by L. Nichols
In English, the word design is both a noun and a verb (which tells one a lot about the nature of the English language). As a noun, it means – among other things – ‘intention’, ‘plan’, ‘intent’, ‘aim’, ‘scheme’, ‘plot’, ‘motif’, ‘basic structure’, all these (and other meanings) being connected with ‘cunning’ and ‘deception’. As a verb (‘to design’), meanings include ‘to concoct something’, ‘to simulate’, ‘to draft’, ‘to sketch’, ‘to fashion’, ‘to have designs on something’. 1
When I first read Flusser’s essay about the nature of the word design (About the Word Design 1), I was simultaneously floored and also a little angry.
A designer is a cunning plotter laying his traps. 1
As someone who studied engineering, as someone who works as a graphic designer, as an artist, I felt attacked , accused of blatant deception. But the more I thought about what he was getting at, the more I realized that there was a definite basis of truth to the claim of designer as a trickster/deceiver. Maybe being a deceiver isn’t such a bad thing.
I always hear comics people talking about design. Page design/layout. Character design. Book design. Website design. Etc. etc. etc. But what does this really mean? If we agree that design is about deception and manipulation, is tricking/being tricked really such a bad thing?
As a way to challenge myself and also to learn more about the tricks of others, I sometimes will draw pages/panels and try to mimic the style as best I can. Usually, there is some reason I pick what I do. Maybe the page layout intrigues me. Maybe I find it fascinating how a character design can simplify/change to reflect emotion (like the above page). Maybe I find the character design interesting (like the below page. I love Kaz Strzepek’s Mourning Star!).
But regardless of the reason I decided on a particular thing, there is always some greater understanding I develop through the process. A deeper understanding of underlying design is also the reason I do things like close readings of comics passages/pages. I mean, it’s not as if designers are hiding their designs. They are there to be studied. They are there to be seen when looked for. But a good designer knows how to use design without drawing unwanted attention to the underlying design.
Plato’s basic objection to art and technology was that they betray and distort the theoretically intelligible forms (‘Ideas’) when they transfer these into the material world. For him, artists and technicians were traitors to Ideas and tricksters because they cunningly seduced people into perceiving distorted ideas. 1
As a creator, I am aware of how the various choices I make can affect and influence the reader. I choose my techniques, style, medium, and layouts based on a desired manipulation of the reading experience. I am constantly experimenting with smaller pieces to gain a feel for how my choices affect things. I am constantly trying to find tricks to better translate what I am imagining/feeling into a work that can be held and experienced. And I will admit it, I know that I can never fully transmit the understanding of an idea or a feeling that I might have. Think about it. We understand the concept of an object being hard because we can feel it, experience it ourselves. We understand the concept of pain because we have been hurt. The best an artist can do is to draw upon these experiences in the viewer and to manipulate them into something else. Unlike Plato, however, I do not think this is a bad thing.
So much of how we understand the world is based on experiences that are unique to ourselves, body-knowledge, emotions. If we were unable to call upon another human’s experience and emotions in order to help them understand our own experience and emotions, then life would be pretty lonely and miserable. And part of why I think art is such an important thing is because it really tries to get to the heart of communicating things that are not easily communicable or cannot otherwise be communicated. (And, again, communicate has at its root ‘commune’. Together. It necessitates the interpretation of another individual or individuals.) If we can manipulate the reader into feeling a semblance of what we ourselves feel and want to communicate, then we win some small success against the oppression of the vast body of ineffable knowledge that we carry within us (knowledge that defies expression or description). Sure, maybe it is not a Platonic ideal of what we’re thinking, but is still no less valid or important.
What if instead of negatively judging design because of its deception we grew to think of design as a sort of magic? When we encounter magicians, we know they are tricking us and we are ok with it (usually). It is a game that both parties are in on. The magician spins a story to make us believe the tricks he is performing. We go along with it. Sure, some people may take delight in figuring out how the magician works his tricks (and maybe some of those people become magicians themselves). Some people may get upset at the magician tricking him (I always imagine Plato as being a somewhat grumbly audience member). But I think that the largest majority of people want to be tricked. They want to be surprised by the cleverness of the magician. The best magic leaves you smiling and wondering just how it happened.
Think of the artist, the designer as a sort of magician and the viewers/readers as willing participants. People read books, watch movies, look at art, etc. to be entertained, to be surprised, to be amused, to have a sense of wonder at the cleverness of the person who created this, or maybe to empathize with the person who created this. It doesn’t matter how simple things might seem or how deep they are either. It is all part of the same urge, the desire to express. And I would argue the best designers, the best artists, what they have in common is the ability to leave you with a feeling of wonder at the trickery they just performed.
1 Vilém Flusser, ‘Vom Wort Design’, Vom Stand der Dinge: Eine kleine Philosophie des Design (Bensheim and Düsseldorf: Bollmann Verlag, 1993); trans. Anthony Matthews, in Vilém Flusserm, The Shape of Things; A Philosophy of Design, ed. Martin Pawley (London: Reaktion Books, 1999) 17-21.
2 Last image is William Kentridge. The rest are mine.