What can poetry teach designers?
By Xanthe Matychak
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of hearing author Margaret Atwood speak at an event up here in Rochester, New York. I love writers. Especially when they're well into their careers and are always cracking jokes. It seems that once they achieve a certain command of language, all they can do is laugh at how inadequate language really is.
Which leads me to poetry, the intentional abstraction and distortion of everyday language. Poets distort language in order to get to the magic of life—and human experience—that structured sentences cannot describe. We also do this in good design, of course. If we didn't, all things would be purely functional and we wouldn't bother with all of this silly design-thinking and storytelling.
I tend to be interested in design that doesn't play that game, design that instead opens itself up to discovery and empties itself of the expectation that every design problem is to be solved with technology. Technology is certainly a part of the equation, but technology in and of itself doesn't satisfy. That's why we always want a new one.
When Atwood finished her talk, a student in the audience asked the inevitable question—what can I do to prepare for a career in writing? (Pay attention here, young designers; her response applies to you too.)
Atwood replied that to be a writer, you have to be comfortable with risk, and you have to accept that there are only four kinds of output:
- 1. Something awful that never gets published,
- 2. Something awful that does get published,
- 3. Something great that never gets published, and
- 4. Something great that does.
Atwood's point, of course, is that going to print has nothing to do with whether or not you are doing great work.
Then Atwood had a follow up question for the young writer, 'Do you want to be a poet or a novelist?' The young writer replied, 'Both.'
Atwood told us that novelists work very hard—it's the old 99% perspiration when it comes to writing a novel. Poets, on the other hand, annoy a lot of people, as they appear to be doing nothing at all a lot of the time. But really, she said, what poets are doing is emptying a space to let something in.
My partner is a professor of poetry. He's on sabbatical this semester, and when he gets up in the morning the only question he asks himself is should he take the dog for a walk before or after breakfast. He appears to be doing nothing, but he's writing some nice poems. The other day he emailed me a poem entitled relaxing. Ah, relaxing.
These days there is a celebration of cross-disciplinary design research. What seems to be the common thread in this research is that it's based on scientific method, on observation. The father of reflective practice, Donald Schon, warns us that "most professionals are locked into a view of themselves as technical experts and find nothing in the world of practice to occasion reflection." Designers who pride themselves as experts at wearing many hats may actually be too tightly adhering to their research questions, methods, and findings.
An illustration of this shortcoming is found in Jan Chipchase's research on missed calls. He and his team conducted extensive research on how people all over the world use their mobile phones, where they carry them, and how often calls are missed. At the end of the report the researchers pose the question of whether to "design a device where incoming communications were noticed 100% of the time?" This is a question born from scientific method. A poet would never ask this question.
In fact, my do-nothing poet boyfriend has a rule about talking on his mobile phone. He doesn't do it while moving. So whether he walks the dog before or after breakfast, you can be sure of one thing, he won't be talking on the phone. And he's not the only poet who feels this way. In an interview with Deborah Solomon in 2005, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti had this to say about our techno-frazzle: "In the 60's, there was a famous slogan, 'Be Here Now,' which in fact was a best-selling book by Ram Dass. Today, with the cellphones, the fax, the Internet, the whole schmear—the unspoken slogan you have today is 'Be Somewhere Else Now.'"
At the end of the report the researchers pose the question of whether to "design a device where incoming communications were noticed 100% of the time?" This is a question born from scientific method. A poet would never ask this question.
Beyond the Quotidian
What I fear about empirical research—research based purely on observation—is that it doesn't recognize a deep context. So when designers ask questions like, how do we "design a device where incoming communications are noticed 100% of the time?" we are assuming that people need to notice them 100% of the time. We don't take into account how rapidly changing technologies have constructed consumer preferences for the faster, the smaller, and the newer. And when we make conclusions based simply on observation, we are jumping too quickly to tech-driven answers. If we designers can, instead, open ourselves up beyond research findings to the practice of reflection, then we can ask deeper questions and discover more meaningful, long-term solutions.
This call for the making of meaning can be found in a slew of new business literature on the market. Nathan Shedroff, Steve Diller, and Darrel Rhea have a book titled just that—Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Experiences—in which they articulate the need for business strategies that engage consumers in an emotional way.
And in Daniel Pink's book A Whole New Mind, he writes about the emerging conceptual age in which we need to develop "the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction, to find joy in one's self and to elicit it in others, and to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning."
Stretching beyond the quotidian is what I'm talking about. Easier said than done, of course. But when we realize the limitations of design research and engage in reflection, we may be on our way.
Make Great Work
Even though our research tells us that consumers "adjust" to new technologies, that we can tap into (what cognitive scientists call) "Fluid Intelligence" and learn how to operate increasingly complicated gadgets, I believe there are hidden costs in those adjustments. So I tend to be interested in design that doesn't play that game, design that instead opens itself up to discovery and empties itself of the expectation that every design problem is to be solved with technology. Technology is certainly a part of the equation, but technology in and of itself doesn't satisfy. That's why we always want a new one.
Below are some examples of work that can be considered poetic; designs that transcend science and gesture toward reflection and discovery. I haven't included too many examples. But I hope that you will send some along in the comments section. Let's start a collection.
Break bench for waiting areas (click
on > contemporary > break)
I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase, "A poet once said 'Good fences make good neighbors.'" That poet was, in fact, Robert Frost, and, though he wrote the line, it was the neighbor in the poem who made the statement, to which the speaker then immediately questions: "Why do they make good neighbors..."
This question is raised in Break bench, which is designed for waiting room areas where the solution for privacy is to throw a big wall or a clunky armrest between people. Break makes an empathetic gesture to our need for space, but the absence of a wall suggests, perhaps, "Remember, we're all in this together."
Suseela Gorter's flat flowers
Sometimes the next best thing to emptying a space is flattening one. Here, Suseela Gorter employs this poetic device to remove cut flowers from our sentient, temporal world, and in doing so disallows us to indulge in the sentimentality we normally attach to flowers. Or the guilt. I mean, I used to buy cut flowers with an arts and crafts type of intention—to bring the outside in—until I learned about the amount of pesticides used in their production (not to mention irrigation and transportation costs—ouch!). I haven't conducted a full cost/benefit comparison of Gorter's flat flowers to the shipped-from-South-America-wrapped-in-cellophane variety, but any design that can use flatness to challenge our notions of beauty has some poetic value.
Steak Zombies Exquisite Corpse
For me, the highlight of the recent New York Design Week was the workshop held in Studio Downtown by Penelope Grabowski's art and design group Steak Zombies, with Mickaël Charbonnel and Daniel Kupfer. They invited the public into the design process where people collaborated and translated their work into at least three mediums.
When I entered the workshop I was asked in a thick German accent, "Have you ever played a game called Consequences?" and I was hooked. I mean, as designers don't we play this game daily?
Their version of Consequences is this: people sit down as a group and
draw body parts—heads, arms, legs, etc. Then they make sewing patterns
from the drawings and create plush toy creatures. The creatures are photographed
and uploaded into an interactive
projection on a nearby wall. Steak Zombies creates a space where
design is celebrated as a living, changing thing that everyone is (or
can be) involved in.
Patagonia DIY Shoe
British economists Tania Brienco and Sigrid Stagl write in the Journal of Cleaner Production: "The disembeddedness of economies from the social world is having great impact on consumption problems...consumption solutions require economic activity to be openly democratic, actively participative, and reflective of its goals in order to integrate social values, concerns, and needs."
Patagonia's do-it-yourself shoe making kit is an invitation to the user to share in the making game, helping us to understand the tools of production. Made from scraps off the production floor, the DIY is like Umberto Eco's open work in which the author—in this case Patagonia—provides an unfinished script to the reader—the consumer—who is responsible for finishing it. Being a part of the making process allows us to understand that these materials belong to the same biological nutrient-flow (unlike a standard loafer of rubber and leather and glue). And since glue is not even used in the DIY shoe, we see that parts are easily separable, repairable, and replaceable.
The design of this system engages the user in reflective practice, which in turn inspires sustainable consumerism. Can we designers consider consumerism, sustainability, and poetic reflection all in a single design concept? Well, yes.
Back in April I saw a preview of the Design for the Other 90% exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt. This design in particular struck me as poetic.
A refrigeration system designed by Mohammed Bah Abba for people in Northern Nigeria, The Pot-In-Pot consists of two clay pots, one inside the other. The users create the pots with local materials, and though of necessity, there's something poetic in that since this product as-is has no client. But the design principle here—local materials, self-built—ought to show up in our artifact making more often.
If we are to make great work, we must push our process beyond research based solely on scientific method and human-computer interaction. Because when the dominant question behind our work is "how do we interact with the machine"—which to me is all about limitations and nothing about poetry—how will we ever find that empty space? To make design poetry we must engage in reflection. Reflection allows us to explore concepts like beauty, community, construction, ownership, and responsibility. And this exploration subscribes to no method; it's loose, and that looseness allows our discoveries to be boundless.
Xanthe Matychak is a designer and writer living in upstate New York. She teaches industrial design (and emptiness) at the Rochester Institute of Technology.