The Shape of Design

Chimero’s meditation on design is thoughtful and lovely, a welcome refresher from the more logistical ethos that has been ascendent in recent years. His characterization of design as a response—rather than a problem to be solved—changed the way I think about my own work, and the work of others. (Disclaimer: the book was edited by yours truly, but credit for its art goes entirely to Chimero.)

Reading notes

Call and response

Take three chairs—a traditional Shaker chair, an Eames’ plywood chair, and Frank Gehry’s aptly-named wiggle chair—and ask yourself: why do we have three completely different solutions for the same problem? Perhaps because they are not solutions so much as responses:

The products of design are more negotiations of issues and responses to problems than absolute, fixed solutions, and this provides plenty of space for different takes and perspectives. Grouping the chairs together makes it evident that each design is an attempt to fill the need of sitting seen through the lens of each designer’s disposition. Their responses are a negotiation of the problem with its context, and the designers are a part of that context.

Chimero, The Shape of Design, page 75

So, rather than trying to solve a design problem, you can respond to it, bringing the full force of your experience and time and place to the fore. Turn that around, and it’s also a useful device for deciding what to spend your time on: does the work call out for someone like you?

Which leads me to chimpanzees

Chimps and humans have ninety-nine percent of their DNA in common; that is to say, we’re made up of more or less identical building blocks. But those building blocks are executed in different orders and with different priorities, with one set of priorities concluding with our hirsute cousins, and the other with our mostly bare skin. What does this have to do with film editing?

My point is that the information in the DNA can be seen as uncut film and the mysterious sequencing code as the editor. You could sit in one room with a pile of dailies and another editor could sit in the next room with exactly the same footage and both of you would make different films out of the same material. Each is going to make different choices about how to structure it, which is to say when and in what order to release those various pieces of information.

Murch, In the Blink of an Eye, page 12

This reminds me of Frank Chimero’s reframing of design as a “response” rather than a solution. Give two designers the same material and constraints, and they’ll emerge with work as potentially disparate as humans and chimps. Neither is right or wrong; they are merely unique.