How Design Contributes to the Meaning of Life

Posted by on Feb 6, 2013 in Design

Orignially Posted 5/2/2013 on the Tridant blog.

In reading the book Do Good Design a few years ago I was struck by David B. Berman’s perception of the role of design in our world. He discusses the design of a ballot paper used for voting in Palm Beach County, USA for the November 2000 US presidential election. Apparently the design was so poor and the layout misleading, many voters didn’t understand how to fill out the form. This resulted in a large number of votes mistakenly cast for Pat Buchanen instead of Al Gore. The mistaken votes lead to George W. Bush’s victory in Florida, which was apparently enough to result in Bush winning the presidency. Therefore, design can be considered likely responsible for “the failure of the United States”.

Palm Beach ballot paper – many voters admitted to accidentally voting for Buchanen instead of Gore.

As a Graphic Designer, I tend to experience the world through a more visual form of communication. On a micro level, this can be something as simple as an awareness of the emotion behind a particular facial expression in any given moment, or the nuances of hidden meaning embedded in a typographic element of a piece of signage. On a macro level it may be the way in which I analyze the ideology behind an ordinarily subliminal advertising message, one of the thousands of which are thrown at me via multiple channels in any given day.

But not only trained designer’s experience the world in this way, we all do. After all, as the architects of our own lives – we are all designers. The difference is that when you are often responsible for helping to create this meaning on a commercial scale, it is much easier to be aware of it and appreciate the reason why we each respond the way we do.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we each engage with design according to how it might effect and be affected by individual interpretation and the personal experiences we seek to have. But what makes one interpretation different from another? Does the colour red always have an association with fire, love and passion or is this only common in Western culture? What connotations emerge from this colour in another culture, and how deeply does this cultural meaning effect a person’s individual response to red objects – for example a pair of shoes? Why would we choose to buy one particular style of shoes over another? How does the look of those shoes contribute to our sense of identity and the way in which we experience our social environment? These are the questions designers ask; as they design the world we exist in.

Design is what drives the order, harmony, and often disorder in our world. It has done this since the first tools were ever made by our distant ancestors. The simple act of this changed what it meant to be human. Design is therefore partly responsible for the formation of individual and cultural values in humanity, in a similar way that perhaps biological and generationally embedded cultural factors might do the same (nature & nurture).

Design has the power to drive so much that is good if we seek to use it in the right way. But it’s important that we all understand the implications of this power, and the way in which it can be used to manipulate our values against our will, often for reasons of greed. Are all social trends positive for the world or are most of us guilty of being swept up by them and forgetting to challenge what we allow into our lives? – For example Western consumer culture which is responsible for so much waste. An ideology associated with wealth and abundance which is now inadvertently spreading too many developing nations.

Take a walk down a restaurant strip and glance at the menus displayed invitingly out front. It could be guaranteed that you will judge the classiness of the restaurant not only on price but the way in which their menu is presented, the style of it, its elegance, how attractive it might be. On the other hand, you might perceive a tatty menu as belonging to a cheap restaurant, which is great when you’re searching for a budget meal. But does this speak of the true quality of the food?

A fundamentalist religious group might design signs to get their message across to wider society. Why in the first place do these people have faith that what they believe is right, enough to preach it to others? For one person it could have been a statue of the Virgin Mary that meant something to her as a child and gave her hope every time she felt sad. This experience changed for this person the meaning of being human.

An old man might take an interest in collecting antiques. After a long-lived and tiring life, to him there is immense pleasure to be taken from the memories whispered by a beautiful old clock.

Design has a relationship with every experience we have, and it is connected to everything we will ever do. As the architects of our own lives we all seek to find meaning and a purpose for our short time on Earth. Design seeks to engineer objects and environments and shape experiences that help us to find a way. It would be impossible to imagine a world without it.

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