David Stairs

You know the popular saying, “No pain, no gain”? It’s always kind of bugged me. I mean, it just doesn’t stand up to common sense. There’s no animal in the universe that likes pain. Most go out of their way to avoid it. But human institutions are contrary. They seem to be grounded in pain; one might almost say it’s their medium. Religion, politics, business, and education, at least in the Western sense, are all predicated upon the idea of advancement born of struggle or suffering. With this in mind I decided to search among my favorite writings by designers to see if the same argument could be applied. Designers often tend toward self or professional contradiction, which is human. But is it healthy? In honor of the beginning of D-A-P’s fifth year I offer the following. Design devotees may find it painful, but, I assure you, not un-gainful.

The Designer As Anti-Professional
Frank Lloyd Wright published a polemical book in adulation of his Master, Louis H. Sullivan, whom Wright considered ill-treated by the architectural establishment. Some will consider Wright’s screed objectionable, others merely idiosyncratic. My favorite line among its many quotables is: “…professionalism is parasitic— a body of men unable to do more than band together to protect themselves.” Genius and the Mobocracy 1949

The Designer As Self-Defeating Realist
George Nelson, a consummate insider, published a rambling series of essays about design and its relation to society. The following is from the section entitled Good Design: What is it For? “The purpose of good design is to ornament existence, not to substitute for it… Albert Einstein lived in a drab, ill-furnished little house (to judge from published photographs) on a side street in Princeton. Can you see this man’s life enriched or deepened in the slightest by an immersion in good, modern design? Or Picasso’s? Picasso could have the services of the best architect in the world any time he wanted; he happens to have three dwellings, none of which could be accused of being either good or contemporary design. Bracque lives in a conventional Normandy farmhouse. Matisse has occupied a very commonplace hotel suite for years. Yet all of these people are extraordinarily sensitive and fully aware of what has been going on. One could hardly accuse them of not understanding the meaning of good design. And yet, as consumers, they ignore it.” Problems of Design 1957

The Designer As Blind Visionary
William Morris was a great believer in the moral efficacy of handicraft. For him it represented the nobility and satisfaction of work while industrialization was “…altogether an evil.” Although by the 1880s Morris must have seen the writing on the wall, he clung to an antiquated notion of the beautiful that considered anything machine-made as ugly. “Will the period of machinery evolve itself into a fresh period of machinery more independent of human labor than anything we can conceive of now, or will it develop its contradictory in the shape of a new and improved period of production by handicraft?” The Revival of Handicraft 1888

The Designer As Salvage Diver
Bruce Mau is as much a self-made guru as was Oscar Wilde, for whom the greatest work was the artist as personality-cult icon. Here, the Canadian might almost be parodying The Picture of Dorian Grey, a story about the depth of surfaces. “5. Go Deep. The deeper you go the more likely you will discover something of value.” An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth 1998

The Designer As Purveyor of Cultural Hubris
In the late fifties Charles and Ray Eames spent three months as consultants to the Government of India courtesy of the Ford Foundation. The report they issued directly led to the founding of the National Institute of Design, arguably the most famous design school in the developing world. Ironically, Eames, who asked the following questions about a country with a deeply entrenched social caste system, betrayed the Enlightenment-era bias so common to Americans. “To what degree is snobbery and pretension linked to standard of living? How much pretension can a young Republic afford?” The India Report 1958

The Designer As Social Anthropologist
Adolf Loos was infamous for his celebrated resistance to the late Victorian Art Nouveau movement. What served as a new religion for modernists was heresy in the author’s time, and seems quaint by today’s liberated standard. “The Papuan covers his skin with tattoos, his boat, his oars, in short everything he can lay his hands on. He is no criminal. The modern person who tattoos himself is either a criminal or a degenerate. There are prisons in which eighty percent of the inmates have tattoos. People with tattoos not in prison are either latent criminals or degenerate aristocrats. The urge to decorate one’s face and anything else within reach is the origin of the fine arts. It is the childish babble of painting. But all art is erotic. A person of our times who gives way to the urge to daub the walls with erotic symbols is a criminal or a degenerate.” Ornament and Crime 1908

The Designer As Soothsayer
In March 2002 Milton Glaser addressed the AIGA National Design Conference, which had been postponed six months by the events of September 11th. His comments, entitled This Is What I Have Learned, were numbered 1 through 10. “It’s interesting to observe that in the new AIGA code of ethics there is a significant amount of useful information about appropriate behavior towards clients and other designers, but not a word about a designer’s relationship to the public.” Excerpted from Number 10: Tell the truth 2002

The Designer As Humanist Pedagogue
Lazlo Moholy-Nagy spent much of his career teaching. From the Bauhaus to IIT, his hand guided many curricular decisions. But it would be a mistake to think of him as either a pedagogical formalist or a profession monger. He was a visionary who thought of the whole individual amid his social circumstances. “The industrial era marks the extinction of the amateur and the arrival of the careerist, whose only aim is to commercialize the means of expression; that is, not to produce out of conviction, but merely to deliver technical skill for whatever subject is asked.” Vision In Motion 1947 There you have it, eight brief quotations each totally out of context and re-contextualized to suit my thesis. To what end? Given the fact that designers are more likely to be critiqued for their deeds than their words, popular wisdom holds that we shouldn’t be too literal about their admonitions. But I’d like to suggest another possibility. An additional pop-psych nostrum has it that one needs to, “…walk the talk.” I propose that we at least hold designers to their written ideas, if not their interview comments or sound bites. Critics of design already do this, for example, Hal Foster’s critique of both Loos and Mau in Design and Crime, or Arvind Lodaya’s comments in Agenda for a 21st Century India Report.

In a universe decreasingly based upon written literacy, it’s doubly important that designers stick to the Horton Resolution and “mean what they say and say what they meant,” especially when they write. Being at odds with common sense is only a problem for those who don’t think. For those who do, I’m told suffering is its own reward.

David Stairs is the editor of Design-Altruism-Project

One Response to “Counterintuitive”

  1. Jimmy Koz Says:

    “‘No pain, no gain’ is an American modern mini-narrative: it compresses the story of a protagonist who understands that the road to achievement runs only through hardship.” – David B. Morris

    “If little labour, little are our gains: Man’s fortunes are according to his pains.” – Robert Herrick

    “Industry need not wish, as Poor Richard says, and he that lives upon hope will die fasting. There are no gains, without pains…” – Benjamin Franklin

    “Feel the burn” – Jane Fonda

    No Pain, No Gain: Mastering A Skill Makes Us Stressed In The Moment, Happy Long Term – Science Daily http://tinyurl.com/yhqmeso