Vessels of Design

Designers are nothing but vessels of design. Instead of seeing ourselves as the master of form, we should see ourselves as the medium through which form emerges.

According to Munari, the job of a designer is to give a form to object that “arises spontaneously from the function, from the mechanical part, from the most appropriate material, from the most up-to-date production techniques, from a calculation of costs, and from other psychological and aesthetic factors.” (Note: Munari, B. 1966. Design as Art. What is a Designer?)

Once achieved, there’s an aesthetic to the object, an aesthetic not to be understood in an abstract sense but as formal coherence, the kind of coherence embodied in nature. For example, a leaf:

A leaf has the form it has because it belongs to a certain tree and fulfills a certain function; its structure is determined by the veins which carry the sap, and the skeleton that supports it might have been worked out by mathematics.
A leaf is beautiful not because it is stylish but because it is natural, created in its exact form by its exact function. A designer tries to make an object as naturally as a tree puts forth a leaf. He does not smother his object with his own personal taste but tries to be objective. He helps the object, if I may so put it, to make itself by its own proper means, so that a ventilator comes to have just the shape of a ventilator, a fiasco for wine has the shape that blown glass gives it, as a cat is inevitably covered with cat-fur. Each object takes on its own form.

Contemporary of Munari, George Nelson articulates the “form follows function” ethos in a similar way (Note: Nelson, G. 1977. How to See, Survival Design. ). Nelson regards beauty as fitness to the purpose in the deepest and broadest sense. In nature, again, can be found such beauty. Nelson refers to flowers instead of leaves:

We use flowers for decoration, but a flowering plant is a very busy organism. It has to collect solar energy, and take in nourishment through its root system. It has to attract insects for pollination, and it has to manufacture seeds after the bloom has served its purpose. If we look at a flower carefully and study its details, we come to realize that it looks exactly like what it does.

A successful man-made design, too, should look exactly like what it does—an integral expression of form and function. Such designs often do the most with the least, trying to achieve high performance with an economy of means. They turn out with a look of absolute rightness.

The idea that humans are the medium of our own creation is not new. To Aristotle, humans are but one of the four causes that bring something into existence. A chalice, for instance, takes the shape of a chalice (formal cause) and is made of silver (material cause), forged by a silversmith (efficient cause) for a sacrificial purpose (final cause).

German philosopher Heidegger interprets Aristotle’s four causes as (co)responsibility, the responsibility of making something present or appear: “The four ways of being responsible bring something into appearance. They let it come forth into presencing.” (Note: Heidegger, M. 1977. The Question Concerning Technology. p.316) This process of making something present, or bringing-forth (poiesis) in Heidegger’s term, is a poetic way of the world revealing its truth to us.

Flower blooming and artisanship are both examples of bringing-forth. When an artisan carves a violin out of the wood, she attends to the inherent qualities of the wood and brings to light its texture, color, quirks, and imperfections. Both the material and the artisan are responsible for bringing forth the violin, but it’s their working together with a mutual understanding that most decisively coalesces into the violin.

Besides the four causes, there is another responsibility that designers must answer to: the responsibility to their own gift. Ancient Greeks and Romans saw artistic talent not as something that was contained in individual artists, but as daemon or genius, divine attendants who bestowed the gift of insights to the artists waiting for them. Therefore, it became the responsibility of the artists to leverage these gifted creative insights.

In occasions of serendipity and inspiration, designers may often feel that they are in the presence of these spirits. They are surprised that their consciousness is not completely in charge—the creating process seems to have a vitality of its own and they are only here to help it flourish. Frank Chimero captured this feeling well: (Note: Chimero, F. 2012. The Shape of Design. Chapter Ten, Gifts and Giving, p.118.).

In our best, most creative moments, it feels as if we are hardly doing the work ourselves, achieving a sense of flow where time disappears, improvising becomes easy, and decisions seem instinctual, like some unknown force is guiding our steps.

Hayao Miyazaki expressed a similar feeling of being the channel of creative force: “It’s not me who makes the film. The film makes itself and I have no choice but to follow.” (Note: Midnight Eye interview: Hayao Miyazaki, 2002) Therefore, designers are vessels of design not only in the sense that designers help the design take shape in the most natural and appropriate form, but also that designers are more or less in service of the design process.

I find the metaphor of vessel both humbling and assuring. On one hand, it dims the prominence of authorship and lessens designers’ ego. When we see ourselves as vessels and our work as merely the expression of creativity and conditions working through us, we will be able to look at what we make with more clarity. But at the same time it does not diminish the critical role of designers. We still need to answer the responsibility that calls upon us to bring forth the object, to perform the motion that breaths life into it and completes its journey.

By now you might have noticed that this post is merely a hodgepodge of stones from other hills, so I guess it doesn’t hurt to end with one more. This time from Norman Potter (Note: Potter, N. 1969. What is a designer. What is good design? p.35), and I’ve taken the liberty to replace all masculine pronouns with feminine ones:

Designers are not privileged to opt out of the conditions of their culture, but are privileged to do something about it. The designer’s training equips her to act for the community, as (in limited respects) the trained eyes and hands and consciousness of that community—not in some superior human capacity, but in virtue of the perceptions which she inherits from the past, embodies in the present, and carries forward into the future. She is of and for the people; and for them, and for herself, she must work at the limit of what she sees to be good.

To work at the limit of what we see to be good, we must pay attention. We need to hone our antenna, make ourselves available, and attune to the gift bestowed to us, to the needs and desires of others, and to the conditions of each opportunity as well as the calling of our time. As vessels of design, “we humbles ourselves, we sharpen out wits, and we offer, at the very least, our moments of lucidity.”