from Core77: a Periodic Table of Form


Why does Design so often struggle to communicate its value to the world, when it’s something we all recognize?

When we speak of product development, we frequently look at the domains of Design and Engineering separately, evaluating them in different ways. Engineering, at its core, is a measurable process; Design, for the most part, is not. This gives the former an inherent advantage: engineering efforts are easily quantifiable, and this provides them with authority. Design is intuitive, working on the non-verbal levels of our experience, sometimes triggering our most subversive emotional states; this makes it difficult to evaluate empirically. Lacking an analytical vernacular, Design is labeled subjective, when it is actually the agent of universal truth through form.

The consequences of interacting with the array of sharp spines on a sea urchin or porcupine are pretty obvious to any creature passing by–you don’t need a pair of frontal lobes to understand this.

For the consumer, it’s easy to forget how much the emotional response to an object determines his or her relationship to it, but this forgetfulness can be plausibly explained by the dominant role our analytical mind plays in formulating language. Because it is able to say it’s in charge, as the executor of structured argument, the analytical mind generally convinces us that it is in fact the authority. Reasoning therefore holds higher status, and emotional reactions are easy to dismiss as immature or irrational. This poses a very real barrier to the acceptance of design as a source of value in product development; enough that it’s worth examining alternate ways of evaluating design, transcending this subjective view to create a more universal system of measure.

Form has meaning; it can touch us at such a primal level that our mind is left scrambling to rationalize our emotional reactions. Consider the visceral impression conveyed by a natural setting: The deep serenity felt, for example, while walking through a majestic grove of redwoods. The delicate lace of fern fronds wave as you drag your hand through them as you walk, and your heart jumps into your throat when startled by a deer caught wondering across the trail. These natural forms hold an innate meaning that not only transcends the human experience, but even predates our verbal expression, definition, and measurement. In other words, we did not create this meaning; it comes from the forms themselves, and existed long before we did.


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