Design’s Just Dessert

Filed Under: Article , Voice

I have a prop that I use on the first day of our introductory graphic design course. It's a box of cake mix-sometimes brownies-that I connect to a surplus computer keyboard and mouse. While I review the syllabus, my construction sits in the middle of the grouped tables we gather around. Sometimes I add to the theater by setting it up piece by piece, without comment, after the students have arrived.

Student Rebecca Soorani with the author’s computer as cake mix demonstration

Student Rebecca Soorani with the author's computer as cake mix demonstration (photo: Kenneth FitzGerald).

To try and maintain the suspense while I plow through the course details, I'll occasionally pause, tap on the keyboard, and then frown at the box, as if witnessing an undesirable result. This still won't compel an inquiry from the students. I find their expressions generally inscrutable in their varied states of attentiveness-more so on a first day. Either through good manners or disinterest, they always wait me out until I eventually explain the contraption.

This bit of “business” is in service of two tasks. One is to simply inject some mystery and anticipation into a rote exercise-greetings, handing out sheets of paper, the ritual mispronunciation of roster names. Actually, I'm hoping to disrupt students' expectations of what's going to happen in class, typically that they will just sit down at a Mac and design will soon appear on screen.

My setup relates to this expectation, illustrating a metaphor of design activity that I find serviceable and, I hope, illuminating. Attempting to put the computer's role into a useful context has been a struggle since its introduction. That it's “just a tool” ranks as the most popular description. Contesting this is the opinion that the device embodies a new paradigm of design visualization.

I tell students that when they look at the computer, they should visualize that box of cake mix. The machine and its attendant software are a premade formulation to facilitate amateurs' need to easily create something attractive. Aspiring and professional graphic designers are a secondary market. The resultant problem is that, as intended, it is relatively easy-too easy-to come up with something palatable.

Some ability is necessary. That cake, or that design, can't make itself. And crafting suitable design isn't as foolproof as using the cake mix, which requires just the addition of a few simple ingredients (which could also be put in the blend, but are excluded so the maker gets some baking gratification), and an oven with one numbered dial. Design students need to demonstrate a facility, some creativity, beyond following predetermined steps.

I urge students to aspire to pastry chef status as graphic designers. They should select choice ingredients, carefully consider the utensils they employ and eschew default choices. This isn't to run down cake mix product, which I often enjoy. It's a satisfactory and convenient option when you want a treat. With a little embellishment, it can be especially tasty.

So can design. While I encourage students to move beyond convenience, I also caution against elaboration for its own sake (that someone might enjoy garlic ice cream doesn't make it a must). However, there are circumstances when it's important to start from scratch or to devise a new delicacy. And students should graciously accept that some people are unable to distinguish between $10-per-slice Black Forest cake and RingDings®. Just as long as they, the students, sense the difference.

I conclude my rant by pointing out that the best baked cake or brownie, ultimately, in nutritional terms, isn't good for you. Whether tiramisu or Twinkie®, you're trading in empty calories and sugar rushes. In the strictest sense, these concoctions aren't even food. You can go without sweets and be physically healthy-probably healthier for cutting them out completely. However, such comestibles are prevalent and highly desirable.

We know that nutritional value isn't the sole, or even primary, criterion for what people ingest (just as we know many graphic designers don't enter the field due to their admiration for the nutritional facts label). Cake plays an aesthetic, sensuous and symbolic role: as culture food. It's feeding our feelings. This is also the case for graphic design.

My proclamation of design=dessert isn't that much of an incitement to students. They're largely deferential to authority and express the same mixed range of attentiveness they will for any random topic. Certainly, my delivery is as questionable as my premise. I regularly receive as many vacant stares as gently nodding heads.

I'd be surprised-and delighted-if a student actively contested my framing. Resistance or refutation would demonstrate that someone had given some thought about what design's role is. Right now, students-as do most practitioners-work from semi-comprehended received wisdom of doing and being “good.”

A restated and more nuanced definition of “good” should be on design's menu. Being a product of culture is worthy… just not how graphic design has striven to present itself. It labels itself as nourishment, essential, serious. That may be the objective good for life, but the subjective makes life worth living. (And not all delights lack substance. There are some pretty austere treats out there: Swiss International Style=Nilla® Wafers?)

What's wrong with purveying pleasure? It only goes off the rails when you get the 24K gold-flaked cakes. Dessert and design are good for you-emotionally. Purvey that idea and more people may save room for both.