A thought experiment: discovery/design/drawing

Something that doesn't exist

We all want to get ‘better’ at design. Here’s a thought experiment that might help. Suspend your disbelief for a while, and read the following as if you agree with it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t: this is an exercise in pretending.

It has been said (by me, just now) that design and discovery were at the opposite ends of the scale, but somewhere along the line the ends of that scale were bent around into a horseshoe shape so that they are now actually quite close together, even while retaining all the qualities of an opposing pair.

Whew! I am glad I got that out. The simile might be clumsy, but it carries a grain of truth: when you are in the zone, design can sometimes feel more like discovery, or uncovering, than making. It can feel like heading down a path and discovering interesting things along the way. I suggest that the opposite is also true, and that to uncover or unearth - to discover - has many of the qualities of making, of design.

Think about it for a moment. The person who discovered the gas oxygen in the mid 1770’s (the Swedish pharmacist Carl Wilhelm Scheele seems to have won that historical race by a whisker) certainly uncovered or revealed it. However, in a very real sense he also ‘invented’ it -  designed it - insofar as the concept or idea of oxygen had no existence before his definition. (Actually, to be precise, Scheele actually invented ‘fire air’, as he named it, correctly acknowledging oxygen’s role in combustion.  The word oxygen is a later and less accurate nomenclature, taken from the French oxygéne, which means ‘acidifying constituent’ according to the OED.)

The components of oxygen might exist atomically independent of language, I’m prepared to concede that they do, but in practice that fascinating gas is embedded in a dense mesh of invented and ascribed meaning, and such things are entirely cultural and historical artefacts. In other words, they are ‘made up stuff’ - the product of intention and design. (Quantum physics goes further and throws into question whether phenomena even exist independent of observation, but that’s way over my head and a story to explore another time.)

So, if you subscribe to this view (and remember you are pretending that you do) then designers are merely in the business of discovering things that are already there; and conversely, it follows that he or she who discovers things is actually making them up or inventing them, in some sense at least. If this is the case (keep pretending) then design as an activity must proceed under the assumptions and conditions of discovery, as well as making. And, as we know, the first condition of discovery is the principle that there is in fact something there to be discovered: that in theory at least you need only look in order to find, however hard the looking might be in practise.

Keep pretending a little while longer, and take our thought experiment with you to the drawing board. Can you design as if it is merely discovery, and nothing more? Can you design as if the product or solution already exists, and that all you are doing is digging it out of the earth? I think that if you try this with a little imagination, if you continue to suspend your disbelief and ‘just pretend’, a whole range of alternative techniques will suggest themselves to you.

For example, I know that I draw things I am inventing differently to things that already exist, particularly things I can see when I am drawing. I don’t know why I should do that, but I do it nonetheless - could that change if I pretend the imagined object already exists? Perhaps. I had better try it and see.

There ends the experiment. Let me know how you go.