Gifts and Giving
“Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!”
There is an old Japanese tale about a poor student who was away from home and living at an inn. One evening, as his stomach grumbled, he smelled the briny scent of fish coming from the inn’s kitchen as the innkeeper made his dinner. He wandered his way outdoors to the kitchen’s window, and sat below the sill with his meager meal of rice, hoping that the scent of the fish might improve his paltry dish. The student did this for many weeks, until one night the innkeeper spotted him and became furious. He grabbed the youngster by the arm and dragged him to stand before the local magistrate, demanding payment from the student for the scent of the fish that he had stolen.
“This is most curious,” said the magistrate, who thought for a moment and then came to a conclusion. “How much money do you have with you?” he asked the student, who then produced three gold coins from his pocket.
The student feared that he would be forced to pay the innkeeper the last of his money, but the magistrate continued. “Please,” he said, “put all the coins in one of your hands.” The student did as he was asked. “Now, pour those coins into your other hand.” The student dumped the coins. With that, the magistrate dismissed the innkeeper and student’s case.
The innkeeper yelped in confusion, “How can this be settled? I’ve not been paid!”
“Yes, you have,” replied the magistrate. “The smell of your fish has been repaid by the sound of his money.”
The Japanese have many tales about this eighteenth century magistrate’s rulings, but the story of the stolen smell is the most often told. The student, despite not paying for the fish, was able to benefit from its scent, enjoying what amounted to an accidental gift from the innkeeper that added flavor to his bowl of rice. I feel similar to the student when enjoying the creative work that most inspires me. I’m working on my own projects, eating my humble bowl of rice, while reading, watching, and using the best that humankind has to offer. I’m awkwardly stringing together words into sentences, and then I get to have the wind knocked out of me by the first paragraph of Moby Dick. I get to be in that work’s presence, to sit under the window and steal the scent of the things I love, in order to improve what I make.
Stop and look around you. How much of your environment is created? How many things that surround you are designed by someone? From the wheat-pasted posters on the street, to the octagonal stop signs on the road; the overstuffed arms of the sofa where you sit, to the milky consistency of the page on which these words are printed, or maybe even the bezel of the device on which you’re reading this. All of these choices are designed, and they all coalesce into the experience of this moment. Most designers realize that much of our lives are designed, but we don’t often stop to think that the work’s widespread presence turns our design choices into significant contributions to the ambiance of life. The lesson of the innkeeper’s story is that the things we make transcend commerce and ownership – they are an experience to have rather than an object to own or a service to access. There is an aspect to the work’s value that can not be described in dollars and cents.
Typically, the success of a design is defined by the economics of the work. Good design is profitable, because finances help see that design endures. But as stated earlier, design is equal parts art and commerce. The dual nature implies that there are opportunities and values in the practice that transcend commerce to enter into a space of collaboration and value creation that can’t be captured on a ledger. Design seeks to create experiences in addition to being profitable, so the price and profit of the work represent only part of its value. I think the most fitting way to think about the best works of design are as gifts.
Lewis Hyde, in his landmark book The Gift, describes how art simultaneously exists in both the market and gift economies, and that the appropriate way to look at the work of a creative individual is as a gift. Hyde uses the qualities of a gift economy to articulate the attributes and value of the creative perspective and to assess the resonance and worth of the creative work once it is shared with others. There is value in a creative work to bond people and engender cohesion in communities, and this worth can’t be fully articulated in strictly commercial terms. Instead, Hyde looks for lessons in gift economies to understand the patterns and opportunities of an arrangement where value is exchanged outside of finances.
The gift lives in the work, but also in the work’s creator. We typically describe someone’s talent by saying they have a gift for it, as if their eye for color or perfect pitch were blessings imbued from someone somewhere else. In our best, most creative moments, it feels as if we are hardly doing the work ourselves, achieving a sense of flow where time disappears, improvising becomes easy, and decisions seem instinctual, like some unknown force is guiding our steps. The ancient Greeks believed that their artists were guided by daemons – divine attendants who delivered creativity and insight to the artists waiting for them. The Romans later called their daemons geniuses. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert, in a lecture for the ted conference in 2009, said that the Greeks and Romans thought their artists were not geniuses, but rather had one – genius being something to be in the presence of, that could come and go as it willed, and not something contained in the artist themselves. The genius bestowed the gift of insight to the artist, and it became the artist’s responsibility to use the material provided by the genius.
Regardless of where our talents and tendencies come from, the gift of the individual is an assignment: their talents must be used to sing a song of their own. Their personal gift is made good through their labor, and the gift is passed on to others through the work they produce. We feel an obligation to use our natural resources to build and make, to mold and shape the world around us for the betterment of others.
This is hard work, though, because the obligation to one’s gift forces us down a road where there is no logical end to the amount of effort, time, and attention we put into it. We have a tendency to toil and sweat the details, even beyond the point of clear financial benefit. David Chang, head chef at New York restaurant Momofuku, made a cameo on the television series Treme and framed the gap between efficiency and the extra effort extolled by so many creative individuals in their practice by calling it the “long, hard, stupid way.” In Chang’s case, the long, hard, stupid way was exhibited all over the kitchen, from preparing one’s own stock, to sweating out the details of the origins of the ingredients, to properly plating dishes before sending them out to the table. Commercial logic would suggest that Chang stop working once it no longer made monetary sense, but the creative practitioner feels the sway of pride in their craft. We are compelled to obsess. Every project is an opportunity to create something of consequence by digging deeper and going further, even if it makes life difficult for the one laboring.
The long, hard, stupid way makes the process of design look like toiling, sweating over a drafting table, and producing piles of rejected ideas and prototypes. It’s going longer, thinking harder, working smarter, and staying up later. This opens up a gap between the amount of these human resources that make financial sense and the exorbitant amount of care and attention that is actually applied to the work because of the obligation to the gift. The fruits of that labor can be sensed by the audience; in fact, we seek it out.
It’s the extra essence that manifests as a well-plated dish when it comes to the table, an articulately phrased sentence as it appears on the page, or a daub of paint that sings of life in a portrait by getting the light in the eyes just right. The long, hard, stupid way is the path of creating special experiences for the individuals who can notice the details, almost as if one were speaking a private language to those attuned to listen. These careful details are what make the scent from the kitchen at the inn worth smelling.
Hyde states that a necessary element of a gift is that it must be bestowed. One can not ask for what they get, otherwise it is not a true gift. Hyde’s definition mirrors the general structure of most design jobs: one person (the client) hires another (the designer) to create something for a third (the audience). It is hard to imagine this situation as anything other than gift-giving when the work is made out of kindness and consideration. Gifts – whether wedding gifts, birthday presents, or the simple exchange of business cards at a meeting – operate in a social layer to initiate a relationship between people or to fortify an already existing connection. Gifts are a form of social currency, and this is fitting for design, because it is a communicative endeavor that always exists in a social context. The work has its movement initiated in its creation, and that movement gains momentum when given to the audience as a gift. The work continues its movement as it becomes distributed and shared; becoming something that is passed on after the initial hand-off. This fits nicely with another declaration Hyde makes about gifts: that they must move, and the more movement, the greater the value assigned to the creation.
In an episode of the television show The West Wing, there’s a scene about heirlooms where President Bartlet asks his personal aide, Charlie, to go on the hunt for a carving knife to use over the holidays. Bartlet rejects each knife that Charlie brings back, citing the important details that each blade lacks. This happens several times, much to Charlie’s exasperation, until he finally brings the President the best possible knife he can find in Washington. President Bartlet inspects the knife closely while Charlie describes the finer details of what makes this knife the best available: its weight is properly distributed while in the hand, its edge is honed, fine, and sharp. President Bartlet refuses even this blade, but then produces a knife of his own, one that has been in his family for generations and was made by a silversmith named Paul Revere. He gives it to Charlie as his Christmas present.
A family heirloom accrues more value with the greater number of generations it has been passed down. It does not matter that the object itself remains the same, because the space around the object – its social context – is what makes us feel that the item is more valuable. The connection to Paul Revere lent Bartlet’s knife a high financial value, but its social value was a product of its tradition and shared experience. The knife tied its possessor to a long line of others. I look at the obligations of our talents as a similar situation. We are part of a long line of people who have been tasked to shape this world in big and small ways, and the longer that line runs, the more valuable our opportunity becomes.
Bartlet’s knife also shows that we are introduced to the finer details of a good gift and educated to its nature so that we may be able to appreciate it more fully. The context can produce a feeling of gratitude, and whether it is a family heirloom or a piece of design specially crafted for an audience, the space around the object creates an experience that primes the receiver for appreciation and thankfulness. Design gains the ability to nourish when it acts as a gift rather than as something to create yearning. We get to close loops of desire rather than open new ones.
We manipulate the context around the work to create a better experience for the one we’re giving it to, much like how President Bartlet sent Charlie on a wild goose chase so that he would have to teach himself about what makes a fine knife. Gifts are wrapped for a reason – it frames the exchange, creates a surprise, and lengthens time to ensure an opportunity to have an experience.
A similar thing happens when reading an old-style book with deckled edges. The edges don’t offer any sort of utility in contemporary books, but they were a necessity in much older titles. Readers would slice open pages with a knife, because the text was printed on folded paper on both sides. The binding would seal the pages shut on the right edge, and they would have to be torn, like opening a letter, to unveil the next page of text. The process turned the reading process into a literal page-by-page unveiling of a story. Italo Calvino said in his novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler:
This volume’s pages are uncut: a first obstacle opposing your impatience. Armed with a good paper knife, you prepare to penetrate its secrets. With a determined slash you cut your way between the title page and the beginning of the first chapter.
The cutting of bound pages transforms a simple page turn into a treasure hunt, and while the obstacle doesn’t necessarily scale well for someone who ravenously reads, it does make a simple page flip feel a bit like a child tearing through Christmas gifts at a feverish pace. Ripping apart pages meters the pace of reading, and frames it with a bit of nostalgia and romanticism. If anything, it forces the reader to spend more time with the words. Sometimes slowing down is a gift, because it lets the reader more fully appreciate the skill and capabilities of the writer. The design decisions of the format encouraged savoring for a better reading experience.
The success of a gift is quantified by the experience of its recipient, and harkens back to the primacy of the listener or audience. The qualities that make a great gift are the same characteristics that have been used to mark good design in this book: thoughtfulness in the choices that were made, understanding and responding to the context, and using empathy to accommodate and customize for fit.
Design, like many gifts, gains its primary value through customization to the one it is given to. “It’s the thought that counts,” as the saying about gifts goes, and that thoughtfulness implies an understanding of the individual receiving the gift. This is why cash is thought to be an underclass of present: it may be the most flexible and valuable from an economic standpoint, but the ability to spend it anywhere means that the gift was never personalized. Good gifts must be tailored to their recipients, so the difference between giving fifty dollars in cash and thoughtfully spending fifty dollars on someone is immense. It suggests that the quality of the gift is not just in its objective qualities like flexibility or cost, but in its subjective characteristics like intent and context. The space around the gift and the environment in which it is given sets up an excellent experience.
And perhaps the line between thoughtfully buying a gift and just giving the money to someone relates to the reason why so many creative individuals feel it necessary to do things the long, hard, stupid way. To merely work within the boundaries of financial concerns and not maximize one’s creative capacity is to give someone the cash. Singing a song of our own while we make our work uses the full capacity of the creative person to create new value and something of consequence. There is a contribution greater than just the commercial concern; there is a human investment of talent, perspective, and perseverance.
These are the elements that resonate with the audience, because the work becomes a link between two individuals. Both sides of the equation are humanized, initiating a relationship between them through publishing the work. A few years ago, my friend Rob Giampietro was designing a business card for a client, and during a presentation of design options, the client chose one, then asked if the design was completed. In a moment of insight, Rob responded that the design of the business card wouldn’t be finished until the client gave it to someone else. The implied exchange was part of the design, and Rob’s task was to create a framework for that gift exchange to occur. The measure of a design is in its capacity to be shared: something travels from one person to another, and in the process, they both gain. Like a gift, design requires movement; the work must be shared, the ideas must move. A business card that stays in its owner’s pocket is no good.
The publication of each design project initiates an exchange of gifts. On the one side, the designer and client offer their work; while on the other, the audience gives their attention, contributes through platforms, and offers their financial support. We value all these contributions, but the gift of attention is perhaps the most valuable. Attention may seem like an easy gift to give, but it is not; it is the scarcest resource available because its quantities are limited and nonrenewable. We can’t produce more attention, and there are ever more things vying for it each day. Attentive audiences should be rewarded with high-quality work, and there should be a symmetry to the quality of each.
In the 1970s, Robert Irwin explored the qualities of attention as a gift. He called the experiment “being available in response.” He would be available to other people who sought his presence, attention, and time, just like his responsiveness to the rooms where he installed his art. He explained:
I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, “Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.” And that’s what I’d do. Or, “We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.” And I would just come up and do that.
“There’s an important distinction to be made here,” [Irwin] continued, “between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half- hour answer.”
The experiment started slowly, but within a few months, Irwin was almost continually on the road. The project lasted two years. He’d show up at schools and talk to students, or visit institutions and do an installation. Irwin himself said that he wasn’t attempting to sell anything, implying that his availability existed outside of commerce and so was a gift. While his gift was free in commercial terms, it was terribly expensive in attention, making it a truly significant offering. The writer and media theorist Clay Shirky recently said, “We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.” How inspiring for Irwin to devote so many years to being fully available to those who were interested.
The relationship between quality work and quality attention, however, is a bit of a chicken and egg paradox. Which comes first? Do people make good work to gain the rapt attention of an audience, or do they not bother with refined work until they know others are listening? Inside of commerce, this is a problem, because it doesn’t make much sense to make a financial investment without a good hunch of reward. Luckily, for the creative individual, it is of no concern. The desire to produce great work will never leave the one making it, because of their sense of obligation to their gift. The song must be sung.
The things that initiate the exchange of high quality attention may start inside of the designer, but the products of the process have a tendency to have authorship and ownership evaporate. Sometimes the things we design lose the signature of the one who creates them, because their application is so widespread that their sway in culture diffuses to such an extent that it enters the air like the scent of the innkeeper’s fish. They become a shared experience molding our interpretation of the world, becoming our points of reference, like the shape of a Coke bottle, the gait of the illuminated man on a street’s crosswalk sign, the design of a paper clip, or the recycling logo. Design can sometimes achieve a state so fused with the culture, so widespread, distributed, and engrained into the background, that it recedes in spite of its up-front positioning. It can become easy to presume that these things have always existed, and forget that they were designed and originated with someone’s decisions.
One of the best examples of this in graphic design is Milton Glaser’s I ♥ NY logo. It’s become something without an author, a shared symbol that permeates across all the spoofs and iterations it has inspired. Glaser’s mark has become a gift to the culture that is shared, referenced, and celebrated. The mark became a vessel for emotion, a platform ready for the contributions of the audience to project their own affiliations onto to better articulate their appreciation for the city. Now, the mark is a shorthand to express affection for anything.
The art critic John Berger said that great art creates a space and gives it a face. In doing so, it’s almost as if the gift names these hidden and formless experiences and enables us to more fully realize them, like the release that happens when we’re searching for a word that is on the tip of our tongue, and someone else provides it for us. Empathy, understanding, and the codependency created by making things for others allows us to describe the overlaps between us by creating this shorthand language of complex feelings and experiences. All we need to do is point at something and treat it as a symbol for something more.
We are dependent on each other in this way – we finish each other’s sentences, fill one another’s needs, and help each other to become better. A person is not a closed system, they can never be fully self-sufficient. We need each other because we cannot make everything ourselves. Everything was invented, but it was not done alone, so we should revere the times we are able to fill this complementary role for others, and cherish when others do so for us. It’s the words of others that teach us to speak, the expressions of life by other people that teach us how to express ourselves. The great opportunity of design is that we are frequently afforded the privilege to fill another’s needs and desires.
I used to be a bit jaded about my work in an attempt to shield myself from the responsibility of it. I’d say, it is just a logo, only a promotional piece. It’s only a website, just an essay. But, the things that we make are more than just objects. They’re the way we paint pictures of what’s to come. They are the projects that give us license to imagine a better future for ourselves and everyone else. These objects represent the promises that we make to one another and symbolize the connections between us. They come from the friction between the world we live in and the one we want to live in by building on top of our longings and exemplifying our capabilities.
W. H. Auden said a culture is no better than its woods. I’d say it’s also no more than the things that it makes. We understand the lives of faded communities by the vesper trails they leave behind as stories, objects, and votives that represented something more. Everything fades, and in the end, all we have are one another and the things we make to put between us. As art historian George Kubler said, “The moment just past is extinguished forever, save for the things made during it.” All of these creations linger, and they echo across the long line of time and speak to what those people were able to build and what they believed.
And I believe in so much. I believe in the two-way bridges we build that connect us to one another. I believe in the deep interconnectedness of everything, in the benefits of our codependency, and in the opportunity of today when we believe in a tomorrow. I believe in the gift that creative people are given and in the obligation to use it. I believe that we have done well, but I think we can do better. I believe we can do much, much better. There is more making to be done. There are dreams out there that must be made real.
And if you look closely, and ignore the things that do not matter, what comes into focus is simply this: there is the world we live in and one that we imagine. It is by our movement and invention that we inch closer to the latter. The world shapes us, and we get to shape the world. ✳Continue to Endnotes