Form and Magic
“Design is the method of putting form and content together.”
My body and mind are linked. This is hardly a ground-breaking discovery, but for the longest time, it was a bit of knowledge that never changed my behavior. If my mind needed to wander to think about a project, I’d typically sit in a chair, furrow my brow, sip my coffee, and scribble a few things into my sketchbook. That’s no good, though: if the mind needs to wander, best let the body do the same. A short walk is more effective in coming up with an idea than pouring all the coffee in the world down your gullet.
If I can’t get out of the studio and into the city, I’ve taken to letting my hand wander on a pad of paper by drawing spindly, loopy, mindless marks. I make the sorts of drawings people produce on the backs of envelopes while on hold with the gas company. There is no subject, just as a good walk has no destination; their purpose is movement. My pencil cuts across the paper like a figure skater zipping around her rink, overlapping, skipping, and spinning. The skater ignores the mark that comes in the wake of her movement, and I do the same. This drawing isn’t aesthetic, it is kinetic – more like dancing than drawing.
I’ve noticed that as I draw these knots on the page, the hitches in my mind begin to unravel. I love my trick in spite of its spotty rate of success, because it is the minimum amount of effort and thought I can put into working. Scribbling’s efficiency is a golden ticket for someone prone to creative block; the scrawl is an easy, mindless task which looks like work, and can sometimes turn productive. The drawn knots are no consequential thing themselves, but they do seem to eventually lead to something else that is useful.
A few months ago, I found myself drawing my tangles onto tiny napkins while on a flight from the west coast to Chicago. I had a pressing project that needed attention, and I wanted to have a clear direction by the time the flight landed. So, obviously, I spent most of the flight looking out the oval window instead of working. I could see Illinois in all of its flat, tiled splendor: farm after farm, as far as the eye could see, a tight grid of wheat browns and cornstalk greens. Two plots merged to make a rectangle, four merged to make a square, and a circularly tilled plot interrupted the quilted arrangement. I couldn’t see everything from up here, so I imagined the other parts. I filled in the gaps by remembering my drives to Chicago, and pretended that the plane cabin had the smell of soy and corn permeating through as my car had when I took road trips along I-55 years ago.
My pen continued gliding over the napkin. I could see through my window how the terrain fit together and how the crops were planted. My pen zipped back. I imagined the names of the streets in an imagined sleepy Illinois town with a biblical name. My mark doubled over itself. I pictured how the blocks shrunk in size as they approached the center of town, then looped around the city square. My pen gained momentum. I thought about how there must be a Lincoln High somewhere down there, with its champion Cardinals that won the state football title this past year. My pen whipped back around and ripped the napkin, now thin from the flood of ink it had absorbed.
How nice it would be to get into a plane and fly over our work. Maybe we’d see some patterns and be able to deduce a structure that would let us improvise. We could see some fields and a few roads, and riff our way to a bunch of kids in Cardinal uniforms running through a banner at a pep rally. I spent the rest of the flight thinking about how helpful it is to have an understanding of the work’s structure, and decided that the best way to see the work’s larger patterns was with a vantage similar to my seat in the sky.
All design work seems to have three common traits: there is a message to the work, the tone of that message, and the format that the work takes. Successful design has all three elements working in co-dependence to achieve a whole greater than the sum of the individual parts.
The message is what is being said, the kernel of information to be communicated, or the idea trying to be expressed through the work. If the work of design is to be a tool, the message is the utility of the tool. The message speaks to the objectives of the work, and is the promise that the work makes. The value of the work is defined by the usefulness of that promise, and the work’s ability to make good on it.
The tone is the domain of design, the arrangement the message takes and the inflection with which it is said. Tone expresses sentiment and endears the audience to the work. It is often mistaken for style, but the two should not be confused: style is a formal device used on the surface to establish the tone of the work. Successful projects choose a tone that fits the message appropriately.
The format is the artifact, the thing being produced. It is often a physical form, such as a poster, brochure, pottery, painting, or sonnet, but also includes the choices that alter a work’s context and placement. Increasingly, these “artifacts” are becoming less physical, and may take the form of an application, website, or even an experience.
The relationship between the three characteristics could be thought of as levers on a machine: different settings can be chosen and adjusted to yield different outcomes. Specific settings have emerged by imitating the success of others, and, through trial and error, produce well-established couplings, much like food and wine. We frequently return to these settings because of their effectiveness.
Consider the typical promotional poster for a concert. The work’s message is “attend this event,” and it provides relevant information, such as the performing artists, time and date, venue, and cost to attend. The tone for the design would be dictated by the sound of the music being performed, and the designer works to produce a fit between the two. Posters for metal bands should look different than those for classical performances. In this example, all possible aesthetic outcomes are unified by the format: ink on paper as a poster. The format, however, still has variables. For instance, what will be the size of the poster and where will it hang? No matter what the settings for the levers are, all choices are subservient to the objective.
The promotional poster is a standard, tried-and-true setting for the three levers, but we must be willing to consider new opportunities and different settings for the levers. Creative breakthroughs often occur when fresh configurations are explored in the message, tone, and format. The interplay of the three levers becomes a framework for improvisation by providing enough structure to guide exploration, but enough freedom to end up in unexpected and fresh places.
Suppose the designer realized that most of the promotion for a classical concert should occur online, because tickets were being sold through their website, and the information could spread more easily between friends on the web. She could use the potential of screens, rather than spending time on ideas limited by the restrictions of printing. A new format has different affordances and opportunities, so rather than recreating a static design that works on paper, she could produce something native to the web and build motion and sound into the solution. Perhaps the design could have videos of the musicians discussing certain parts of the symphony to be performed, working as an educational resource that connects the musicians to the audience in addition to promoting the show. Escaping paper means that the music could be closer to the message, and the tone of the promotion can directly relate to the sound of the music. A change of format opens new doors.
This example isn’t intended to imply a superiority of screens to paper. Instead, it’s meant to show that our assumptions can easily fall out of step with the context of our work. We ignore the new opportunities before us when we take the common settings of the levers as givens. It’s wise to step back and reassess all of the assumptions being made at the start of each project in order to define the root objective of the work, reevaluate circumstances, and maximize the opportunities of the current situation.
Questioning convention can lead to new opportunities by making good on the potential of fresh configurations of the three levers. These explorations, however, should come from a designer’s experience in manipulating content and format. New configurations are judged by the designer’s knowledge of the qualities, necessities, and opportunities of all three levers and an appreciation for how they are interrelated. Fortunately, skilled designers frequently have an understanding of the whole machine from their experiences, and that knowledge can lead to interesting, unprecedented outcomes that teach us how to reconsider our world in a different and novel ways.
One such laboratory that experimented in reconfiguring our expectations was nestled into the craggy coast of Catalonia. Maybe you know something of the restaurant elBulli and its former chef Ferran Adrià. Perhaps you have heard of his invention: molecular gastronomy, a kind of cooking that merges the kitchen with the chemistry lab. Molecular gastronomy has been used to serve hard-boiled eggs with the yolk on the outside and white on the inside, champagne solidified into a gelatinous cube, meringue made from rose petals, and avocado turned to puree, then put through a “spherification” process to turn it to a kind of caviar.
elBulli was the laboratory of a mad man who undermined the foundations of traditional cuisine, but Adrià’s work provided an interesting contribution to the food world. It presented a unique reassessment of the cooking process for a time when technological advances in equipment and various natural gums, extracts, and additives produced by the commercial food industry could be used in the kitchen. Adrià’s desire to question everything can even be seen in how he describes his craft, rejecting the name molecular gastronomy, and instead favoring the title “deconstructivist.”
The same opportunity to analyze, question, and invent is afforded to any creative individual who understands the full system in which they operate. They can use their knowledge to find new configurations for the three levers, and to introduce fresh material into the making process. In these cases, creativity doesn’t just serve and respond to the world around it. Instead, it actively pushes the world forward into unimaginable directions through experimentation. Sometimes, those results can be confounding, much like the dishes served at elBulli.
Grant Achatz, an impressive chef in his own right, wrote about his time staging at the restaurant and of his first meal there:
A small bowl arrived: Ah, polenta with olive oil, I thought. See, this food isn’t that out there. But as soon as the spoon entered my mouth an explosion of yellow corn flavor burst, and then all the texture associated with polenta vanished. I calmly laid my spoon down on the edge of the bowl after one bite – astonished.
What the hell is going on back there, I thought. I know cooking, but this is the stuff of magic.
Sometimes the results of graceful rethinking can be thought of as magic, because it produces something we previously thought to be impossible. It subverts the established ways of working, either through sheer talent or brute force, and questions the standard settings of the three levers. Magicians don’t just create new things, they invent new ways of doing so, and these new methods only appear from intense analysis of the assumptions about their work. The products of the process are contrarian by nature as a result, because the maker is exploring a terrain no one else has been able to realize. Laid bare in his work is an example of how craft and art grow, how they serve as an example of a new possibility.
Steven Johnson, in his book Where Good Ideas Come From, describes the idea of the adjacent possible as a model for explaining how ideas develop and new inventions are envisioned. The adjacent possible originated with scientist Stuart Kauffman as a label for the fundamental atomic combinations required for biological development. Evolution occurs one step at a time, and the size of each step is limited: nature must first create the cells in leaves that can capture the energy of the sun before it can produce a flower.
Johnson extends Kauffman’s concept to the development of ideas themselves, saying that our collective ideas advance with the same limitations. There are prerequisites for us to reach what we desire as we pursue better circumstances and new inventions. For instance, in order to invent something like the printing press, we must first invent language and an alphabet, produce paper and ink, master metallurgy to cast letters, and construct a winemaking press. There had to be many contributions and breakthroughs before I could sit down and write this book.
Most inventions are recombinations of existing things, but where do the sparks for those combinations come from? What instigates that magic to make hybrids, to use them for unimagined purposes, and to inspire new settings for the three levers? Certain advancements seem logical and inevitable – smaller cellphones, faster computers, more reliable medical technology – while others seem to come out of nowhere. Turning avocado into caviar, for example, is not a logical conclusion in the kitchen. That choice is an inspired one. You can always spot these brilliant inventions as instances of magic, because our reaction, much like Achatz’s first meal at elBulli, is always disbelief.
Henry Ford famously said that if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. Of course, we know that the faster horse is a testament to the limited imagination of customers, but I’d suggest that it’s more representational of not reassessing the objectives of the work in light of new opportunities. The faster horse is a recombination of the three levers in a predictable way: the customer’s answer is staunchly loyal to the horse, the already established format of transportation. They are inside of the adjacent possible, and ask a How question: How can horses be better?
Asking a Why question leads us to a different conclusion: Why are horses important? Because they quickly and reliably get us from one place to another. A Why question defines our need and uses an objective to create a satisfactory outcome for the work. This type of question is specific enough to be observable, but flexible enough to be approached in a variety of different ways. It’s easy to think that the way to improve life is to iterate on the things that we already have, but that is a trap of limited imagination. We should be iterating on how we answer our needs, and not necessarily on the way our old solutions have taken shape. The root of our practice is located in the usefulness of the work, not the form that it takes.
The most important advancements, the “magical” innovations we produce, happen by a visionary pulling from the outside of the adjacent possible, not pushing from the inside of it. Our magicians – our Henry Fords, our Billie Holidays, our Gutenbergs, Disneys, and Marie Curies – do not stand on the inside of what is possible and push; they imagine what is just outside of what we deem possible and pull us towards their vision of what is better. They can see through the fog of the unexplored spaces and notice a way forward.
The work of these individuals is lauded and momentous, but a similar effect is not out of our reach. The same ways of thinking and working are available for us to mold our own processes and shape our craft. There’s a pattern to seizing latent opportunity to produce unprecedented outcomes, and the successes of the past suggest a method for how to continue.
It begins with the proper mindset, established by asking Why questions to define the true objectives of the work. The inquiry emphasizes the project’s true purpose and sheds any false presumptions about how to do the work or what it should be. It ensures the design’s relevancy by forcing one to ask about its consequence in the world. The designer can then make decisions that use the defined function as guidance. The fruits of this questioning define and emphasize the cornerstone of successful design: the work first must be useful before it can transcend utility into something visionary.
Similar questioning should also be directed towards the form of the work. An understanding of the three levers provides a structure to conceive of fresh configurations. Using the structure and affordances of content, tone, and format, one can riff on how the elements interplay and come to exceptional ends. Part of the exploration for novel design is using the materials at our disposal, especially those whose full potential have not been realized. We should look around us to see what available resources are not being fully used, like the affordances of a screen in the promotional materials for the concert, or the new ingredients Adrià used at elBulli. This method modifies either the content or the format, which alters the tone’s qualities as it negotiates those modifications. It is a simple thought, but one way to have a creative process come to different ends is by beginning with new materials.
The true purpose of the process is to create an accurate picture of the world. The misfit creative individual is stubbornly unwilling to abide by anyone else’s vision of the world without first testing those assumptions. There’s a desire for an honest assessment, because we can only create what we want by understanding what is achievable. We must know the edges of the adjacent possible before we can begin to imagine making the world better.
Often, what we perceive to be possible dims in comparison to what we can actually do. This gap creates the opportunity for people like Henry Ford, Walt Disney, and all the other magicians who have expanded what we think of the world. The rest of us believe the line that defines what is possible is much closer to our feet than it actually may be. The creative misfits ask their questions to realize the line’s true location, and conclude that there is enough room for a great leap forward. Our questioning, and the imagination it inspires, allows us to perform the most important magic: to make the world grow by revealing what was right before our eyes.Continue to Chapter Five