Noah’s Archive: Why Designers Can Think

Filed Under: Inspiration , career , Article , Voice

While preparing a presentation on angst in graphic design, I discovered that I didn’t have to look any further than Voice for material. The complaints are various and standard. The clients you have, the clients you don’t have, the annoying failure of the world at large (including your own mother), to understand what it is you do. Last summer I spent two weeks at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, an idyllic blend of nature and architecture in Maine where 80 people were blowing glass, throwing pots, weaving baskets, folding paper into pop-up books, hammering metal into jewelry and turning wood into furniture or sculpture. In age they ranged from 18 to 93. In experience they ranged from beginner to professional, although the professionals tended to enroll in workshops in which they had no previous experience and therefore were themselves beginners. If there ever was an angst-free environment, this was it. At Haystack, as in Willie Nelson’s Luckenback, Texas, “ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain.”

Euphoria, like angst, can be traced to multiple causes. Chief among them at Haystack was the fact that everyone there was doing exactly what he or she wanted to do. And what they wanted to do was to make things. I wonder how much of the dissatisfaction with professional design life is rooted in the disparity between what attracted you to the practice of design and what you now spend most of your days doing.

Over years of working with them, I have found designers as a group—and graphic designers in particular—to be uncommonly intelligent, curious and well informed. Saying that sounds patronizing, with its arrogant implication that I am smart enough to assess the smartness of anyone else. But I did once mention it to my late friend Saul Bass, who responded suspiciously, “Are you trying to blow sunshine up my ass?”

I was not. I was grappling with what to me was a mystery: the seeming incongruity between the intellectual prowess of designers and the educational requirements of the trade they followed. Unlike, say, doctors, lawyers and teachers, designers did not have to go to college. Many did go; and almost all had some formal training. But art and design schools did not, for the most part, appear dedicated to fostering the life of the mind.

I was not alone in my skepticism. In a 1989 article called “Why Designers Can’t Think,” Michael Beirut wrote, “Almost all design schools today, stress form over content, looks over brains, and seeing over thinking...”

I agreed with Michael about the schools. But instead of holding them responsible for “why designers can’t think,” I had been struck by how brilliantly designers did think. Could the explanation lie in the design process itself, in the proclivities and gifts that lead people to become, or want to become, designers in the first place?

What do designers need to know anyway? In the digital world, changes come too fast for that question to be answered specifically. We may get further by asking instead: What do designers feel an irresistible urge to do?

Men and women, boys and girls, gravitate to design for any number of reasons; but common to all of them is the itch to make something—a picture, an artifact, a plan. That itch is satisfied by drawing, carving, shaping, molding—somehow using the hand to realize a concept in the mind.

If designers are more cerebral than expected, it may be because designing is more cerebral than expected. In an age when digital no longer refers to fingers, the work of the designer is no longer hands-on. That regrettable circumstance becomes truly deplorable with the realization that hands-on is never all that far from heads-on.

In saying that designers did not have to go to college, I was expressing a timely but narrow view of college. Times have changed and so have institutions of learning. Curricula at many design schools have become broader and more rigorous, while many liberal arts colleges have been, as the saying goes, dumbed down. “It’s possible,” Beirut complained, “to study graphic design for four years without any meaningful exposure to the fine arts, world literature, science, history, politics, or any of the other disciplines that unite us in a common culture.” That is true. But the same meaningful exposure can now be avoided at colleges and universities across the country. If design students could once graduate without encountering either William or Henry James, so can today’s liberal arts students.

When I was talking recently with Milton Glaser about his drawings, he remarked, “Drawing is not about representation but about thinking. Trying to understand what you’re looking at ... The brain sends a signal to the hand and the hand sends one back and there is an endless conversation between them.”

The industrial designer Bruce Burdick said something similar in describing the notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci as “a private conversation between him and his hands.” In his book The Hand, neurologist Frank Wilson argues that the qualities needed for thinking are inseparable from the qualities needed for seeing, showing and making. If so, the relationship between hand and mind could illuminate both what makes designers so smart and what makes designers so anxious.

That may clear up the mystery, but it does not make my heart soar. As a member of the species described as “all thumbs,” I know that if hand equals mind, it had better not be my hand or my mind.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.