, time to be inquisitive, time to have a ferocious appetite for discovering and creating new ἀρχέτυποι.
The Supersymmetry is a project aiming popularisation of Design as a field familiar and accessible to everyone.