Literacy and Resonance: Humanity and Design

Jessica Helfand’s thought-provoking new book of essays, Design: The Invention of Desire, is more than a design book or a book about design—it is a treatise on humanism, a critical philosophy of the values and consequences of our field. Not just written for designers, it brings design into the broader context of ideas—and human understanding. It’s also a pleasure to read. Rather than a review, I decided to explore her intent through a few short questions, starting with the elegant cover.

 

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Design books are almost as common as coloring books, though not as lucrative. Yours is not a design book but a book about design’s role and consequence. Starting with the cover, which, of course, you designed but not in the pandering way that says “BUY ME! I’M A DESIGN BOOK.” What influenced your decision to be more nuanced?
I think you may have just answered this yourself! We live in an age of ceaseless broadcasting, 24-hour news cycles and relentless self-promotion. The practice of design has, in too many ways, become swept up in this meaningless maelstrom of bully pulpit nonsense, and why not? The more we privilege spin over substance, the more design becomes complicit in a kind of tautological loop of propaganda. The short answer is: I was educated in a Quaker school where the meaning of “service” runs deep. And I’ve always believed that design was, first and foremost, a humanist discipline. I thought it was high time I wrote a book and said so.

There was a popular title some years back by Adrian Forty called Objects of Desire. It was a history of industrial design. As a designer and author and teacher, what was the reason for your contemplative approach? And what is your give-away to those who’ll take away?
I know Forty’s book well, but this book is not a nod to his so much as a provocation to the reader. Designed things make them more desirable, which connects us to consumerism, but if we pivot and look in the opposite direction, we realize that desire is primarily a human conceit. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought there was an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the other human attributes that tether design, as a process as well as a practice, to more fundamental human gestures. In an age that is likely to be remembered for its obsessiveness with technology, and where anyone with a smartphone is expected to be “visually literate,” it’s high time we looked at the more fundamental human, biological, ethical and far more meaningful aspects by which design might achieve a kind of lasting resonance in the world.

 

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Those of us who make design books as an avocation, like me, are very aware that it is necessary to give the readers/buyers not just eye candy, but specially wrap it as well. You illustrated your book with your own paintings influenced by science/biology. What were you thinking? And how difficult was it to convince the publisher?
The world did not, in my opinion, need another design book featuring award-winning design. So just as I looked deep, I asked myself how I might create a new body of work that could in its own way serve as a kind of secondary visual text for these ideas. I have been painting for a long time, and in the past few years—following the publication of Scrapbooks in 2008—I’d become fascinated with painting what I came to think of as “abstract” biographies based on stem cells. Along these lines, in conversation with a friend one day, it occurred to us both that there might be a way to find biological examples that loosely illustrated the chapters in the book—a heart ventricle, a teased nerve, the mitochondria, among others—and I was off to the races. I worked with pathologists, scientists, physicians, and my assistant (who blessedly had a background in biology) to identify what were in the end a series of enlarged microscopic portions of tissue histologies. Among many other things, what drew me to this material was that these things present as highly abstract in a formal sense, but represent a kind of scientific certainty that I found mesmerizing. And we all look the same inside.

 

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Desire and persuasion are two sides of the design coin. I believe persuasion can be created through love, hate, fear, faith. Tell me why design is the Invention of Desire?
Because desire is a fundamental expression of humanity, along with so many other things we fail to identify as central to who we are, not what we buy—humility being perhaps the most important. This gets back to your first question, and why I’m so determined to change not only the conversation but the way we have the conversation. (How can you write a book about humility and get up on a stage and pontificate? This explains why I’m doing no lectures on the book, only workshops where the goal is to seed these ideas in the minds and through the work of others.)

What would be the most satisfying response/reaction/takeaway/critique to your book?
I think I just answered that! This book is not about me, it’s about all of us. We can no sooner divorce design from desire than need from greed—but we can try. Bully pulpits help no one. Social media is an amplifier, not an originator of ideas. Disruption may be innovative but it can also be destructive and hurtful, even mean. How does “hacking” advance our culture, our profession, our world? I want my students thinking about these kinds of things when they make work and put it out in the world. And frankly, I think there’s a new kind of leadership that starts to happen when you leave your ego at the door. At least I hope so.


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