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Many design theories expect a kind of certainty from the designing process, try to somehow distil only the best parts of the design. And even if this is not, in itself, a bad thing, it certainly risks this mistake, of taking the open process of the artefacts and turning it into an independent reality. Of course design is more like cooking than like chemical engineering: you never know exactly how it will taste.

The zen tea-house has a very low door, so that you must be humble and bow down to enter. The low door enforces, then, humility. Damn Japanese!

But no, actually, this is silly. Even the lesser man bows down, and after doing so he is just as likely to do shit as before.

Some people expect that an artefact should (or could, or must) have a single, straightforward, and unambiguous effect on users. And this, for sure, is silly.

It’s silly because it is not a simplification of how things are, but actually a distortion of a very different dynamic.

So let’s dig further on the tea-house door example. It is a humility thing. Humility is all this door is about. Of course, we get to humility not through the physicality of the door, but through the intricate zen ritual of tea. There is a culture with a given history, with a given understanding of what humility is, a given set of cultivated capabilities, with a protocol for displaying feelings, with discourses that help or hinder certain kinds of behaviour, with a specific class of people who are supposed to cultivate some rituals, and so on, and, after all of that, we get a low door that expresses humility.

Take out the background, you take out the humility.

The problem is that, when we put things in those terms, it begins to seem that keeping the background, even without the low door, we still have the humility.

Restating it, it is just because we can take some very heavy weight cases like the tea-house door (and say it means something or has a given function) that we can blind ourselves to the open-ended nature of design.

The picture of the artefact meaning something soon becomes the realm of meanings having its own independent (and impossible to coordinate) reality. In other words, it is easy to think of meanings without someone to read them. And when there is no reader, the meaning is not a process but a closed thing. The function is not a form of practice, but a given. And then we can translate it into a price, which mops up any remaining comprehension of people that could have remained. We swap the ambiguity of the relationship person-thing by properties solely belonging to the artefact (and they have plenty of other names besides meanings and functions, in reality many design authors have their very own particular code-names for this unreachable property).

A meaning without a reader is not a simplification of the process-meaning: It is a distortion of this process. Why? Because it requires domination-relations between people and artefact. Because it denies the improvisation that this process requires. So in the tea-house we have such a powerful charge of meaning that this meaning suffers very little questioning or de-stabilizing. The meaning is kept, and actually part of the ritual is keeping this meaning, and furthermore this maintenance itself happens through the exact same channels that, in other circumstances, subvert meanings and deny them.

A very good example of this subversion would be a child taking a bottle-cap and making believe that it is a futuristic Tron cycle (that was a toy i deeply enjoyed for quite a while). In this play, the children is creating a meaning that is radically outside the meaning structures incorporated in the object. This meaning (or function) can’t be even conceptualized without the figure of the children.

This example, though, is also too heavy, now in the opposite way: Now the reader is too powerful and so, in the long run, becomes himself an independent reality. There is no improvisation again, there is only the rule of the reader.

Surprisingly, to get rid of the excessive strictness of our theory we developed the exact same strictness in duplicate.

{Actually, i would guess almost all “revolutions” in design theory follow a path somewhat similar to this: Identify a given assumption of previous dominant theory, question it for lacking adaptability, falsify it using a diametrically opposed example, and end up with the same theoretical stiffness built anew over different grounds. Granted, assumptions are hard to tackle, so that whole thing is not as pointless as it seems, in that long term we have fewer and fewer hidden assumptions, which makes for saner theoretical grounds. But short term the intermediate theories can get quite insane!}

But the mechanism of meaning-creation (and subversion!) is much more flexible than this: It is the process of imbuing things with life.

Both the toy and the tea-house are made part of the life of concrete persons. They are made a little human, both to the good and the bad of it. In this process we witness the rise of complexity, ambiguity, random improvisation — and also a sense of purposes and will.

Coming back to the original point, it is silly to focus design on any given set of independent rules or properties: It is silly to put all our faith on meanings (RCD); It is silly to believe in function over all else (Bauhaus); It is silly to measure everything with value (IDEO); It is silly to think it is all about affordances (Norman) — and so on.

Even though i could have in principle used anything to be my Tron-cycles as a kid, i’m thinking of a very specific aluminium bottle cap that could be mashed in such a way that the border collapsed into a line, and that interesting form was very suggesting of a rail. I had a vivid imagination, but the cap also had it’s suggestiveness, and we should be able to think about this kind of problem.

Of course this is not about plastering the «open-ended» label over everything and refusing to analyse. There is no way anyone could anticipate every single imagination that every single kid will have about a given object, but we should be able to think about the general fields of use. That is to say, not fixed elements of meaning, but in-flux directions of meaning.

As a bare minimum, we should be able to assess how stable (or shaky) are our meanings. We should also understand that neither solid nor vaporous meanings are better, but that navigating between these extremes can be a tool.

And then (“when is all that suffering gonna end?”) we need to sort out the very very difficult moral issue that is the limit between helping the user and influencing her.

Because even in the heavy-weight examples there is room for improvisation. The zen master might have a sore knee one day and bow a little to the side. As designers, we can explore how much the physicality of this door unloads a part of the ceremony from the masters mind into a kind of mnemonic structure of doors and cups. Maybe we must find ways to help the tea-house coexist with contemporary urban chaos. Maybe we are just using these elements into an illustration. Either way, being able to see the whole thing as an open process helps.

The tea ceremony is sacred. But the humility of the zen tea house would not be the same without the low door. The door is still physical, and this physicality has a whole realm of complexities to be explored.


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  1. By a casa de chá zen « Filosofia do Design on 27 Mar 2012 at 2:37 pm

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