The Paradox of Knowledge: Forget Design

What am I doing as a designer? What kind of work am I creating? Am I creating my best work? Am I creating the work I’m comfortable with or the work I wish to create? The concept of better and purpose is one which frequents my mind of inquiry, and I’ve found myself particularly interested in how I can create work that is both intellectually challenging as it is honest.

“It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer’s subject may just as well, if not more likely, be what the writer longs for and dreams about, in unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.”
—Mary Oliver, Upstream

Thus is the paradox of knowledge, teaching, and pursuit. Is it that we pursue what it is that we are most knowledgable of or is it that we pursue that which haunts us, that which we long for and desire? Early on in our careers, I believe we’re more susceptible to the latter, we’re in a constant pursuit of our perceived ideal, of our intended destination or goal. Early in our careers, our dissatisfaction with our current skill set or range of knowledge then feeds a ruthless clawing towards the control—the people and the work we so often compared ourselves to. Inevitably, by nature of time and the persistent clawing, we become smarter, we become more skilled, we become better, and if we were to graph out our progress it surely begins to soften, slowly leveling out as time moves on.

There’s a threshold we cross or begin to reach, and we rarely recognize this passage because it’s not abrupt but rather extremely gradual. This threshold we breach is one of quality. In our early pursuits we understand where we are and where we want to go, and so our pursuit is in search for something better—a striving for what we long for and dream about. The issue comes when we pass the threshold of quality in which we become good or good enough. There’s nothing worse than being good because with being good comes complacency and a willingness to settle. When we become good, I fear the seemingly naive fire that previously kindled within us becomes easy to extinguish.

So I feel forced to reflect on Mary Oliver’s words, and how she suggests that writers more often than not write about what it is that they long for and desire rather than what they know and know well. While I wish to say the same of designers, I do not witness the same—at the very least, I speak for myself. Young designers create in this manner, one of constant striving, but western professional design seems to be, more often than not, littered by conformity than experimental idealism. An inherent abstraction exists with writing, however, design and art maintains a tangibility or visual objectivity which removes a large sense of concept or lofty ideology.

Continuing my reflection on Mary Oliver’s words, I’m interested in how we return to or begin to establish more of a sense for pursuing that which we long for and desire. In understanding the nature of writing and being a writer, I’d suggest our relationship in design is inherently flawed to allow that same natural tendency, and thus, we must detach from design in order to advance it.

With writing, I believe it’s segmented into thirds where as writers read, think, and write—this relationship within writing making sense as each of the three are distinct in their own nature. With design, that relationship seems skewed and far less abstract, in that each segment is less likely to exist in isolation of the others and the combination of any doesn’t then contribute directly to the whole in such a way that it does with writing. This is to suggest, in design we’re left, of course, with thought (but in a very different manner than that which derives from writing or reading—far less reflective, existential, or even philosophical), writing is then replaced with designing, and reading is replaced with observation.

The suggestion to detach from design comes from the fluidity of thought and interpretation that is possible in writing, reading, and their resulting thoughts which don’t exist in as much of an abstract state than they are very direct, visual, and formal in regards to design. There isn’t enough of a deep seeded, abstracted, and intellectual dialog around design in the conventional sense for design to feed into itself in the same way that writing and reading do.

While the the “writer’s subject may just as well, if not more likely, be what the writer longs for and dreams about, in unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty,” to achieve the same sense in design requires a self removal from design itself, and an entering into a medium such as writing that enables more abstraction and thus honesty.