Acknowledging the roots in art: Part III

Design thinking has borrowed a lot from thinking and methods used in desperately different disciplines, that includes sciences, engineering, humanities and social sciences, human factors, business thinking and even operation research and so on. No doubt, it has made design approach richer. In our eagerness to admit ideas, concepts and practices from these areas, are we forgetting the tenets on which the profession was built? Central theme of this post is,

Have we forgotten the roots of design profession in visual art? In fact, the new view that is gaining currency that the influences from art have limited applications in the new age design.

In the first post in this series, we saw how ICSID’s historically changing definitions of design reflected this view. (Shaping of Design Thinking. Nov 17,2016) In the current definition, references to formal issues and aesthetic judgment are totally absent. The fact that this view is steadily gaining ground is reflected in bold statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” by respected design legend Milton Glaser.1 With design thinking catching up as an approach to problem solving in areas other than what is addressed by design professionals, the view that art has only limited influences on design and design thinking is gaining currency in non-traditional application.

Design approach, with part of its focus on form and aesthetics, proposed in the early definitions of design is increasingly treated as ‘traditional’ in the new age design. I attribute it to our misplaced understanding that the influences of art and thinking in art were restricted to form and aesthetics issues. I hope to dispel some of these misconceptions.

Umbilical cord with art

In the later half of nineteenth century Europe, and particularly Britain, the implications of mechanization was a major topic of debates. There were two diverse reactions. First group opposed the mechanization and the industrial products advocated returning to the old art and craft practices. Their efforts to improve the quality and design of products was strongly linked with arts and crafts. Terms like applied arts, industrial arts were common in use in this group. Second group approach accepted machines and explored their potentials to offer new machine aesthetics, eventually leading to modern design approach. The Werkbund movement in the early twentieth century in Germany was in this category. It pleaded to improve production by machines through collaboration of art, industry and the craft.

Pioneering design school Bauhaus in Germany was the most striking example of the later type. The school pioneered a radically different approach. It sought to create a new profession to serve a new kind of society. It maintained strong links with art by inviting artists and craftsmen on the faculty to help improve the standards of products in the industries. There were Avant Garde artists like Kandinsky, Feininger, Klee, Itten and Moholy Nagy, who continued to dominate the approach. Though it was not located in art schools, the link with the art remained strong in Bauhaus. It invited craftsmen along with famous artists to work in a guild kind of environment. It was an independent institution and the artists were the mainstay of their education and remained in dominant position in the Bauhaus philosophy and contributions. 2,3

These debates underscored the need to forge a strong link with art, art schools and artists.

What was undisputable was the need for links with art institutions, either by locating education programmes in visual art institutions, or by inviting artists to participate.

Fascinating account of developments during this period is documented in Vyas’s ‘Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel’.4 However, the discussion on this topic is avoided here, as it would be distracting us from the main argument.

It is difficult to imagine education of design without its close links to the visual arts. Thinking in visual arts has not only influenced out ideas of aesthetics, but also impacted design thinking, actions, practices and behavioral traits. By neglecting the umbilical cord with the ‘visual arts’, we would be rejecting years of accumulated design experience, associated knowledge and treat past success stories as irrelevant. In analyzing these influences, it is critical to go beyond decisions dealing with aesthetic issues, to include impact on how designers think, react, act and solve problems.

It would be only fair to explore how visual arts thinking explains the past design practices and then pass judgment on the validity of the traditional ‘visual art influenced’ design approach. The design methods movement and even later writings on design thinking, would have been far richer if they had not neglected all that design learnt from visual arts.

Let us start this post with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving”. We will follow an incremental approach. We will start with casual evidence of these roots and get it out of the way before we dive deeper into the nature of these influences.

Studio as a workplace

Influences of traditions from art seem to be more pervasive than what we accept. Look at the way designer’s categorize and label their workplaces. The term ‘studio’ has always been associated with the workplaces of artists, painters and sculptors. Studio is a place connected to creative art/s, where something is experimented with; materials are manipulated and explored, to construct something new. Studios always valued skills and craftsmanship. Designer’s professional authority has roots partly in the skilled control over the tools, whether it is a sketch pen, a mouse or others. Designers not only borrowed the idea of studio from artists, but also inherited the culture of free creative explorations that goes together. That’s why designers prefer to call their workplaces and even classrooms as ‘studios’. 5,6

Even the physical appearances of the workplaces that designers dream are somewhat like artist’s studio. Bit messy in looks, they are full of creative displays and ‘constructive’ activities that are immediately put on the wall. Studios are more hands-on than populated with large machines.

There was one major departure from the idea of studios. Pioneering a new approach, Bauhaus school did create an exception. They had workshops where apprentices (also called journeymen) worked under masters. Artists, craftsmen and student apprentices worked together to search for the new aesthetics of the industrial age.3 In a way, their workshops actually functioned like creative studios.

All this is changed rapidly in the later half of 20th century. Design was also getting more technology intensive. Design schools were becoming part of technology universities.

Studios vs lab culture of the universities

In the later half of twentieth century, design became one of the departments amongst many disciplines of the universities. Consistent with this new linkage, movement towards design sciences started taking roots. They were no more ‘schools’ of design. (Schools often represented a thought process and not a discipline.).

New culture included pursuit of knowledge and more recently, working in the laboratories, where experiments are conducted under controlled conditions and variables are managed to study their effects. No doubt, this has its merits. The benefits of labs in specific areas in design profession must be acknowledged.7 It also created the potential of making design a knowledge driven profession. However, it cannot substitute the spirit of working in the studios and exploring new boundaries. Studios primarily generated creative work.

The idea of experiments has different connotations in design. To the artists experimenting with his work is exploring new ideas. The societies and communities were their laboratories. They exhibited their work in galleries and got live audience responses. Architects and planners work directly with communities and exhibited their master plans, building ideas and got reactions of citizens directly. This is conceptually different from the lab culture of universities, where problems were tamed and studied under controlled conditions, eliminating the bias of the creators of the experiments. Balancing the rational approach of the universities and pursuit of new knowledge with the creative practices in design is a major challenge that design schools/departments struggle with now.

Makers sensory experiences

Artists as well as designers share many things by way of approaches, actions, activities and tasks. Both intentionally and consciously create sensory experiences. It is no wonder that most discussions on art influences are restricted to aesthetic judgment. These influences are direct and visible.

Painters, sculptors and designers deal with similar visual elements. In their long educational experiences they learn to manipulate and control sensory elements like shape, colour, texture and sound and their relationships with each other. In doing that, they use and internalize the principles underlying the aesthetic judgments. They are involved in critical judgment of beauty in their work, though designers are unwilling to acknowledge it directly. So, it is not surprising that artists and designers share the same concepts and terms.8 Most introductory books on design deal with such classical issues as well as aesthetic judgments and often acknowledge the influences of art. At best, the discussions are extended to include meaning, expressions and their ability to evoke emotional reactions. In spite of statements like “Design has nothing to do with art” most designers do acknowledge the role that art played in the way they deal with aesthetic issues.

Haven’t designers learnt more from art other than dealing with aesthetic issues? The influences go far deeper and include the way designers think, approach and solve problems.

Why do designers doodle?

In art as well as in design, apparently aimless doodling is a legitimate way of starting your work. Doodling and back-of-the-envelope sketching is common in design. On the face of it, these actions may look inconsequential, but are actually serious and legitimate. Do artists and designers have ideas in their mind when they doodle?

Designers doodle, sketch and even gesture, to keep the spatio-motor activity running. The hand must remain in motion for spatial ideas to develop. Interestingly, many times designers doodle and sketch without a clear idea of what they are looking for. Doodling and sketching, often treated as making marks on the paper, however aimless it may look, is a critical action. Eventually it turns into meaningful shapes on paper.

Like artist who steps back and looks at his work with a tilted head, designers too naturally do this. This artist-like trait is not a coincidence. Both are in deep, often sub-vocal conversations with their creations. I hope to discuss what we do with sketching act in a separate post later.

Current design thinking is struggling to remain faithful to its roots in art as well as technology, both advocate opposite approaches to problem solving. It is like a pendulum that oscillates between the rational and systematic on one side, and somewhat irrational and creative on the other. Most designers effortlessly shift between creative unstructured explorations and rational thinking. It involves switching between right and the left-brain.

The influences of art on design thinking we discussed so far are just a tip of the iceberg. The similarities don’t end here. In fact they start here. There are deeper issues that I hope to touch now as well as the subsequent posts.

Design minus art?

Artists want people to adopt to a new way of seeing the world, often the world that the artists has seen, reacted to and perceived freshly, from their points of views. They develop a unique way of looking at the world around and want to persuade viewers/readers to see through that. Is not this what poets and authors do? And painters and sculptors do? Art has always encouraged the artists to project his ways of seeing on the viewer/reader.

Design inherited this from art. Designers, particularly masters, precisely do that. There work reflects their unique views. Frank Lloyd Write, Le Corbusier, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry in architecture, Santiago Calatrava in structures, Charles Eames in furniture, Massimo Vignelli in typography, persuaded people to see their view of how the world should be through their work.


Clockwise: Works of Frank Lloyed Write; Le Corbusier; Zaha Hadid; Frank Gehry; Charles Eames. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

It is fashionable to classify this as ‘iconic’ design and suggest that the new business model oriented world of design, technology and teamwork can do without it. The chances are that such a world will again create quality of products that may prompt another arts and craft movement and birth of a new Bauhaus.

What will happen if we create objects without the vision of the world that artists and designers want us to see? Imagine design devoid of passion to change the world.

Cart before the horse?

Most designers work with a conviction that the world is looking forward to them and the community of designers for breakthrough solutions. To offer a solution that is different and unusual is natural in design and it obviously comes from its roots in art. They believe the breakthrough difference will come if I not only complete the brief, but also exceed it. There is this internal motivation to be different. There are innumerable examples that suggest this, but the most illustrative instance is of initial discussion on design of Falling Water by Frank Lloyd Write (FLW).

When Edgar Kaufmann wanted to build weekend home in beer run in rural southwestern Pennsylvania, he invited FLW to show the site where he wanted the house to be built. Taking the stroll around the site, when they were just opposite the waterfall, Kaufmann seems to have suggested to FLW to build the house so that he can see the waterfall all the time. Within seconds FLW replied, I want you to be part of the waterfall. Wasn’t FLW exceeding the brief and extending the boundaries that his client had initially implied? We will return to this example in subsequent posts as it contains many facets of design thinking.

In fact, designers normally tend to probe the outer limits of the boundaries in the clients mind, probe the degree of freedom available and explore potential directions where freedom is possible. To the outsider committed to rational linear process, such flights of imaginations, just when the project brief is being given, may sound strange. Is designer not jumping the guns?

In reality such incidences are not unusual. How do designers handle this? In initial meetings, occasionally even in the first meeting, designers tend to ask questions that may appear unrelated. They make strange observations and think of impromptu solution directions, even before the problem is completely described. At the back of their minds, the contours of speculative concepts start appearing. They play a significant role in the questions asked. Eventually, it contributes to the change the boundaries implied initially, and alter the directions that design ideas take.

Sum up

We started with a hypothesis that “The thinking in art has influenced design problem solving.” To what extend is the statement incorrect?

The current practices and designerly traits seem to suggest that design indeed has borrowed some of the concepts, actions and practices from art. There are overarching similarities which cannot be explained by chance occurrence. We should quickly sum up some of the issues that we identified. We can traces of roots in art to justify our practices like calling our workspaces as studios, assistants as apprentices and educational institutions as schools. Like artists, we are involved in aesthetic judgments, often visual, and seem to judge our creations using the same concepts and terms that the artists use. We doodle, sketch and then view them from a distance to contemplate, hoping that new ideas will appear in the process. They start speculative explorations of ideas even when the project brief is being narrated and is not fully communicated. Like artists, through their work designers persuade people to see the world from their point of view and through their vision.

We are treating design thinking as if it is an iceberg. Have we then explored the depth of the iceberg? Not really. We still need to dive deeper to acknowledge the influences of art on design thinking. Much of the iceberg remains to be explored and described. That is the task for the future posts.

In the next post we will discuss the role of sketching in design thinking. Traditionally, we have treated sketching as integral part of design thinking. We will address this question next.

If we find answer as yes, it is logical to restricted design thinking to design community. But then it contradicts with the idea of design thinking as it is defined today!


Notes and References

1 Quito, Anne. (2016) “Design has nothing to do with art”: Design legend Milton Glaser. See Glaser goes on to explain his views on the difference between design and art.

2 Gillian, N., (1972) The Bauhaus, Studio Vista, London

3 Bayer H., Gropius W., Gropius I., (1979) Bauhaus 1919-1928, The Musium of Modern art, New York

4 Vyas K., (2009) Design the International Movement, with Indian Parallel. SID research cell. CEPT University, Ahmedabad, India

5 Design students value apprenticeship in studios and learn through the project based dialogues with the masters (gurus). The student understand how to think, by watching and even copying the guru. This is not uncommon in visual arts and music, which has always valued guru-shishya parampara. Practice oriented professions like medicine and law too have been focusing on apprenticeship.

6 Even the professional scenario is going through the changes reflecting he changes in the business environments. Designers seem have ‘offices’ and not studios or firms anymore! The term office evokes different kind of connotations and imagery

7 Artists too use their studios for experiments, but they are of a different kind. They tend to be more exploratory and the incident knowledge that they generated is from reflections.

8 Composition, proportions, balance, colour interaction, harmony, contrast, rhythm, figure and ground, and so on.