Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Design Is Communication

Alexander Graham Bell and the first long
distance telephone call.
I come from a philosophy background; it's one of my degrees. Consequently, communication is highly important to me (as is being arrogant and self-important). Not just how to communicate, but what communication is. What are we doing when we say we are communicating? How do we communicate? What is communicated? I think that you can see where I'm going with this.

It wasn't just communication, mind you, it was the whole of philosophy. Theories on beauty, aesthetics, language, perception: they all had significant impacts on my conception of art and design. Truly, I think that philosophy more so than any other aspect of my education has fundamentally altered my ideas about art and expression.

One of my favorite philosophers is Ludwig Wittgenstein... for his ideas, not for him. In life he was an asshole, socially incompetent, closeted homosexual. In writing, though, he was a fantastically innovative thinker. In Wittgenstein's later writing, he argued that words do not mean things insofar as they represent something. They have meaning only in how they are used.

To exemplify this, he challenged the reader to define the word "game." I won't go into it here, but he shows that it is impossible to define "game" in such a way as to include all applications of the word in general use. Basically, words cannot be defined. They can only be used in a way that is functional in a social group. What we teach when we "teach" language in a quantitative way, such as in a classroom, are underlying principles that define the boundaries of use. We teach the principles that once learned can be easily disregarded in favor of more robust, flexible, and fluid uses of language. For example, text-speak and most slang completely violates all grammatical and syntactical rules, but it is effectively used as communication.

As you likely guessed long before that paragraph had finished showing off how darned smart I am, this is the essence of design as well. Wittgenstein applies perfectly well to art and imagery as he does to poetry and words. Just as there is no definition for "game" that works, there is no strict rule set that defines good communication via a graphical medium. There is no definitive ruleset for a "portrait." I could do an actually portrait, striving to be as realistic as possible. Or I could do a cubist painting, or I could draw an inanimate object that somehow represents the character of the subject. They are all "portraits."

If you have inferred this, I do not mean to disparage those who took classes and have degrees in graphics and art. They learned tools in a rigid, well-regulated environment that fosters absolute mastery of those tools. What I mean to say is that what the education is should not be misunderstood. It does not teach you how to be an artist. It does not teach you the language. You learn the language through use, because art is an ineffable construct.

This means that good design is not something that can be taught, just as good writing cannot be taught. Writing is communication, and just so long as your words are effectively communicating what you want to communicate, you have succeeded. Just as abstract poetry cannot be explained, it can only be shown, actual design comes after learning the rules of design. You have used these gross rules to understand the underlying concepts that cannot be explained logically or verbally.

My ultimate point is that in design, just as in language, there are no rules, only applications that work or don't work. What we call rules are more like statements that roughly describe ineffable underlying principles that can be ascertained more quickly with an initial appeal to these statements than by trial and error.

You can use these rules to critique creations, but only insofar as they are linguistic constructs. We use the rules because we need words to describe underlying, ineffable artistic principles. And while the words are not perfect, they are better than nothing. Again, without them, we would be left in a silent void grasping wildly at any and all expressions, desperately trying to determine what works, and left with nothing to say when something doesn't work.

At the root of it all, though, is that void. Philosophers and artists try their best to intellectualize art, but no matter how quantitative we try to make it, it is fundamentally qualitative. It is the child of a speechless, Platonic nether.

It is not just art that suffers this limitation. That ineffable void is at the root of all life. To develop the most finely-tuned, accurate communication to best combat the inherent nebulousness of that void is the purpose of philosophy. I see design as the philosophy of the visual world. Good design communicates concepts visually in as direct and accurate a manner as possible. Good design, necessarily, is good communication.

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