When You Can Find the Words and When You Can’t

As far as I know, John Hockenberry is right in pretty much everything he says. But he was wrong about something he said October 25.

Hockenberry, an author and correspondent for Dateline NBC, was keynote speaker at the “What is Design Today” conference held that day at the Design Center at Philadelphia University and sponsored by Metropolis. One of the points he made was that while design itself is a completely intuitive process, talking about design is completely unintuitive. The essential paradox about design, he said, is that while it must function as an intuitive transaction, it’s nearly impossible to talk about what design is.

Hockenberry is no doubt right about the first part, but I’m not sure about the second. Certainly design professionals are exquisitely capable of their own obtuse jargon, but at the conference itself, there were numerous moments of clarity and articulation from speakers—among them Christopher Mount, Masamichi Udagawa and Sigi Moeslinger from Antenna Design; Max Burton from Smart Design; graphic designer Alexander Gelman; and IKEA North America marketing manager Lena Simonsson-Berge. And me. (The daylong conference, organized by Hilary Jay and author George Marcus, coincided with the opening of Marcus’s exhibition, “What is Design Today”, at the Philadelphia University Design Center through March 2, 2003.)

Samples of such clarity? One of my favorite moments was when Christopher Mount, writer, editor, historian, curator observed another paradox of the design profession when he sensibly advised young designers today “to develop a strong personal style. Then just deny it. Talk as much as you can about functionalism and modernism and design purity, but make sure you do it with an easily recognizable style.”

In his discussion of Smart Design’s user-centered approach to design, Burton simply advocated that designers “make a product that is relevant. That is the most important thing.” And Simonsson-Berge, marketing manager for IKEA North America, underlined the basic reason the Swedish retailer has figured out how to sell modern furniture to Americans (something that still seems to elude our home-grown manufacturers)—just make the route from supplier to consumer as direct as possible. And recognize, she added, “that we are more in the life-at-home-business than the home furnishings business.”

Talking about graphic design may be the most difficult of all; it always seems superfluous to discuss the resonant visual images you’re looking at on a screen. But Alexander Gelman managed to pull it off, showing us the image of a cup of water poised on the edge of a table, he said, “The instant before it falls, spills, releases energy is the moment of excitement that graphic design is after. Sitting solidly and squarely on the table, it generates no visual interest.”

But it was Hockenberry, himself, who ended up refuting his own notion that it is difficult to talk about design. In his customarily freewheeling ramble that is nevertheless concise, lucid, fluent, he touched on everything from Dean Kamen’s six-wheel IBOT wheelchair that manages to simulate the experience of balance to how the power of good design will outlast the designer. “The mind is a whore,” he cheerfully reminded us. “It will be intimate with anything.” Which is, to my mind, talking about design with grace, truth, and eloquence.

Hockenberry reminded us as well that design is in every transaction of physical life, from gaming to political systems. And it was the abrupt redesign of the latter that truly silenced us all at the end of the day. When news arrived that afternoon of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone’s death in a plane crash, it was a profound disruption of order, proportion, measure, and balance that no one could find anything to say about.

Categories: Cities