Designerly exnihilism

Any experienced, philosophically-sensitive designer who reads the passage below will recognize how indebted design praxis is to Existentialist thought:

When we combine Heidegger’s explanation of the shift to the perspective of presence-at-hand with Sartre’s functionalist account of emotions, we obtain as a bonus an interesting explanation of our tendency to pit reason against passion. Examination of objects present-at-hand and indulgence in emotions like anger have the same origin — the recalcitrance of the world. Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world. The mistake of the dualist who seizes upon this and speaks of separate faculties or ‘parts of the soul’ is a failure to appreciate that, when things run smoothly, there can be no factoring out and isolation of the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.

The steepness of a hill is an undramatic example of something disclosed through mood. An important and distinctive feature of existentialist writings, however, is the demonstration that some moods and passions disclose matters of great moment. It is this which prompts one commentator to remark that the existentialists’ ‘phenomenology of the emotions … will prove to be one of their most valuable and lasting achievements’. An obvious instance is Angst, which is taken by several of our writers to intimate to us our radical freedom and individuality. I shall return to this and other examples including, by way of further initial illustration, the disclosive character imputed to sexual experience. ‘There is no doubt,’ writes Merleau-Ponty, ‘that we must recognize in modesty, desire and love in general a metaphysical significance.’ Shame and shamelessness, for example, together reveal the ‘ambiguous’ character of the body. In shame, it is revealed as an ‘object’, victim of the gaze and inspection of another. In shameless behaviour, a ‘subject’ — the dancing Salome, say — seeks to captivate another person, tum him into an ‘object’. More generally, Merleau-Ponty concludes, sexual experience is ‘an opportunity … of acquainting oneself with the human lot in its most general aspects of autonomy and dependence’.

Whether Merleau-Ponty’s particular suggestion is plausible does not matter for present purposes. What does matter is the plausibility, given the Existentialist’s view of our Being-in-the-world, of supposing that sexual and other feelings should have ‘metaphysical significance’. If our Being-in-the-world is an embodied engagement with a world that ‘opens’ itself to us through our concerns and projects, there can be no reason to think that it will be disclosed only when we take stock and reflect. On the contrary, unless its features are revealed in a more ‘proximal’ way, there would be nothing to take stock of and reflect upon. If so, it must be wrong to suppose that reason is the faculty which discovers how the world is and passion merely the arena in which our subjective reactions to this discovery are played out.

Above, I highlighted these sentences: “Confronted with the broken toy, one child takes it to bits to examine it while another flies into a temper. The first deals with the recalcitrant object practically, the other ‘magically’. So reason and passion can come to seem incompatible strategies for coping with the world.”

“Design” has always been a sharply ambiguous word, and the ambiguity has always split along these two strategies for coping with object-recalcitrance.

When engineers, and those who think in the manner of engineers (using the philosophy of technik) say the word “design”, the emphasis is usually on the practical aspects of objects.

But when “creatives” use the word “design”, the emphasis is on the passionate and magical. The goal is to use sensory and symbolic means to aesthetically and emotionally frame some artifact to crystalize within a user’s or customer’s worldview to stand apart (de-) as significant (-sign).

The trend in design is definitely toward a seamless de-severing of these two coping strategies, and instead coordinating them to return us to a smooth integration of “the elements of understanding and mood, belief and desire, which are integrated in our engagement with the world.”

But this very project of practical-magical integration requires designers to experiment with philosophy, and “frame” or “concept model” problems in multiple ways — not only to render problems more soluble on a practical level (as some designers think), but to invest the designed artifact with de-significance capable of crystallizing (or at its most magical, dissolving and recrystallizing) a person’s understanding around that artifact — and orienting them to that artifact conceptually, practically and axiosly. (I’m playing with back-forming “axiosly” from “axiology”, to mean pertaining to values. That it is uncomfortably close to the word “anxiously” is a feature, not a bug.)

The most powerful designs force rethinking of entire fields of life — for instance how iPhone put phone design in its own orbit by making it retroactively obvious that the iPhone approach is objectively the right way to design a phone.

(Rant: Upon seeing iPhone, most people were induced to reconceive what a phone can and ought to be. Seeing it, and grokking it, everyone’s understanding reshuffled to accommodate it. After the reconception and reshuffling, it no longer seemed to be an invention; it was a discovery, and iPhone was just a good execution of this newly discovered archetype. And you know, come to think of it, we all knew this truth all along. There was this precursor, and that one. Never mind that nobody did, really, or they would have tried harder to actualize it. But truth is, most people are too subjectively oblivious to catch what happened, and all that stands out to them are little objective novelties graspable by the grubby hands of IP law. Apple could only sue Google over design trifles like rounded-cornered rectangles and elastic scroll behaviors, because its primary innovation — the idea that demanded imagination, faith and perseverance to actualize — was too deep and too subjectively contagious to protect. How else can a phone be designed? It takes a Steve Jobs to hear that question as more than rhetorical and to venture an answer.)


In my years of design, I have done numerous small, local philosophies and noticed that every really good design brief works like a spell on design teams to make perspective-shifting useful things. I call this philosophical craft “precision inspiration”.

And doing this work, day in and day out, has gradually shifted my own sense of truth, of reality, of practicality, of possibility — most of all of the permanent possibility of reconception of every thing and everything, which has cast a spell on me and made me an exnihilist.

Philosophy is designable. Philosophy-guided practice — praxis — is designable.

When we design praxis, we also redesign our overall experience of life — our enworldment.

My ambition is to be a praxis designer.

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