As a foreword I want to reference two fantastic books. The first is one I’ve recommended and referenced before: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The second you can read for free and is by Frank Chimero, who you should already be fans of; read it here.
It’s sort of meta in how these two books talk about taking inspirations and adding momentum to get to somewhere new and I’m using them for just that. I’m taking these two dots and drawing a line between them. The first dealing with Quality and the second dealing with How and Why. I’m drawing further lines between these three subcategories, these aspects under Design itself.
I like design philosophy because it allows a lot of things normal ‘real’ philosophy doesn’t and often can’t. I’ve found in both reading and writing ‘real’ philosophy there’s this underlying gap between you thinking about these things and the things themselves. Not to suggest that the conclusions are dead ends but rather like an abrupt ending in the middle of a bridge – you can see the other side (the conclusion) but even if you can convince yourself that it’s there you find this gap in the middle that I would call the nebulousness of self-referencing ideas. The doublethink. We can hold these truths and thoughts and it’s good, but we never actually fully arrive there. It seems to me, anyway. Perhaps I’m just terrible with the existential.
So design philosophy sets up it’s own little sandbox to play in. It’s less concerned with itself. We can read and write it as a vehicle for the understanding of design, not for the understanding of design philosophy. It’s that sort of directness that closes the gap – ‘real’ philosophy gets lost in that loop because it’s inherently meta. Design is a great many things, but they’re still just grounded thoughts about, say, a process or a result. The grander questions just don’t apply in the same way. This reason, as much as any, is why I like it. It’s a practical philosophy.
Okay. So. Quality.
There’s a macro and a micro to each question that I find interesting. We can take individual pieces of, say, a car; someone might ask How this steel is bent and others might ask Why is it bent like that. These are important questions, certainly, on a micro level, but there’s also How it fits into the car and Why it’s required in the car. The Why is where we start seeing lots of soft answers. Maybe it’s aesthetic. Maybe it’s part of the chassis and holds everything together. We would agree that one is more important than the other, but our design focus isn’t always on the important one. Now we bring in economics. The consumer might choose a car based on how the steering wheel fits in the hand – do we focus on making the best steering wheel purely in order to sell cars? Do we focus on that piece of the chassis in order to make cars worth selling? But if we focus on the chassis and no one notices, does that inherently mean we’ve sacrificed on the part that would sell the car? And around and around we go. So on a micro scale we often get caught up in little eddies of thought. We must step out of the frame a bit.
Why do we make cars at all? Bigger.
Why do we make cities the way we do? Better.
Well, we have this mass of people and spaces in between these things we call buildings – which is where the people go to do things – and instead of running everywhere we’d like an easier way to travel. (This, of course, as a personal aside, is where I run into my general dislike for cars: when simplified to this level they make absolutely no sense at all. They only make sense in how they’ve evolved alongside the infrastructure such that to remove them would make for different and perhaps greater problems.) and so we start to see the why in macro sense: we need transportation over distances and cars offer (hopefully) more solution than problem. There must be some scale tipping goodness to them otherwise we wouldn’t continue using them. (This is false logic, just smile and nod; I’ll explain). Isn’t the goodness of something Quality? But we run into a semantic issue here. When we’re on the car lot kicking tires and say “That model is a quality car” we don’t mean that it’s generally more good than it is bad at getting us from building to building (the overarching goal), we mean that the pieces inside are good, are full of Quality. Macro and micro differences. (and this is where Zen fell short, I feel. So close, too. It went over the scale differences with subsets assemblies and how to define them, but never really covered the macro of the macro-micro Quality differences.)
It’s unfortunate that the language is the thing getting in the way. I wish, like Dr. Seuss, we could just make up words and introduce them globally around the community as the accepted new way of describing the subtle differences that get lumped into bigger words like Quality. Alas, we cannot and so I write pieces like these, to try and explain: the quality that something has can be the adjective describing it (say, it’s quality is dirty or red or soft) or it’s state (it’s quality is used or new) or it’s function (it’s quality is aesthetic or mechanical) or – and this is what Zen touched on – it’s intangible, unquantifiable ‘goodness’ (this car has quality – it’s well made or good).
The purpose of this rant is one of frustration, I suppose. I’m sad to see on /r/design or forums or wherever that people actually fight about such semantics. Such useless squabbles, in my opinion. Quality can mean all of these things. It’s just one of those words we haven’t properly broken up in English. A shame, I agree, but more of a shame is how vile people can be. And I know, this is the internet and all and as a citizen of it I’ve come to learn that some of these things are unavoidable (seriously, Youtube?). I just wish we didn’t have to fall to such barbarian measures. I mean, this isn’t religion. We’ve separated design philosophy from real philosophy and while there’s a middle in the venn diagram of overlap, it’s nothing to start wars over. I mean, you’re making posters. Calm down. Quality is both subjective and objective, critique will offend and that’s just as often good. I realize we as artists and designers tend to become personally attached to our work but to say that it’s quality is somehow reflective of your personal quality is not true nor fair.
I say these things as if I’ve been personally involved and I haven’t. I sit merely as a lurker and an armchair critic who seeks to moderate things a bit. I am, I suppose, a design apologist. My format is non-specific and quickly darting (especially in and out of scale), but I do hope that some snippets make sense.
To everyone: do good work. Work with pride but not vanity. Work with high Quality and with good qualities. Take strangers’ criticism as you would from a wise friend. The internet is often harsh, but fires make a forge. Not everyone else is right, but if you find yourself thinking that no one else is right, you probably need to re-evaluate. Be honest but kind, to yourself and everyone else. Hustle.
So go. Ignore the philosophy written by old buzzards like me and make your own work code. Do what you like, not what’s in fashion. Shake the system and ignore the petty semantics. You’ve got better things to do than respond to hate mail.