Design for Transformation

The Physical is a Metaphor for the Metaphysical

Digital technologies have profoundly changed the way we interact with our environment and with each other. Work has been transformed by the tools that we use. In the process, we are creating habits of mind and systems of working that have altered the neural pathways of our brains. Our tools are physically changing us. These physical changes are expressed in the metaphysical. The metaphysical reality is manifest in the physical infrastructure and architecture of the built environment that we have designed to embody our ideas in reality.

We are designing the human experience in real time.

Have we actually stepped back to objectively understand what it is that we are doing?

Ellen Lupton and Jennifer Cole Phillips, in their book Graphic Design: The New Basics, explore graphic design from the perspective of a pedagogical approach to the basic principles of design.

How do designers get ideas? Some places they look are design annuals and monographs, searching for clever combinations of forms, fonts, and colors to inspire their projects. For students and professionals who want to dig deeper into how form works, this book shows how to build richness and complexity around simple relationships. We created this book because we didn’t see anything like it available for today’s students and young designers: a concise, visually inspiring guide to two-dimensional design written for today’s world.

As educators with decades of combined experience in graduate and undergraduate teaching, we have witnessed the design scene change and change again in response to new technologies. When we were students ourselves in the 1980s, classic books such as Armin Hofmann’s Graphic Design Manual (published in 1965) had begun to lose their relevance within the restless and shifting design world. Postmodernism was on the rise, and abstract design exercises seemed out of step with the current interest in appropriation and historicism.

During the 1990s, design educators became caught in the pressure to teach (and learn) software, and many of us struggled to balance the teaching of technical skills with critical thinking. Form sometimes got lost along the way, as design methodologies moved away from universal visual concepts toward a more anthropological understanding of design as a constantly changing flow of cultural sensibilities.

This book addresses the gap between software and visual thinking. By focusing on form, we have re-embraced the Bauhaus tradition and the pioneering work of the great formal design educators, from Armin Hofmann to some of our own teachers, including Malcolm Grear. We believe that a common ground of visual principles connects designers across history and around the globe.

Back to the Bauhaus

When Lupton and Phillips refer to the basics, they are referring to basic principles of design derived from the educational approach of the Bauhaus.

The idea of searching out a shared framework in which to invent and organize visual content dates back to the origins of modern graphic design. In the 1920s, institutions such as the Bauhaus in Germany explored design as a universal, perceptually based “language of vision,” a concept that continues to shape design education today around the world.

The Bauhaus Legacy

In the 1920s, faculty at the Bauhaus and other schools analyzed form in terms of basic geometric elements. They believed this language would be understandable to everyone, grounded in the universal instrument of the eye.

Bauhaus faculty pursued this idea from different points of view. Wassily Kandinsky called for the creation of a “dictionary of elements” and a universal visual “grammar” in his Bauhaus textbook Point and Line to Plane. His colleague László Moholy-Nagy sought to uncover a rational vocabulary ratified by a shared society and a common humanity. Courses taught by Josef Albers emphasized systematic thinking over personal intuition, objectivity over emotion.

Albers and Moholy-Nagy forged the use of new media and new materials. They saw that art and design were being transformed by technology — photography, film, and mass production. And yet their ideas remained profoundly humanistic, always asserting the role of the individual over the absolute authority of any system or method. Design, they argued, is never reducible to its function or to a technical description.

A New Technological Context

A decade since the publication of Graphic Design: The New Basics, the world has been transformed by the ubiquity of mobile computational power and networked communication infrastructure.

We have a new design discipline called user experience (UX) design that acknowledges the widespread adoption of digital devices and our relationship to these objects as users. User experience design is a growing field of study and practice that combines cognitive science, psychology, human-computer interaction, and design principles.

Our growing awareness of the collusion of religious, economic, and political institutions to build physical and metaphysical infrastructure and architecture that assimilates people into global systems of behaviour raises questions about who is being used by whom and to what end.

The cognitive dissonance of modern life threatens our ability to cope with both the paradox of choice and the inability to choose a different path because of the constraints designed into the existing systems and infrastructure.

How do we design human experience?

What if our choices result in chaos and genocide for millions of people on the wrong side of the digital divide? What if our designs have resulted in the worst humanitarian crises of our times?

The New Basics

How do we educate designers when the stakes are much higher than we ever realized?

If we focus only on form, we miss the point. It may be that we have been missing the point for 100 years since the end of World War I and the beginnings of the modernist project that the Bauhaus started to rebuild out of the destruction of traditional ideas of art, architecture, religion, economics, and politics.

In many ways, the ideas that Lupton and Phillips were bringing to the surface are the same basic principles of form that reveal another level of meaning beyond the physical form to the metaphysical reality. The reality of human experience manifests through the collective action of self-conscious beings in a universe that appears to exist within a very specific set of physical characteristics and metaphysical properties.

If we think of human experience as an expression of perception, cognition, emotion and action in response to physical stimuli, the basic principles of design become the universal vocabulary and grammar that we can use to articulate our ideas.

  • Point, Line, Plane
  • Rhythm and Balance
  • Scale
  • Texture
  • Color
  • Figure/Ground
  • Framing
  • Hierarchy
  • Layers
  • Transparency
  • Modularity
  • Grid
  • Pattern
  • Diagram
  • Time and Motion
  • Rules and Randomness

Design for Humanity

When we design for human experience, we start with empathy for the people we serve. We need to understand how people perceive, think, feel and act in response to their environment.

This is a formidable task, because we cannot assume to know anything about another. We must be vulnerable, approachable, open, and attentive in order to begin to forge a relationship that encourages honest feedback.

That is the design challenge we face. We are no longer designing physical artifacts. We have shifted our focus beyond the physical to the design of human experience. That is a shift from the physical to the metaphysical. To understand and articulate this challenge will require a language, vocabulary and grammar with which we tend not to be fluent in the public sphere. However, these are the conversations that we must have to move forward with the human project.

To build relationships, to build community, to build a resilient society, we need a different kind of leadership than what has been typical of traditional institutions. We need everyone to learn how to imagine, design, and build living systems in harmony with the life that surrounds us and sustains us.

We are designing a new way to be human. We are engaging in a process of personal, social, and global transformation.

This is design for transcendence and for transformation.

Designer, writer, educator, social architect, founder, Builders Collective, Leading with Design.

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