Design: The Invention of Desire

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Design: The Invention of Desire. By Jessica Helfand. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. 228 pp.).

Design matters. It does not require an expensive art education to realize its value. However, the reason why design matters, as Jessica Helfand argues in her book Design: The Invention of Desire, is not because it utilizes compositional principles that are visually pleasing or because it creates the qualities of character that consumers believe a product can provide. Design matters because people matter. Helfand asserts that design “is an intrinsically humanist discipline” (p. 24), one that shapes people’s beliefs, perceptions, curiosities and desires. She contends that design is not about what is created, but rather why it is created, and, in an industry defined by aesthetic concerns and production values, a shift in focus from the outer to the inner may be difficult to reconcile.

While Helfand’s book may be a philosophical splash of water in the face of the seasoned designer, it is ultimately a sincere reminder of what it means to be human, a call to arms to regain sight of the delicate inter-workings that unite each and every person. Helfand analyzes the “conscience-driven rules of human engagement within which design must operate” (p. 24), dissecting her writing into twelve concise chapters: authority, fantasy, identity, consequence, compassion, patience, solitude, melancholy, humility, memory, desire, and change. In a parallel exploration, each of these chapters is accompanied by a histological painting, a rendering of a microscopic biological structure that composes the human body. Images of components like the pituitary gland, bone marrow, heart ventricle, and mitochondria serve as visual metaphors to the level of introspective examination of which, Helfand argues, the field of design—and modern humanity for that matter—is in such a dire need.

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The ability and willingness to look inward is a steady theme throughout Helfand’s book. In chapter one, “Authority,” she proposes a sad, modern twist on Descartes’s proclamation of selfhood, writing, “We post, therefore we are” (p. 38). She questions modern humanity’s heightened tendency to look outward, through social media for example, for validation of personal merit and value, a practice that reveals a diminished trust in the internal as a source of self-affirmation. While her questions are critical in their nature, they are not accusatory in tone. Helfand never isolates the reader by divorcing herself from the issue at hand, but rather offers personal anecdotes that acknowledge her own shortcomings, a tactic that unites her with the reader and provides a glimmer of hope that recognition is the first step towards a shift in thought (perhaps even practice). Furthermore, Helfand’s philosophical ponderings rarely end in ex cathedra-like answers. Instead, her approach is more akin to a guide through introspective thought, which, while at times can be unsatisfying in its lack of definitive conclusion, ultimately reinforces her call for a more internal and less external mode of thinking.

Taking a more design-centered look at the importance of self-reflection, in chapter seven, “Solitude,” Helfand tackles the messy realm of co-creation, that is to say producing things in teams and even creative crowdsourcing (all of which she clearly separates from collaboration). She disputes the impulsive adoption of group work that has taken the design field by storm. While recognizing that at its core design is a social discipline, Helfand argues that “to a considerable degree, [design] benefit[s] from the ruthless objectivity that comes from imagining alone” (p. 130). She points to countless quotes from literary and artistic luminaries like Franz Kafka, William Wordsworth, and Ingmar Bergman that attest to the necessary practice (albeit a difficult one at times) of solitude, serving “as a catalyst to original thinking” (p. 124). For Helfand, solitude facilitates a pure and honest search for truth that can ultimately lead to the discovery and creation of something new. While she clearly asserts that individual creation trumps that of the group, Helfand does not end the discussion on a note of praise. Instead, she explains the origin of the groupthink approach to design, even acknowledging the strategy’s potential ability to inhibit rash, inappropriate design decisions through its checks and balances system. Helfand also analyzes the two-faced dilemma of artificial connectedness and false solitude that technology has created. This thoughtful exploration of the many facets of design methodology and practice is representative of her entire book. Helfand scrupulously considers each angle of an idea, exposing the truth that may lie in seemingly conflicting concepts, a marker of a well-developed philosophical examination.

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Helfand asserts that design is to civilization as cells are to the body, “design as DNA” (p. 21). Much like the histological paintings that open each chapter, she distills design down to its core elements. To design is to be human, to be alive, to be awake to the motivations and consequences of every thought and decision. It is precisely this approach that opens the pages of Helfand’s book not only to those working as ‘designers’ but to anyone who cares to reconsider how humans communicate with one another. With that said, Helfand’s target audience is unclear at times. While she often seemingly speaks to all of humanity, her casual references to specific artists, movements, and works of art with minimal explanation may, at worst, leave some material indigestible for the lay reader, and, at best, leave a bit of research on the hands of even those readers with a background in design history. But with obscure visual examples aside, Helfand takes the reader on a peregrination through popular culture, world history, and personal anecdotes that eschews the stylistic, technical, and business-oriented concerns of design and reveals its deeper emotional, ethical, and humanistic roots. Design: The Invention of Desire is undoubtedly a reminder of the blood and bone that holds everyone together and an inspiration for the work of tomorrow.

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