design as a problematizing action, or

9th April, 2007

..a methodology for othering ourselves from the present?

Herb Simon, in Sciences of the Artificial, describes design as ‘concerned with how things ought to be – with devising artifacts to attain goals.’ Professionals, according to Simon, work to ‘transform an existing state of affairs, a problem, into a preferred state, a solution.’

Design, in any field, seeks to problematize a given moment by identifying a specific problem, and providing an artifact (an object) to solve that problem. Think about a button on a website, and all that goes into creating an atmosphere that leads one to click on that button, or a pill prescribed by a doctor, or any action undertaken to resolve a specific problem by taking a specific action that promises a resolution in the future.

The artifacts of design identify a specific problem by, essentially, contributing to an atmosphere for that specific problem to become prominent. The resolution of that specific problem suggested by the artifact (click the button, take the pill, etc.) seems to lead, inevitably, to another problem in another aspect of one’s experience, and so on. We seem to be temporally distending our lives into the past and future as we attempt to resolve the various problems we encounter at each moment, using the present as a weigh station.

Think about how often your sense of need is being stimulated, and how that sense of need seems to be only temporarily quelled by whatever actions to take.

In short, and for me, now, design seems to be a methodology for ‘othering’ ourselves from the present, and focusing our decisions within any moment towards a goal that exists in the future: design is based on an idea of ‘how things ought to be’, and is different from an exploration of ‘how things are’.

How things ought to be is a point of view that implies, and relies on, a temporal form composed of the past, present, and future, where the past leads to and influences the present, and where the present leads to and influences the future, exclusively.

How things ought to be requires clearly defined needs, and clearly defined goals, and seems to produce an individuated state of being.

Parenthetically, How things ought to be, as social policy, produces a group rife with frustrated members, whose attempts at resolving their needs simply produces more need, elsewhere.

How things are, on the other hand, requires close attention to the present, and a practice of integration of, and empathy for others’ experience – as others’ expression of their experience are essential aspects and observations of the shared space of now. The ‘goal’ of any methodology that explores the present is an increase in empathy first, and then an opportunity to consider the resulting integration second. As soon as one begins to judge, rather than work to integrate with, either one’s own or another’s expressions then one begins to see things within the context of how they ought to be. The practice of integration, evolving from a careful application of empathy, will inevitably produce unexpected results, but if one takes empathy as the primary method then the concrete results and goals are secondary. Think about it.

I’m reminded of a friend of mine who, in response to a dialectic argument, is fond of saying, usually at the moment of clearest polarity, “isn’t it both?”

To me, art making has the potential to be part and model of such a practice of integration (my previous post is concerned with this). In speaking with an artist friend who recently thought about switching galleries to help her sell more work, and then, after a frustrating meeting with the more ambitious gallerist, my friend realized that making work for pay wasn’t for her. She sells quite a bit of work, actually, but chooses not to aggressively market herself. I realized that when art becomes professional and its goals can be clearly defined and methodologies can be developed to produce repeatable results (tools and methodologies can be developed to produce specific results within specific timeframes, etc…) then the art has become an aspect of design. And that is fine, but, for me, the two exemplify differing and essential qualities of the human experience.

So, is it both? Yes, but I feel that many of us have tipped the balance, significantly, toward design (the presence of digital technology, with its emphasis on information and repeatability has accelerated this) and the result is a peculiar rush towards integration implied by the ideas of the www, but deployed via the methods of design – so that each gesture of integration is predicated on problemization, and each resulting connection inevitably becomes the next problem, and so on, so that here becomes an interface to elsewhere.

This reliance on the methodologies of design at this time, as we seem to be in a particularly integrative phase of cultural development, seems to be producing some odd cultural formations, as well as frustrating many integrative gestures, while slowing down our evolution towards a form that may be significantly different than our recent past. In order to bloom, this evolving form may require us to let go of the railing, surrender our dependence on clearly defined goals, and adopt a practice of empathy and integration that will permit us to move on collectively.

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