When I tell people I’m a designer, without missing a beat, I always get asked “What kind of design? Fashion? Architecture? Graphic?”
The answer has never been clear-cut.
In the minds of most people, the mere suggestion of design conjures up lush interiors, sleek objects, cool fashion and clean type. It encompasses these things, for sure, but my personal experience as a design practitioner has been idiosyncratic, pushing at its edges.
I’m a journalist who, after years of radio hosting and feature writing, decided to go to design school. I wanted to get my hands dirty in the creative process, rather than continually report on it at arm’s-length.
Ironically, my design education ended up being more conceptual than applied — like a skunkworks exploring “the power and promise of design.” No curriculum per se, just big questions, endless research and heaps of discoveries.
It felt a lot like investigative journalism.
I was reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist at the time, and it became a sort of companion piece to my own journey: seeking new lands for bountiful treasures only to return home and discover it was with me all along.
I came to realize through the sort of design education I experienced that journalism — in its recontextualization — became relevant to me again. It was revitalized with purpose. Renewed with fresh energy.
It led me to writing a book called Massive Change: The Future of Global Design, whose guiding principle was “it’s not about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world.”
The assumption was that design, as a notion, was at risk of being constrained by an aesthetic framing; that its understanding solely as a materially-driven discipline — giving shape to stuff, like furniture and buildings, fashion and typefaces — was all wrong; that design, in fact, has greater potential to positively impact the world.
It was a conceptual exercise that intentionally took the discussion of aesthetics off the table. A design brief, with constraints, that granted permission to temporarily step outside the conventional matrix of design in order to see the discipline with new eyes.
In doing primary research for the book (through my radio conversations with thought leaders, none of them “designers”), I saw for the first time an interconnected future where design solutions emerged from nimble teams of creative thinkers across a whole host of backgrounds — from politics to astrophysics, materials science to microbiology, economic reform to epidemiology.
The design horizon expanded. It was liberating and exciting!
10 years later, I’m still a believer in the power and promise of design. But I’ve grown and stretched and have warmly welcomed aesthetics back into the conversation (another lap of a full circle it seems).
Because I realize now that aesthetics was never the problem to begin with.
As we (designers and non-designers alike) set out to leverage design’s full capacity to solve world problems, we needn’t turn our back on aesthetics (phew!). For if we do, we risk concretizing an either/or paradigm in which ‘the world of design’ = bad and ‘the design of the world’ = good. It’s far more interesting to transcend boundaries and embrace both/and. Where…
design is both a way to solve problems AND a way to experience beauty.
Seeing design solely for the beautiful and tangible “stuff” it brings into being is problematic only when the definition of aesthetics — a branch of philosophy dealing with the principles of beauty — derives from Western materialism. This limited worldview “takes away our dignity, our livelihood, and our soul,” says MIT sociologist Otto Scharmer. This kind of thinking “has resulted in the loss of norms and values and the breakdown of social structures.”
Design, in its full potential, is not only aesthetics, but aesthetics absolutely enhances design — when aesthetics represents the multi-sensorial phenomena that bring harmony to human lives.
I call upon the likes of Coco Chanel and Anton Chekhov, Allan Kaprow and Bucky Fuller. All the shape shifters past and present whose stories, art, music, food, films and forms have touched us.
Chanel knew fashion was more than dresses alone. She said, “Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live what is happening.”
Chekhov likewise saw beauty everywhere, across all stripes of life, except, he said, when “we forget the higher purposes of life, and our own human dignity.”
Avant-garde performance artist Kaprow suggested we blur art and life in order to tease out the aesthetics of the everyday.
Buckminster Fuller famously proclaimed, “When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”
So yeah. As we lean towards a shared understanding of design as something useful, and purposeful, and impactful, we need not ditch aesthetics.
In fact we need it so very badly. It gives us alchemy, magic and transformative power. It moves us to tears and fills our hearts with tenderness. It can make us laugh and move.
When we’re lucky enough to feel an aesthetic experience firsthand — be it an architectural masterpiece or a brilliant sunset or even an affordable filtration system that provides drinking water to the word’s poor — it enables us, in the words of Paul Klee, to “stop and listen for a response [to the world] in ourselves.”
It’s been ages. Sorry, again, for crickets and dust. I was all-consumed with leading a complex brand strategy and innovation project (in national heath care), and then I realized I needed some time to care for my own health.
For the past month or so, I’ve been on a “return to presence” (vs. “leave of absence”), as most things I do need a cheeky twist. Brand New Ways and all.
Since last time!
1. I’ve been approved (finally!) for my green card…
2. I’ve taken a meditation workshop “for busy minds” (along with my beloved hubby) led by former ad exec turned mantra-coach James Brown…
3. I’ve celebrated my first year of marriage, off-the-grid, in glorious Cazadero…
4. I’ve become an official Blogcadette and fallen sparkly-headband-over-glittery-heels in love with Blogcademy Headmistresses Gala Darling, Kat Williams and Shauna Haider (whose boutique design studio, by the by, is in the throes of redesigning my brand and website; Shauna is a talent to behold and I’m swooning over everything I’ve seen so far, so wait for it, COMING SOON)…
5. I’ve begun my kundalini yoga teacher training with Ravi Singh and Ana Brett (two modules down, four to go), which has me newly committed to daily “sadhana,” or morning practice, at 5:30 am. (I’ve practiced kundalini yoga and meditation since 2001 while living in Toronto, first via VHS tapes by Gurmukh, and later by a wonderful little studio called Lotus Yoga Centre and an ever-growing collection of RaviAna DVDs, but I’m newly on fire with this powerful technology for body, mind and spirit, and I can hardly wait to participate in the transformations that surely await)…
6. And finally, just today, I took action on my long-standing desire to reconnect to my journalistic roots and return to the airwaves. As with this blog (and so much more), my Brand New Ways radio show will soon experience a refresh.
Everything’s so shiny and “brand new” around here, eh?
Stay tuned for more! And please reach out and say hi while I’m in development. ;)
All photos mine except for Blogcademy photos, by Ingrid Chang of Jerry Yoon Photographers
Here’s a funny Valentine for you, my readers, on this very special day. It’s always held a place in my heart – not because it’s a prescribed day for lovers, or that the world turns a curious shade of rouge, or even that chocolate can be had at every turn. But because I’ve always felt a bit of ownership.
My birthday is February 15, see. I missed the 14th by a mere two hours and 59 minutes (to be exact).
So today, and every Valentine’s Day, I feel aligned and on fire – with life. I feel a new year dawning. I feel excited about what’s to come.
Think and wonder, wonder and think.
When on assignment recently in New York, I took full advantage of the new Citi Bike offer. Back and forth on the Brooklyn Bridge, as part of my daily commute from Brooklyn Heights to SoHo, I fell truly, madly, deeply in love. So I’m thrilled to see today’s FastCo piece illustrating its success story (so far).
It’s so charming to see an earnest offer in our mega-branded world.
The side panels of this repurposed truck present a straightforward question in script: “Do you need me to help you move across the city?” It’s as direct as it gets. No slogan, no logo, not even a color palette. Just an implied solution to a common need.
What do you get when you combine a water-spouting lion with astroturf and brightly colored plastic flowers? A gem of a first impression that makes you go hmmm.
PS: I really dig the digital house numbers.