TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT March 1992

CURIES’ CHILDREN

the Term “Design”

Editor’s note: It was with great sadness that the editors of Artforum heard recently of the death of Vilém Flusser, a distinguished writer and teacher of communications and a regular contributor to these pages. A number of Professor Flusser’s columns for Artforum, completed but unpublished at the time of his death, will appear in the magazine in future issues.

MANY ENGLISH WORDS have become terms used internationally. At present this is taken to be a symptom of Anglo-Saxon predominance within the cultural realm. But the case of the term “design” is different. In its international use, “design” means something like a “pattern” or a “sketch,” and the verb “to design” means something like “to make a plan for the production of some object.” With this meaning the term has become important, and schools of design (industrial and otherwise) tend to become centers of cultural activity all over the world. This merits closer examination, because there are other terms (like the German “Gestalt” and the French “façon”) that have similar meanings. Why was the word “design” chosen to mean an activity that is becoming ever more characteristic of our civilization as we approach the third millennium and so-called “posthistorical” existence?

In English the word “design” means (among other things) a “sinister scheme, a secret project, an aggressive intention, a plot, an evil purpose.” There are other terms that have similar insidious, cunning, deceitful connotations. One of them is “machine,” another is “mechanisms.” The Greek “mechos” means a contrivance for the purpose of cheating, a machination. A typical machine is the Trojan horse, and its builder, Ulysses, is called by Homer polymechanikos, which means “trickster.” In fact, “mechanics” should be translated as “the science of cheating.” Another such term is “technical.” The Greek word “techné” means the skill of a carpenter (tekton), and the idea behind it goes as follows: there is shapeless matter, mostly wood (hylé), and a specific skill is needed to press it into a shape (morphé). Philosophers, especially Plato, have discussed that idea. They have shown that shapes are distorted when applied to matter, and that, therefore, the skill to apply them (techné) amounts to devious treason: technicians are people who seduce people to admire contemptible matter like stone by shaping it into statues. In fact, “MIT” could be said to mean “Massachusetts Institute for the Teaching of Skillful Swindlers.” The Latin translation of techné is ars, the skill of joining things together. The diminutive of ars is articulum (little art) which means knuckle. Thus “to articulate” means to twist one’s little finger skillfully, and an “article” (like the one you are reading) means a skillful little twist to deceive you. You can feel that meaning in terms like “artful,” “artifice,” and “artificial.” Thus an artist is one who is more or less good at cheating.

Now consider the terms “design,” “machine,” “technical,” and “art” together. They mean, all of them, methods for cheating, various forms of cunning. But each of those terms has a different meaning on the surface of cultural discourse. So different are those surface meanings that ever since the end of the Renaissance the deeper meaning that connects them to each other has been suppressed and, therefore, has tended to be forgotten. Modern, bourgeois civilization has divided culture into two sharply opposed branches: the “hard” one, with its machines and technicians, and the “soft” one with its artists. This fateful divorce between the mechanic and the artist became impossible to maintain at the close of the 19th century, when it became ever more obvious that the one cannot live without the other. At that point, the term “design” stepped in to bridge the gulf between the two cultures.

Those who still adhere to the surface meanings of the terms “machine” and “art” will probably say that “design” means that area where mechanical and artistic skills and activities overlap, and that, therefore, the growing importance of design shows how the two modern cultures are merging. But those who think that the meanings of “machine” and “art” are fundamentally identical will have a different view of our situation. They will tend to see that the increasing importance of design (and of schools of design) is a proof of our increasing awareness of what we are doing when we commit ourselves to culture. Such persons will argue that all four terms—“design,” “machine,” “technical,” and “art”—mean cheating, that these are the central cultural terms, and that the use of the term “design” shows that we are beginning to understand that we cheat consciously when we commit ourselves to cultural activities and endeavors.

Let this be illustrated. A lever is a simple machine (although it does not look like one) designed to simulate a human arm. Its technique is very old, probably older than our species. Thus “machine,” “design,” “art,” and “technique” cannot be thought apart from one another where the lever is concerned. Now the purpose behind the lever, its intent, is to cheat gravitation so that heavy bodies may be lifted in spite of their heaviness. The lever is a machine designed technically to cheat nature. The object of art (the artificial arm) is more powerful than nature and its laws. Archimedes saw that if you find a point of support for your lever, you may lift the whole world off its hinges. The lever is a machine designed to transcend nature, and if we use it artfully, we may become gods and fall back on nature from above like a deus ex machina, and thus govern the laws of nature.

This example may be extended to the entire realm of culture. Culture as a whole is a design to cheat nature, to outwit it, and everything in it is designed to deliver us artificially from our mammal condition, to make free artists of us all. But now consider what is implied in such a late glorification of plotting, of scheming, of insidious cunning. Take a plastic fountain pen as an example. Plastic fountain pens are becoming ever cheaper, so much so that they are often distributed free of charge, tending toward becoming worthless. (Note that “worthless” does not mean “useless.”) The material plastic fountain pens are made of is even more shapeless than wood (hylé), and we need no Platonic philosophers to show that it is worthless (nothing to be admired). Modern analysts, and especially Marxists, have shown that the value of an object lies not in the material of which it is made but in the labor that produced it. In the case of the plastic fountain pen that work was done by technically highly developed machines, which has cheapened the product to a point where it is worth nothing. The entire value of the plastic fountain pen is in its design (which enables it to write), and in the design of the machine that produces it.

If you now consider the design of the fountain pen and of the machine that produces it, you will find that they represent a conjunction of several very complex ideas from pure science, applied science, esthetics, economy, social psychology, and even disciplines like mathematics. This coming together of complex ideas is highly creative: the design of the plastic fountain pen shows an accumulation of intelligence, imagination, and intuition. Still, fountain pens tend to be distributed free of charge, which means that they are thrown away after having been used, that they are contemptible gadgets.

This example (like the one of the lever) may be extended to the whole of culture. We are becoming ever more conscious of the fact that culture is a design against our natural condition, that each and every artifact is intended to cheat nature around us and within us, and that the term “design” means the very essence of culture. This awareness implies that we are designing ever better. Mechanics, techniques, and the arts have begun to melt and to constitute one single commitment. Everything is thus becoming ever more functional, ever more beautiful, ever more powerful. And for the same reason it is becoming ever cheaper. The whole of culture is becoming ever more a set of contemptible gadgets.

It now appears that a possible answer to the question of why we use the word “design” is precisely because it implies a sinister scheme, an evil purpose. As that activity named “design” becomes ever more characteristic of our situation, it becomes ever more evident that the whole of civilization is a cunning device to cheat us. As we approach the third millennium, we begin to learn to outwit culture, to scheme against the schemes that are designed to cheat us. We now know that nothing about culture is real: everything is a cunning attempt at cheating, at substituting the fake for the real. Our hospitals may be designed like deluxe hotels, and our deathbeds may be designed like works of art, but we must all die like mammals. The more we become aware of what “design” means, the more we lose faith in mechanics, in technology, in the arts, and the less we trust culture. This new mistrust in fakes, this incapacity to accept them at face value, this loss of the sense of value, may be what the term “posthistory” means, namely a period in which “design” will reacquire all the connotations it had lost during history, a time in which we are forced to face nature within us and without us. “Posthistory” may be that terrible period when designs no longer work, because, finally, we have learned too much about them.

Vilém Flusser taught communications at São Paulo University and at the École Nationale de la Photographie, Arles.