Design: The Invention of Desire


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.


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.


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.


Piet Mondrian

Piet Mondrian, born in 1872 in the Netherlands, studied the fine arts of figure drawing and genre panting from an early age. As he progressed as an artist, his work began to exhibit influences of post-impressionism and pointillism, especially evident in his landscape compositions. However, a major turning point in Mondrian’s career came with his move to Paris in 1912, where he became intimately acquainted with the Analytic Cubist works of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. It was at this time when his style shifted from representational to modern abstraction. For a time, Mondrian adopted the Cubist reduction of images and its muted color palette; however, he soon challenged Cubist thought and sought to completely eliminate any sort of illusionistic depth from his paintings, highlighting the flatness of the canvas. This push towards complete reductive geometric abstraction ultimately culminated in the founding of the De Stijl movement with fellow compatriot Theo van Doesburg. The movement sought a universal style that erased all nationalistic identity, a response to the egotistic nationalism that De Stijl members believed fueled the conflict of the First World War. Mondrian referred to his own aesthetic as ‘Neo-Plasticism’, which rejected decorative excess and emotional complexity.


I fine example of this style is evident in Mondrian’s painting “Broadway Boogie-Woogie” created in 1942-43. This composition exemplifies Mondrian’s goal of revealing the harmony and order that exists in the natural world through abstract lines and shapes, distilling everything down to blocks of primary colors. At this time, Mondrian was living in New York City. The influence of the energetic metropolis can be seen in the intersecting yellow lines populated by brightly colored squares, reminiscent of bustling city streets. The asymmetry of the composition also alludes to the varied rhythm of urban life. Even while reflecting the vitality of New York City, Mondrian still highlights the inherent order and harmony that he believed underlies the universe through the orthogonal composition and simple palette of primary colors.

Mondrian’s work, as well as the utopian ideals of universal harmony promoted by the De Stijl movement had a lasting impact on the development of modern art. Mondrian’s simplified lines and austere color palette influenced both the Bauhaus aesthetic as well as the works of the Minimalists in the late 1960s. Mondrian’s paintings also permeated popular culture, as seen in the color-blocking design of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Mondrian’ day dress.


Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

“Piet Mondrian Biography, Art, and Analysis of Works.” The Art Story Modern Art Insight. The Art Story Foundation, n.d. Web. 22 Oct. 2016.


Gustav Klimt: Beyond the Female Form


Klimt with His Cat

Gustav Klimt (1862–1918) was perhaps the most influential Austrian artist around 1900, but his legacy is often left only partly examined. Klimt is revered for his sensual and elegantly decorated depictions of the female form, but another genre also captured his interest: landscapes.

Klimt was a founding member of the Vienna Secession, a group formed in 1897 that sought to break from the binds of conservative organizations that dominated the Austrian art scene. The Vienna Secession believed that these prevailing organizations had become out of touch with the modern styles and art theories that had been circulating throughout Europe at the time. Klimt and his like-minded colleagues explored new aesthetic strategies not rooted in historicism but rather aimed at creating new styles that more aptly interpreted modern, industrial society. This mentality was characteristic of the broader movement of Art Nouveau.


The Kiss

Many of Gustav Klimt’s most remembered and celebrated works are those depicting women, particularly his “Golden Phase,” a period of paintings in which he employed delicate, gold leafing. Klimt is quoted saying, “There is no self-portrait of myself. I am not interested in my own person—more in other people, females.” In fact, the female muse became somewhat of an obsession of his. Klimt was prolific in his paintings and sketches of women. His sketches reveal nude female models in a host of erotic positions, often portrayed as objects of purely sexual interest. His paintings offer a more stylized, and masked expression of this sexuality. These paintings highlight a central female figure, usually enveloped in a highly ornamented drapery of collaged shapes and colors. Almost all sense of depth is lost, with the figure and her surroundings flattened into a single plane of interlocking forms.


The Hope II

But Klimt’s interest was not solely devoted to painting women. Beginning in the early 1890s, Klimt began taking annual summer trips to the shores of the Attersee Lake in upper Austria. It was here where Klimt developed a strong side interest in landscape painting, ultimately creating a body of work whose quantity and quality closely rivals that of his female portrait paintings. While Klimt’s landscape works stylistically draw more from impressionism and pointillism, much of the same detailed patterning and reduction of forms that characterize his paintings of women, is also evident in these more natural scenes. Klimt skillfully flattens the immense depth of the landscapes into a single surface of color, while intense flecks of paint create highly textured forms, reminiscent of the ornamented dress of his female figures. Often, this style distills the scene to a mood rather than an accurate depiction of the landscape.


Unterach on lake Attersee


Forester’s House in Weissenbach I

The two somewhat disparate genres that commanded Gustav Klimt’s interest, portraits and landscapes, were united by his unique approach to space and his aesthetic technique of ornamentation. While his female portrait paintings have garnered much of contemporary attention, Klimt’s landscapes reveal his love of the outdoors and offer an alternative view of the artist, a view worth taking.


Works Cited

Eskilson, Stephen. Graphic Design: A New History. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Klimt Museum. Accessed September 29, 2016.
“Gustav Klimt Biography.” Gustav Klimt – The Complete Works. Accessed September 29, 2016.
Leopold Museum. Accessed September 29, 2016.