Design and Truth
by Robert Grudin
Yale University Press
Design and Truth is a beautiful book. The “Quixotic Plum” (according to the Sherwin-Williams ColorSnap app) jacket has the feel of a sliced-up racquetball spread over an exceptionally rigid hardback cover. A casual flip through the book reveals its rough-cut, deckle edge pages of ample weight and creamy off-whiteness. The Garamond and Gotham fonts are paired nicely. The delivery doesn’t get better than this. But, what does it deliver?
The content of Design and Truth is as quixotic as the plum color of the jacket. Robert Grudin presents a philosophical yet haphazard vision of design which he believes can both explain and fix the world. His definition of what encompasses design and its corollary—the designer—is much broader than any I’ve encountered before: “Design shapes, regulates, and channels energy, empowering forces that might otherwise be spent chaotically.” Under this definition, a designer is anyone from the professional to the person who walks in a purposeful way.
This wide definition allows Grudin to wander in his discussion. As he reflects philosophically on the design process for making smoked turkey sandwiches or writing The Declaration of Independence, his definition leads him to make the following claims: “Design can sing out the essence of energy.” Or: “Design is the purest exercise of human skill.” And: “At one end of the ethical spectrum, design can be a muse; at the other, a prostitute.” It only gets stranger and more abstract as he moves on to topics like design’s connection to Hitler and 9/11.
Grudin’s broad definition of design opens up acres to play around in, and he takes advantage of it, running in every direction. “My broader purpose in this study is to wrest design from the possessive grip of corporations and to return it, insofar as possible, to the hands of individuals,” he writes. This idea presents itself most persistently in a steady mantra about how good design is linked to nature, while evil design is stuff made for mass-market profit. This is not breaking new ground, but it’s a nice thought. How any book could “wrest design from the possessive grip of corporations” is beyond me—and while this book does not do that—but it’s a laudable goal.
Grudin circles back around to these ideas about design frequently enough to remind the reader that Design and Truth is a bit more than just a Jeremiad to better times, times before evil overwhelmed us and left us with flimsy Ikea products and lives. Yet Grudin can’t help but exude nostalgia for the Fifties and Mad-Men-era designs and designers. He loves the Eames lounge chair, Raymond Chandler’s description of the Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian architecture. All wonderful designs, yes. But, much of this comes off as cliché, especially when Microsoft and Hitler serve as his examples for bad design. What is the old adage about how if you have to invoke Hitler to win your argument, then you’ve already lost? (Can the same be said of Microsoft yet?) Sure, Hitler was a terrible painter, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to extrapolate from observations about “Hitler’s severe linearity” in his early paintings to a close reading of his design aesthetic as fundamentally “imprison[ing] energy.”
This mixture of the banal and quixotic are fairly constant, and I wish it was otherwise. Yes, the Eames lounge chair is a beautifully designed object, but we already know this. Isn’t there something else, something original, that he can hold up in prose as his symbol of what is wonderful about his particular version of design? I’m thinking of something like Tom Peters's love for Ziplocs or Frank Chimero’s recent mentioning of Dropbox. (Sorry, personal bias, both Dropbox and Ziplocs make me insanely happy.). I wish Grudin had found something slightly out of the ordinary, some sort of useful design achievement that makes life better and hasn’t been displayed in a museum.
Sen no Rikyu
Grudin does cut away from the stereotypes of modern design to mix it up with talk of Polynesian pole houses and television remote controls—one of the more interesting sections of the book. Musing on his extended, successful efforts at fixing a broken remote control (“The factory remote is less an instrument designed for use than a time bomb, built to break and cynically deployed in the war for market share.”) provokes this final thought: “I feel redeemed by having made brief contact with my own autonomy—by having taken action in the material world.” Please, re-read that quote while remembering that he’s talk about fixing a remote control. This reveals his great hope for design: redemption. He hopes that design will save us. Design, to Grudin, is not just a muse, but a liberator and a savior.
The first example he offers of design’s salvific power comes early in the book, when he tells the story of Sen no Rikyu. Sen no Rikyu was a practitioner (and in Grudin’s terms a “designer”) of Japanese tea ceremonies. He confronted a notable warlord over the aesthetics of the tea ceremony and died for his belief that a tea ceremony should embody a “culture of simplicity, equality and integrity” instead of “the accoutrements of power.” Grudin tells us that Sen no Rikyu’s bravery and vision for design is what “established a cultural matrix” that brought Japan “into the modern world.” From Sen no Rikyu we learn two very important things: good design should both reify the “wabi-cha,” an “understated eloquence,” and stick to truth instead of power.
Grudin’s most notable thought comes as he unpacks the second half of the Sen no Rikyu vision of design—design’s relationship with truth and power: “If good design tells the truth, poor design tells a lie, a lie usually related, in one way or another, to the getting or abusing of power.” This is an eloquent, but questionable statement. Really, how often is obtaining power a designer’s aim? Some design is simply bad, but I’m skeptical that it is often a power-play.
When I read the Sen no Rikyu story, I loved the potential for where it could take the book. And Grudin follows up the story with some excellent questions: "To what extent can human interaction be designed along creative principles? Are our lives subject to the designs of others? If so, can we design a way to our own liberation?" Great questions, yes, but I ended up disappointed. Instead of standing on the shoulders of this giant and taking a hard look at the systems that do need to be redesigned—systems and institutions that consistently fail us—Grudin chooses frequently to drop from Sen no Rikyu’s shoulders to dabble with remote controls and critique his desktop PC tower’s inbuilt fan systems.
But, I tried to go with him into his dabbling. I willingly—no willfully—suspended my disbelief. (I pretty much had to lock it in a closet and move furniture in front of the door). I allowed myself to consider the possibility that maybe Grudin is really onto something. Perhaps there are principles that can guide both the design of a remote control and a political system? Could the same design principle fix the little things in our daily lives and the big, abstract things like mental habits and economic theories? Grudin thinks so and tries to make this connection. But, it’s simply not there. This reminds me of what quantum mechanics has been trying to do since at least the 70s—trying to come up with a unified theory, a theory based in the tiniest things that explains the biggest things in the universe. They haven’t yet succeeded, and I would argue that neither has Design and Truth.
The chapter on the design of Jeffersonian democracies seems especially disconnected from the reality of our systems. “Liberty as we know it is always subject to attacks of poor taste and poor judgment.” Poor taste brings about the end of liberty? Poor judgment can be solved by well-designed systems? The design principles that help fix a broken remote control will not cure AIDS, eradicate cancer, or feed the hungry. For further evidence of the book’s disconnect from reality, here’s Grudin: “I have a theory about the social classes that goes like this: No matter how much money you make, you are upper class if you spend less than you earn, and you are lower class if you spend more than you earn. And if you spend exactly what you earn, give or take a hundred bucks or so a month, then you are anxious class.” I get the idea. It’s clever. But it makes him sound like a bit of a jerk who has no idea of the realities of poverty or the limits of design—even really good design—in the real world.
Jose Ortega y Gasset in The Dehumanization of Art writes, “I no longer believe in any ideas except the ideas of shipwrecked men.” This seems to have something to do with the idea that people speak deeper truths when they are wrestling with the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs rather than tweaking things at the tip-top of the pyramid. Grudin’s Design and Truth seems to be written almost exclusively for people at the top of the pyramid, people who worry most about which refrigerator will best reflect who they are as an individual, people who see flimsy remotes as examples of true evil in the world. This is a book for people interested in maximizing their daily routine and getting increased performance out of their desktops. This design theory will not save those who actually need saving.
By the end of Design and Truth I was overwhelmed with how much of it seemed quixotically far-fetched. Connections are apophenic. Lines like “A well-designed hoe speaks the truth to the ground that it breaks, and conversely, tells us the truth about the ground” made me think that this unifying theory of design was stretched too far and tried to cover too much. Truth-speaking hoes sound more like conspiracy theory than theory of design. Grudin does make brilliant connections between the world and his design theory, but sometimes, it felt like the scene in Beautiful Mind when the audience finally sees John Nash’s secret shed of coded conspiracies and government plots. Some of Grudin’s theories are similarly ridiculous.
It would, however, be wrong to dismiss this book entirely, for a Sen no Rikyu vision of design is both helpful and hopeful. Design and Truth made me long for a modern Sen no Rikyu who could make simple, eloquent and truthful redesigns of failing systems and institutions. But, with humility, I think we must acknowledge that design can only go so far in both understanding and fixing the world.
Luke Neff is a teacher who lives in Portland, Oregon.