Language as Design Tool - Strefa Designu

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The ability to use language skillfully is important in design. Almost as important as drawing, drafting and model making. Mateusz Halawa, Head of the Humanities and Social Sciences Team at SWPS University’s School of Form talks with Marcin Wicha, writer and graphic designer, about the role of language in the process of design.

Halawa: We have just finished the second round of writing workshops for the first year students of Design at School of Form. I invited you to teach there, because you are a rare example of a designer, who also writes. Right away you proposed that the writing workshops should be called “Language as design tool”. What do you mean by that? 

Wicha: I was thinking about the things that had been missing from my curriculum at school, but which I discovered after I graduated. I’ve realized that there is a lot of writing in the design process. The writing is like translating pictures into words and vice versa. First, we formulate the thesis, then we describe the project. As designers, we constantly discuss and explain things to people and we also try to convince people to our vision. We write to our clients, to our colleagues, and peers. Therefore, I’ve understood that the ability to use language skillfully is important. Almost as important as drawing, drafting and model making. Hence the term “design tool”. 

Halawa: At first, students were surprised: “we came here to learn design, not to write and talk”, but you quickly showed them that words can save a so-so project or kill a great project. 

Wicha: Some time ago, I was presenting a logo design to a client and I used a phrase “this logo is audacious”. The client became anxious, because in his branch of industry “being audacious” was frowned upon. For the client, audaciousness had connotations with being cheeky and imprudent. Perhaps, if I had said “the new logo is assertive” or “bold”, the client might have liked the design better, but due to my choice of words, I had to redesign the logo. In general, the issue is often much deeper. The way you speak frames your thinking about the project. Did any part of the workshop surprise you? 

Halawa: Perhaps we should first summarize what the students were doing. They had to go out into the city and observe people at a post office, on the bus or in a park. They were supposed to find a problem that potentially could be solved by a designer. Then they had to describe the issue and propose a solution. Everything on one page, approximately 250 words. Once they completed the exercise, they read their proposals in class. The proposals were great and provided a fresh perspective and although sometimes they were a bit clumsy, they often revealed issues that I would’ve never noticed before. I was surprised that a task, which I thought would focus our attention on the very pragmatic aspect of language, such as precision, logic, structure, rhetoric, and its eristic quality, would in fact provoke more complex questions. Questions about the boundaries of design, empathy in design, and the origin of bad design. For example, you enter a post office and...

Wicha: ...and it’s full of people. There is a long line up, it’s hot and stuffy. Out of three service desks only one is open, but the window opening in the Plexiglas partition, separating customers from the clerks, is too small for a parcel to pass through and the customer cannot post the package. In the meantime, someone in the line up is perusing a cook book he picked up from the shelf. Your first thought might be “run!” or “what could I improve to make things better and how should I do it?”. It turned out that some students proposed to introduce robots and lasers, while others wanted to remove the Plexiglas partition separating customers from the clerks. We began to talk. We looked at the way the post office works, we looked at people’s habits and at the economy. We discussed the cost of improvements and technical possibilities. This is a range of problems that designers must grapple with throughout their professional careers. What does it have to do with a writing workshop? Perhaps that our workshops encourage students to ask the most important question, which is....

Halawa: ...Am I needed here at all? If yes, then what can I do to make things better? This question prompts a series of other questions: Is it worth it? Who will gain from the project? Will the project worsen things instead of improving them? Some student proposals showed that sometimes design is a fantasy about omnipotence and omniscience, about salvation through design. Stupid people have badly designed the post office or, even worse, the people were completely thoughtless, so now HERE I COME to improve everything in one swoop. At that point, you encouraged students to pay more attention to the causes of bad design. You encouraged them to discover why things or processes are impractical or unusable. In a sense, the course was a bit like a thriller or mystery writing workshop. 

Wicha: In the sense that we were looking for motives. There is a reason for everything. Even if the reason is surprising, baffling or silly, you must find it in order to propose a change. In other words, you must understand other people. Language and the choice of words may be helpful in this task. If you say “the bus is crowded”, you only see a crowd. But if you say “I am standing next to an elderly man, probably a pensioner, two female students, and a tourist from Finland”, then you are taking the first step towards understanding their expectations, needs and behaviors. Do you think that these workshops could be regarded as an introduction to other, more design-oriented, classes at School of Form.  

Halawa: Yes. Because you start designing with the users and their needs in mind. I have discovered that, unintentionally, the workshop has also become a class in philosophy and ethics of design. They say that design solves problems, but it has turned out that the proposed solutions depended on the way the problem had been defined in the first place. Although the solutions proposed by students transgressed the sphere of language (e.g. students used words like: form, remove, add, transform, paint), the problems were defined linguistically. The saying that the boundary of your language sets the boundary of your world is very fitting here. Once we had edited the proposals, the students suddenly saw the problems in a different light and they noticed other possible solutions. This is philosophy. There is also ethics - Who are the people affected by the problem? Who is the key beneficiary of the design? Who have we omitted in the proposal and who was never heard? How do the seemingly neutral and technical descriptions materialize moral visions of reality? In moments like these, the writing workshop was becoming an exercise in designers’ empathy and responsibility. Responsibility for the world that they wanted to create. 

Wicha: I was also amazed that this simple exercise resulted in so many additional benefits. I think that the magic happens, when you stop treating the text as a school paper that must please your teacher and instead you begin to see writing as a process of discovery, a discovery of a small fragment of the world. So to backtrack to the beginning of our conversation – a text becomes one of the design tools.

 

Interlocutors

258 hateusz halawa bw

Mateusz Halawa – Head of the Humanities and Social Sciences Team at SWPS University’s School of Form. Graduated from the University of Warsaw with a degree in sociology. Currently, he is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Anthropology at The New School for Social Research, in New York, where he has been working with students of the Parsons School of Design and the team from the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought. Assistant at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN), where he conducts ethnographic research and cultural analysis of the economic aspects of life. Former strategic consultant and quality researcher at Millward Brown. Recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship and grants from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and the Foundation for Polish Science (FNP).

258 marcin wicha

Marcin Wicha  – graphic designer, partner in Frycz and Wicha, design firm. Author of “Jak przestałem kochać dizajn” [How I fell out of love with design] and several children’s books. Conducts writing workshops at SWPS University’s School of Form.