THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN AS A LIGHTNING FIELD
by Hermann Sturm (translated by Meike Asbach)
Why is it that we create things rather than nothing at all? Why is it that designers design and on what basis?
Design is an art which makes itself useful.
It is in order to meet this requirement of utility that designers practise their art. This essay shall concern itself precisely with these fundamental principles of design.
The initial process of giving shape to something is an essential part of design processes as a whole. This encompasses the constraints of the defining purpose in the widest sense.
Design can be thought of as a form of rhetoric of artefacts. For this reason alone it seems legitimate to talk of design in metaphorical terms.I am not referring to speaking objects. I am referring to the way in which design is revealed as a kind of language, a metaphorical language, consisting of images and fragmented texts.
To look for the fundamental principles of design whilst presupposing a swampy lack of foundation would be an unaccomplishable feat.( c.f. the opening statement by Wolfgang Jonas). Yet, as we all know, swamps can be drained. The following is an attempt at this, with the help of a few pillars.
1. Education: a swamp conducive to proliferation
I am here using the word education in its ancient vagueness. It describes a repertoire of different 'stocks' of knowledge, which are in themselves well structured, but as a whole do not share a common goal, and can therefore flotate here and there, break the banks of their constraints, even form islands, without having an exact topography as their foundation The wealth of education consists in the manyfold inter-connectability of its constituent elements, be they heterogenous or homogenous. The first image is to stand for this.
1st Image: a marbled page.
The marbled page in Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy (1713-1768) is introduced by the author as follows:
"Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read, or by the knowledge of the great saint Paraleipomenon I tell you before-hand, you had better thrown away the book at once; for without much reading, by which your reverence knows, I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motly emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one." ( Laurence Sterne: The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Edited by : M.and J. New, University Press of Florida, 1978, Vol. I, Chap. XXXVI, S. 268)
If we take the marbled page as a metaphor for one dimension of education, it initially points to the subject of nature in its manyfold shapes. On the other hand, the page in the book is a symbol for actual marble , and beyond that symbolic of the work as a whole- " a colourful symbol"- an artificial product, artificial marble. It is a product of high artificiality. It is precisely for this reason that the pillar, the incrustation, both in their skillfully produced materiality, were more valuable and therefore more expensive than real marble. It was not unusual for artificial marble to bear within it hidden patterns or even pictures invisible at first sight.
The reader's task is to track down the paths and figures in the text, to fill gaps (paralipomena) through the power of imagination and the power of association. Two seemingly antiquated terms describe this state of affairs, but we only need to transfer the form and the content of the following text taken from Jean Paul's School of Aesthetics into contemporary language.
(no official English version available)
"A hierarchy of poetic forces
Power of imagination
Power of imagination is the prose of the power of association or 'fantasy'. It is nothing but a fortified, pale memory, which animals also experience, because they too have dreams and fears. Its images are only flittering depictions of the real world; fever, weak nerves, certain beverages can thicken and substantiate these images to such an extent, that they move from the inner into the outer world and there solidify into bodies.
power of association or 'fantasy'
Yet fantasy, that is imagination unrestricted by reality, or the power of association, is of an order more sublime, it is the universal soul of the soul, and the elementary spirit of all other faculties; that is why a great fantastical imagination can be expressed and traced with regard to specific faculties, such as wit or acumen, but none of these faculties on their own can be reduced to fantasy. If wit is the playful anagram of nature, then fantasy is hieroglyphical alphabet of nature, by which it is pronounced in a small number of images/ characters. Fantasy turns all parts into a whole, as opposed to the other faculties and experiences which merely rip a few pages out of the book of nature, and it turns fragments into worlds, it gives completeness even to the infinite universe; that is why poetic optimism comes into the domain of fantasy, like the beauty of the creatures which inhabit this domain, and the freedom with which they move in its ether like the sun.
Fantasy helps to make the notions of the absolute and the infinite more accessible and concrete in the eyes of mortals. Hence its need for so much future and so much past, its two eternal creations, because no other time is infinite or able to form a whole; it is not out of a room filled with air, but only from the full height of the pillar of air that the ethereal blue of a sky can be created."
2nd Image: the black surface
Erudition on the basis of wide reading is a requirement which the reader has to meet in order to use the text, Sterne argues in Tristram Shandy (ibid). " For without wide reading" which may be taken to stand for " great erudition", essentials would remain hidden "beneath the dark veil of the black page." Yet it is the opacity of the black surface, analogous to a dark mirror, which also covers up the swamp which owes its existence to the lack of foundations. With his Black square on white surface Kasimir Malewitsch even aspired to a Victory over the sun.
2. Lightning Field: a place conducive to being struck by lightning
3rd Image: Lightning Field
Walter de Maria has installed a Lightning Field on a plateau in the grassy plain180 miles south west of Albuquerque in New Mexico. It consists of 400 pointed, highly polished steel rods, all 5cm in diameter. With a distance of 67 meters between each rod, they have been erected in the shape of a rectangle with an area of one mile by one kilometer, embedded in the ground from east to west. During thundery seasons, it turns into a lightning field when the steel points " catch and conduct the lightning like St Elmo's Fire." (Günter Metken)
In the domain of associative writing, Gertrude Stein refers to these moments of insight as flashes of consciousness. Lightning and moment, flash and aesthetic moment, where is the connection, what is it that illuminates the metaphor of lightning? Although the duration of the appearance of a flash of lightning in the sky can be measured, can be established as a precise time span, for our perception it is on the other hand an experience of timeless suddenness, a moment before which and during which we not seldomly even close our eyes. Now it is precisely this metaphor which appears in those texts that try to reconstruct creative wealth. The reading of such texts leads to the hypothesis that the notion of the moment is expressed in decisive places through abductive reasoning, through the process of abduction as developed and demonstrated by Charles Sanders Peirce.
For the time being, let us take an intuitive moment as characteristic of the process of abduction. This means, that the chain of feeling, perceiving, thinking, acting can be summed up in the term intuition. Peirce has pointed out this proximity to abduction, for: " the abductive assumption ( suggestion) comes to us like a flash of lightning. It is an act of insight, albeit an extremely fallible form of insight. Although the different elements of the hypothesis existed in our mind beforehand, it is not until the idea comes, bringing together that which previously we thought was impossible to bring together, that the new assumption flashes before our reflection.
The verdict of our perception is the result of a process, of which we are not sufficiently conscious to have any control over , or more precisely, a process which is in fact not controlable and therefore not fully conscious. If we were to subject this unconscious process to a logical analysis, we would find that it ends in that which this analysis would represent as the abductive conclusion, which builds on the result of a similar process, which in turn a logical analysis would represent as completed through a similar abductive conclusion and so forth ad infinitum." ( translated from: Peirce, Charles Sanders, 1970. Schriften II, Vom Pragmatismus zum Pragmatizismus, edited by K.O. Apel, Frankfurt/Main, pp. 366)
That which hits us like a flash of lightning during the act of insight, that abductive conclusion, which I would call the aesthetic moment, differs from the verdict of perception in that it does not allow of logical criticism. ( Thomas, Seboek and Uniker-Seboek, 1982. 'Du kennst meine Methode', Charles Sanders Peirce and Sherlock Holmes, Frankfurt/Main, pp.37)
Abductive reasoning seems to be important even from the point of view of military strategy. Thus it is that Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz notes in his work On War (1832-34): " So this is where the activity of the mind leaves the domain of the strict sciences, of logic and mathematics, and where it instead turns into art, in the widest understanding of the word: the ability to identify and single out the most important and decisive objects and relationships from a vast array merely through the tactfulness of judgement.What is here expected from our higher faculties are unity and judgement, heightened into a wonderful flash of consciousness, which in its flight touches and destroys a thousand half-lit thoughts, which a normal mind would first of all have to drag into the light and which would exhaust it."
Thus are described essential aspects of that which also characterises the notion of the aesthetic moment. However, this process is not reversible: we cannot derive from it instructions for action on how to make way for aesthetic moments. Its apparition (Adorno) remains a mystery.
The image of the lighntning field as a field for striking represents the idea that the creative act , that design needs a prepared ground, one which is more structured than the notion of the groundless swamp would suggest, in order to provoke strikes of lightning as flashes of consciousness.
"Chance favours only the prepared mind." (Louis Pasteur). Whether lightning will strike and which rods will be hit is uncertain. What is certain, however, is that lightning is more likely to strike and hit, if these rods exist.
In a lecture on the relationship between chance and creativity, Niklas Luhmann puts it the following way: "In many ways, the effects of creativity are products of chance." "In the terminology of theoretical systems, such facts are described as 'morphogenesis', 'order from noise' or 'dissipative structures' One does not have to assume or demand unity , one has to take an interest in differences. Creativity is the effect of boundaries or discontinuities. It depends on the difference between chance and structure."( in:Franfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 10th 1987)
3. Design methods as lightning conductors
4th Image: Lightning Conductors
" People are struck by lightning and their houses catch fire, because they did not want it any other way. And that is why: stinginess, carelessness, ignorance or whatever else, but we are not to concern us with the causes here." This is how worked up Georg Christoph Lichtenberg got in 1795, recommending the introduction of lightning conductors , in order to take remedial action and to ensure safety.
One aim of design processes is to minimise risk, to increase safety using technology and design. The more rigid the developed strategies, that is to say the more unwanted deviations and moments of risk are cut out, in accordance with the strategic avoidance of error, the smaller the creative leeway and provocative challenges.
5th Image: Hybrid creations
Strategies for the optimisation of a thought-out and desired multi-functionality leads to the creation of hypertrophic and hybrid bastards. ( A product has appeared on the market which combines fax, telephone, answer machine, computer with internet access and printer in one appliance. A fault in one part would mean failure of the whole system; the quality of one part is sacrificed for that of another.) Such bastards increase the susceptibility to faults and thus become mere gadgets.
6th Image: Science Machine
On Gullivers third journey, which brings him to the island of Laputa, Jonathan Swift gives us an account of the projects conducted by various professors at the local academy. Full of pride and hope for the improvement of the "speculative sciences" through " practical and mechanical operations", one of the professors demonstrates the workings of a machine. It consists of a frame, into which are set wires bearing revolving dice, glued onto which are single words in all the different modi, conjugations and declinations, yet arranged without any order. A turn on the crank by one of the technical assistants changes the arrangement. If words are found to form a sentence, they are noted down and collected in great tomes, in the hope of giving "the world a complete system of all sciences and arts" therewith.
The machine works according to a system which is based on the alaetoric generation of information. In the stochastic, mechanical procedure, chance becomes the plan of creation. The machine's program leads to any number of permutations, i.e. possible solutions, the usefulness of which as a solution can however only be judged upon by a peripheral intelligence.
7th Image: strategies for solutions
In order to find a solution to a problem of form, an exploitable repertoire is needed, as well as decision-making which reduces the complexity of the problem in hand. This decision-making can be represented as a jump, for it is not a process which can be brought about following a linear course of solely deductive reasoning. This can be represented in an image of design models as strategies for solutions.
Let there be a ditch, gap or similar. On one side (A) stands the designer (D) with the problem for which he has to find a solution; on the opposite side (B) stand the addressees ( clients, producers, end-users). The problem facing the designer is to jump the gap, to make sure that he gets from (A) to (B).
1. The conventional solution
( D) attempts to narrow the gap by extending his diving board. He collects all available data which he sees as relevant for the decision-making. The more parameters he collates, the smaller he sees the risk of making the wrong decision, of falling, of creating a flop.
2. The artistic solution
(D) knows that he has to jump, but looks for an elegant solution. Like a tightrope walker he carries his plan across the gap. The procedure is risky. He is not safe from falling. The succes of his venture, that is not only to reach (B) but to do so in as impressive a manner as possible, depends on his skill and him choosing the right balancing pole.
3. The hedonistic solution
(D) tends towards the artistic solution. He thinks of the swings of a pendulum as a model of transport in order to get from (A) to (B), then takes a liking to the act of swinging itself and in this performance finds his own, self-centred, self-satisfying solution, like a bungee jumper. The addressees on the other side are either angry or fascinated. There is either no solution in sight, or the fascination with the performance
suppresses the problem.
4. The virtual solution
(D) has used Swift's machine to generate a series of alternative solutions. So that he actually does not have to jump, he projects his offers from (A) to (B) and thereby makes use of technology, which involves the addressees to such an extent, that they take their perceptions for real and come to feel at ease with the vast array of images on offer, in cyberspace.
4. Design means navigating and is an arbitrary procedure
We are like the surfer on the waves. He does not control them, but he knows them.
8th Image: non-linear approaches
For Laurence Sterne, straight lines, bends, loops, meanders and peaks constitute graphic models for the way he proceeds in his work. At this place we herewith return to the marbled page discussed as our first image. The considerations of Brian Massumi (Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible, in: Architectural Design, PROFILE, no. 133, 1998, pp. 16-24) shall serve as my 'surfboard'.
The notion of the virtual seems to have become inevitable even in the planning stages of design; this always includes the virtual reality created on the screen. According to Massumi, the reality of the virtual is the reality of change: the event. This means that the decision to use specific forms for specific uses (design) becomes problematic. If virtuality is change, it can only figure in an abstract form, for that which has stayed concrete, is what it is, and it is not what it would be if it changed. The potential of a situation exceeds the condition of its current specific state of being. Virtuality is not immediately contained within any current form of things or their states of being. Virtuality moves transitorily from one form to another. According to Massumi, topology would then be an answer to the problems thus created for design. Summarised, his position is the following: Topology plays a part in the continuity of the transformation. It absorbs forms in its very own variation. This variation is limited by static forms, which stand at its beginning and end, it can be interrupted at any given point and thereby, in turn, achieve new static forms. But what happens inbetween pertains to the special domain of topology. The variation of seamlessly connected forms takes precedence over their separation. A still-standing form is a sign of the transitory, the undergoing of a process. The sign remains part of a relationship.
9th Image: stroke of genius
Nowadays, the designer or architect is no longer the creative agent who obtains his forms out of an existing , abstract, platonic space, to which only he has inspired access, and then elaborately transfers them into the banale concreteness of mundanity, thereby enobling them. Instead, he follows tracks in a complex field, out of the virtuality of which he flushes new forms. " New form is not conceived. It is coaxed out, flushed from its virtuality."
10th Image: Creative navigation
The computer is not needed to reproduce prefigured forms. The central force of the topological 'turn' consists in it being a catalyst for the new.
The computer becomes an instrument of uncertainty in the design process, which thereby gains a certain autonomy and develops obstinancy in the interplay of certain functional constraints. How the constraints are used to interact with one another depends on an arbitrary decision of the designer, based on a more or less explicitly developed aesthetic orientation, into which he incorporates the functional parameters of the desired end-product. This results in a permanent process, which may be interrupted any number of times and the components of which may be rearranged time and again. But in order to get to the product stage, a decision has to be made. In accordance with my analogy of jumping the gap, what the designer has to master is the art of the leap from (A) to (B). For this, Massumi considers the old and misused notion of intuition more suitable than notions such as arbitrariness, freedom, inspiration or genius. Intuition is a true interplay of activities. " It is neither a touchy-feely dreamlike state nor an imposition from on high of form on matter, order on disorder. It is a pragmatic interplay of activities on a level." In other words, intuition, which renders abduction possible, the art of he leap, turns out to be the ability "to extract a difference from a variation ( a standing difference from a running variation.)"
The notion of experience is also brought into the debate by Massumi. For experience, in Massumi's eyes, is our virtual reality. " It is not something we have. It is a transformability that has us, and keeps on running with us no matter how hard we try to stand still and no matter how concretely we build. It is our continual variation. Our becoming. Our event: the lightning whose thunder we are." ( my italics).
For our experience, and in particular for our aesthetic experience, the force of the moment and its fragility in the face of our perception of sudden appearances have a special meaning. If I understand giving shape to something as navigation ( cf. the first image as an example for this) and as an arbitrary procedure, the search for the quality of the new remains the aim of all efforts.
In the lecture on creativity cited above, Niklas Luhmann characterises the notion of genius, how it was determined by content from the 17th to 19th century, in three dimensions: " In the dimension of time, genius is associated with new thoughts or works. In the dimension of objects it is associated with the significant. In the social dimension it comes as a surprise." Today however, says Luhmann, a completely different understanding is needed, " which sets itself apart from the traditional characteristics of new/significant/surprising. For these characteristics point to late recognition, once they have become part of the established, they show recorded creativity." From the point of view of system theory, Massumi sees this as a " situation which can be demystified, in portraying it as the ability to seize opportunities; or put differently: it is about using chance occurences to build structures. The ability to do so is becoming more and more important in highly complex ('heterarchichal)systems such as the brain or societies with increasing complexity, which can no longer be centrally coordinated."
If we are to seek the foundations of the preliminaries of design processes my answer would then be the following: It is about developing a repertoire as a strucure of simultaneity, which encompasses stochastic aspects and incites us to look for traces, which also means that we need to explore the materials of the old, of the apparently familiar, in a different light.
About the author:
Hermann Sturm, born February 26th 1936, was given emeritus status in March 2001.