Some Virtues of Design
By Gui Bonsiepe
An Unfashionable term
I chose to focus on the issue of virtues of design when I was reading - once again - the Six Memos for the Next Millennium by Italo Calvino. As is known, he finished only five out of a plan of six memos before he died. In this remarkable small volume he speaks about the values he would like to see maintained and brought into the next millennium as far as literature is concerned. These shared values he calls virtues. Taking his approach as starting point I want to talk about the shared values of design for the next millennium.
Virtue 1: Lightness
The Six Memos for the Next Millennium include: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity and Consistency. Without wanting to push the issue, several of these values for literature can be - with due corrections - transferred to the domain of design. A literal transfer certainly would be naive and inappropriate. But parallels and affinities seem to exist. For instance, when Calvino defines Lightness as the attempt to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language, are there not analogies in the filled of design? Lightness in design might be a virtue to be maintained, especially when we reflect on material and energy flows and their impact on the environment and when we confront the mundane issue of congested lines cloaked with digital trash in the Net. When later he refers to the "sudden agile leap of the poet-philosopher who raises himself above the weight of the world, showing… That what many consider to be the vitality of the times - noisy, aggressive, revving and roaring - belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars," lightness acquires a critical dimension and dissipates wrong associations of easy going aloofness and superficiality.
Definitely I would include under the term Lightness the notions of humor, wit and elegance for which we have particularly in Italian design so well known examples (e.g. Castiglioni's tractor seat mounted on a flat elastic steel profile); or to take an example from the host country, the graphic design of the passport for the citizens of this country. These examples represent the virtue of Lightness in design.
Virtue 2: Intellectuality
On occasion of the Aspen Congress 1989, dedicated to Italian Design, Ettore Sottsass surprised the audience by presenting himself - quite naturally I would say - as an intellectual and cultural operator. Only an Italian or a French can say that. Italy and France are two countries in which the notion of intellectual does not produce a lifting of the eye brows and a climate of suspect. In Germany, in the US and I assume also in the Netherlands the word "intellectual" carries negative overtones and certainly many of the practicing design professionals would accept but with reluctance the self-interpretation as intellectuals. Rather they would say, that they are practitioners and they want to distance themselves from the neighborhood of the intellectual; they do not share Gramsci's notion of the organic intellectual, who uses his technical competence within social institutions like private companies or public administration.
Intelectuals are - rightly or wrongly - characterized as wordsmiths because they play a decisive role in shaping the discourse of domains - political, cultural, scientific and technological. In the field of design, intellectual formation has not a strong history, because design education grew out of craft training with a deep mistrust against anything theoretical. Recently however we can observe some promising signs of a shift away from an indifferent, if not openly hostile attitude towards an interest in articulation and theoretical issues. Designers start to write, particularly graphic designers - for me a promising symptom to overcome a period of collective muteness of the profession. Design and writing about design are not longer seen as a sterile and mutually...
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