Design And Truth

Design And Truth

by Robert Grudin

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“If good design tells the truth,” writes Robert Grudin in this path-breaking book on esthetics and authority, “poor design  tells a lie,  a lie usually related . . . to the  getting or  abusing of power.”

From the ornate cathedrals of Renaissance Europe to the much-maligned Ford Edsel of the late 1950s, all products

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“If good design tells the truth,” writes Robert Grudin in this path-breaking book on esthetics and authority, “poor design  tells a lie,  a lie usually related . . . to the  getting or  abusing of power.”

From the ornate cathedrals of Renaissance Europe to the much-maligned Ford Edsel of the late 1950s, all products of human design communicate much more than their mere intended functions. Design holds both psychological and moral power over us, and these forces may be manipulated, however subtly, to surprising effect. In an argument that touches upon subjects as seemingly unrelated as the Japanese tea ceremony, Italian mannerist painting, and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation, Grudin turns his attention to the role of design in our daily lives, focusing especially on how political and economic powers impress themselves on us through the built environment.

Although architects and designers will find valuable insights here, Grudin’s intended audience is not exclusively the trained expert but all those who use designs and live within them every day.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The faddish exaltation of design as an all-encompassing force reaches an apogee in this scattershot manifesto. English prof Grudin (Book) discusses a hodgepodge of phenomena as exemplars of good or bad design, including St. Peter's Basilica, Edsel automobiles, Microsoft Word, Heidegger's philosophy, human liberty, and a Velcro doohickey he rigged up to fix his TV remote. Grudin has a cosmic conception of his subject (“the entire universe is a knowledge design”) and draws correspondingly vast conclusions that go beyond engineering and aesthetics into morality and politics: good design, he contends, expresses honesty and integrity, while bad design embodies falsehood, corruption, and abusive power. Unfortunately, these notions get lost in a rambling text that jumbles together perceptive criticism (the artist Christo's installations were “a massive multiplication of banalities”) with self-help exhortations and leadership bromides (“corporate activity on all levels should be value-driven”). There's little payoff to Grudin's inflation of design into a theory of everything beyond abstractions (“The energy field created by a given design is situated within the larger energy that is the marketplace”) and clunky analogies (“The U. S. Constitution is the design equivalent of the Jaguar XKE”). The result is a promising but ill-designed treatise. Photos. (May)
International Herald Tribune

“At a time when ethics and integrity are increasingly important in design, Grudin’s perspective is particularly interesting. . . . To him, design is--or should be--joyous, inclusive and empowering, ‘an erotic pragmatism’ which is ‘fundamental to the survival of our humanity.’ ”--Alice Rawsthorn, International Herald Tribune

— Alice Rawsthorn

Design And Truth [is] a very good book. . . . It proves that the Golden Age of science and philosophic writing may not have yet crested. Get it, read it, and indulge the times.”--Dan Schneider,

— Dan Schneider

Qompendium Magazine

“A must-read book.”--Qompendium Magazine, featured book

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Yale University Press
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Copyright © 2010 Robert Grudin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16203-5



Sen no Rikyu and the Paradox of Innovation

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.


After the sixteenth-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi had established control over the bulk of Japan, he asked the celebrated Sen no Rikyu to join his court at Seikenji. Rikyu (1522–91) was the acknowledged master of the Japanese tea ceremony. He was already known as a great man and had received honors that even an emperor might envy. Rikyu accepted the invitation but did not show up at Hideyoshi's palace at the expected hour. Hideyoshi waited and waited. What could be keeping the man?

When Rikyu finally appeared, Hideyoshi testily asked what had made him so late. Rikyu answered that he had been drinking tea. This unceremonious response was too much for the peeved warlord. He grabbed a bamboo tea ladle that Rikyu had brought with him and snapped it in half. For Rikyu that ladle had been an icon. A present from his favorite teacher, it symbolized to him the understated eloquence of design that was known as wabi-cha. For Hideyoshi, the ladle symbolized something else: the puniness of a subject who needed a lesson in manners.

The rift between the two men soon widened. Rikyu's commitment to creating, in the tea ceremony, a culture of simplicity, equality, and integrity clashed with Hideyoshi's passion for a ceremony rich in the accoutrements of power: ornament, display, and social inequality. Rikyu's fame and influence, moreover, threatened Hideyoshi's confidence. One day in the spring of 1591, the autocrat demanded that the designer commit suicide. Rikyu had no choice but to obey.

Design is the purest exercise of human skill. To add a new instrument or process to the design treasury is to engage in the force of evolving nature. Each new design is a new discovery, conveying a specific truth about our relationship to nature and to each other. Rikyu's designs exerted enormous influence after his death. By redesigning the tea ceremony, he created a social avenue of truth: an interpersonal medium where the exchange of useful knowledge could proceed simply and lucidly, without interference from extraneous influences like social rank. Rikyu expressed the meaning of this knowledge-based innovation in a haiku:

Sometimes a person may feel embarrassed to ask questions. That embarrassment should be set aside and questions asked.

Rikyu's reform of the tea ceremony established a cultural matrix that would bring his nation into the modern world. But unfortunately his creative power did not translate into immediate political pull. For all his greatness of spirit, he was at the mercy of a jealous warlord. He could not, except perhaps by martyrdom, engrave his message onto the face of the world around him. The same irony applies to almost all designers. However grand their aspirations, they wait upon the will of people in power. And power, which can ratify the truth of good design, can, conversely, debase design into a fabric of lies.

Rikyu's story raises a number of questions about the nature and scope of design: How does it relate to its political and economic context? Is it a specialized pursuit or does it function in all of our lives? To what extent can human interactions be designed along creative principles? Are our lives subject to the designs of others? If so, can we design a way to our own liberation?

To address these issues, we must first appreciate the role of design in the context—or contexts—of human experience.

We can start off with a working definition of what design does.

Design shapes, regulates, and channels energy, empowering forces that might otherwise be spent chaotically. In the design of a house, the energy to be shaped and channeled is that of the air and light that run through the halls and windows and rooms, and of the people who dwell there. In the design of a car, the energy is the power train and the passengers. In the design of a formula or a work of art, the energy is meaning.

Designs have meanings of their own, too. Every realized design is a module of embodied knowledge, and much of this knowledge is readily translatable into words. Dress designs and car designs are seen as making "statements"; regional architectural styles are often called "vernacular." These meanings can intensify or suppress the energy that design shapes and channels. Design can sing out the essence of energy, as with the Jaguar XKE (1961–68), or ignore this essence in an exploitive quest for mass-market appeal, as with the Ford Edsel (1958–60). Such variations occur because design mediates between creativity and economics. The energy field created by a given design is situated in the larger energy field that is the marketplace.

Design's location in the marketplace gives it a profoundly moral character. At one end of the ethical spectrum, design can be a muse; at the other, a prostitute. We have already considered the tragic example of Rikyu. In this book we will consider other extremes, too:

In 1525, Federico Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua, instructed the artist Giulio Romano to build and decorate a palace just outside town on a marsh called Te. Federico allowed Giulio's extravagant imagination free play. Giulio and his men labored for eight years. In the end they produced an astonishing work of art, a palace full of variety and surprises but true to a singular esthetic idea. Giulio's work remains a tribute to Renaissance imagination and vision.

In 1962 the New York City Port Authority hired the architect Minoru Yamasaki to build a world trade center. After elaborate research and review, Yamasaki presented a proposal for a large architectural complex that would gracefully complement the existing skyline of Lower Manhattan. The Port Authority trashed this proposal and demanded something more massive. Yamasaki complied, and the result was a twinned colossus that insulted the skyline, posed safety hazards, and offended fundamentalist Islamists. In 2001, with catastrophic loss of life, his work was destroyed by a group of fanatics.

Design waits on its political milieu. In an enlightened marketplace, good design reigns paramount; in a debased marketplace, design is either dismissed entirely or rudely contorted, sometimes into monstrous form.

But the marketplace, indeed politics itself, is subject to design. Legal and cultural paradigms are not normally spoken of as designs, but in fact they are blueprints that sculpt the character of large populations and channel human energies in specific directions. The US Constitution is the design equivalent of the Jaguar XKE and the Palazzo Te: it liberates human energies and maximizes human options. The culture under Hideyoshi was like the Ford Edsel: it trapped the human will in ungainly applications and monolithic paradigms. Something similar can be said about works of art and literature, as well as about the various designs of corporations and foundations. To a significant extent, it is these embodied or enacted concepts—call them knowledge designs—that inspire or suppress the energies of a given culture.

Overarching even these are the energies and designs of nature, so magnificent that billions of people still believe them to be the work of a Great Designer. Although overwhelming evidence speaks against this theory, the cosmic order is so dazzling that it inspires reverence in and of itself. In its enormous variety and incessant bursts of genius, nature has inspired countless human designers. Nature, moreover, tests our own designs and often files a boisterous complaint when they are not up to speed.

It is the psychological and moral power of design, however, that will concern me most here. For all its potential sophistication, there is something primal and essential about the act of designing, as though, more than any other act, it brings us in touch with our own nature. Design is so fundamentally human that our species has been called Homo faber (man the maker), implying that no historical influence will ever alienate us from the meticulous process of refitting our world. Design is a primary medium of human liberty, too: we must either design our own lives or subject ourselves to the designs of others.

The practice of design, however humble its objectives, can be liberating and renewing. My own simple design of a repair kit for broken television remotes, and the way this design liberated me from helpless anger, will serve as an example of the healing power of design in a world of perplexed and frustrated consumers. More seriously, we will visit the achievement of Baldassare Castiglione, who designed a social medium that brought his nation away from feudal society and into the modern world; the testimony of Giorgio Vasari, who gave us the first modern theory of design; and the life and work of Thomas Jefferson, who brought a designer's perspective to much of what he touched. These examples and others will speak to the value of design as a functioning attitude, a modus operandi that allows individuals to engage life meaningfully and to readdress personal and professional issues with a new sense of freedom. My broader purpose in this study is to wrest design from the possessive grip of corporations and to return it, insofar as possible, to the hands of the individual.

There is, finally, the relationship between design and truth. Because our designs convey solid meaning, and because they interface between us and the world, they must tell us the truth about the world and tell the world the truth about us. A well-designed hoe speaks the truth to the ground that it breaks and, conversely, tells us the truth about the ground. The same can be said about any product of invention, be it mechanical, like a car, or intellectual, like a speech. Good design enables honest and effective engagement with the world. Poor design is symptomatic either of inadequate insight or of a fraudulent and exploitive strategy of production. If good design tells the truth, poor design tells a lie, a lie usually related, in one way or another, to the getting or abusing of power.

My extended essay has two parts. In Part One ("Homage to Rikyu: Design, Truth, and Power") I will dwell on design under the stresses of the real-world marketplace and will test the premise that "good design tells the truth." In Part Two ("Homage to Vasari: Design, Knowledge, and Energy") I will explore the effects of design on psychological and social dynamics by testing the relevance of design principles in areas of human activity where they are not normally applied. Beginning with the psychology of art and ranging more and more freely, these meditations will conclude with a discussion of what is perhaps the most intimate aspect of design, the ways, both conscious and unconscious, in which we design our mental worlds.


Good Design Tells the Truth

Compare two views, each expressed by a famous modern designer:

To drink water from a waxed paper cup on the highway and to drink it from a crystal goblet are different gestures. In the first case, you almost forget that you exist as you drink. In the second ... you realize that you have in your hands an instrument that makes you reflect upon how you are living at that moment.

Probably the most widely recognized of all the Eames furniture designs, the Eames lounge chair occupies a favored place in thousands of living rooms, studies, libraries, and dens—as well as in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Charles Eames's aspirations for the chair were less lofty. He wanted it to have "the warm receptive look of a well used first baseman's mitt."

These two views represent polarities in the theory and practice of design. For Ettore Sottsass, design must make a statement that lends excitement and dignity to an implement's use. For Charles Eames, a design is defined and dignified by use itself. Sottsass privileges form over function; Eames implies that expressed functionality is the purest sort of form. Although the form-function issue may seem academic, its applications can produce dramatic consequences, especially when the design involved is an expression of public policy.

Designs Collide in Paris

One balmy summer night in Paris many years ago, I motorcycled with a passenger through the short tunnel in the north wing of the Palais du Louvre and onto the Place du Carrousel. I was in the fast lane, doing about thirty miles per hour. I leaned into a left turn and instantaneously got a close-up view of the rear end of a car that had stopped dead in my lane. There was no time to swerve, brake, or pray.

I was lucky. As the bike slammed into the car, the handlebar absorbed much of the impact, twisting grotesquely in my hands and slowing my forward motion enough to prevent fractures. I was doubly fortunate in that the light metal of the car bent as my knees and knuckles hit it.

Another design feature of the car turned out luckily as well. My passenger, Jim Breasted, had taken flight, hurtling over my back, rolling over the roof of the car, and subsiding on the pavement in front. A competition skier, he knew how to take falls. He was momentarily dazed but otherwise unhurt. The car's fabric roof, light metal, and rounded front-to-back design had cushioned his descent.

These results were all accidental: felicitous contacts in what could have been a nasty wreck. But a third surprising result was no accident at all. The car was totaled. My front wheel had penetrated to the car's frame and bent it irreparably, then bounced back without so much as a flat tire.

Why was this no accident? Consider the two vehicles. The motorcycle was a 1956 Norton Dominator 99, prince of British bikes. It was solidly built and finely balanced. Its aerodynamic design whispered of a clear day, an empty road, and the rush of air. The Dominator had made such a splash in the world of design that French president Charles de Gaulle had ordered at least a dozen of them for his guard of honor. The car was a Citroën Deux Chevaux, the French equivalent of a Volkswagen bug, but so ungainly that it made the bug look like a Lotus by comparison. The Deux Chevaux was built of light components for marketability and economy. Performance, comfort, beauty, and security were not its design priorities. The Deux Chevaux had never been crash-tested; it just looked that way.

The violent encounter of Dominator with Deux Chevaux was thus a symbolic meeting between two primary players in the form-function dynamic that characterizes all design. The Deux Chevaux exemplified the hegemony of function over form: the subordination of all design priorities to the idea of cheap and trusty transportation. Other instances of emphatic functionality include Levittown and other low-priced housing developments, military and other institutional technologies, and most hand tools. The Norton, on the other hand, was a marriage of form and function: a synthesis in which graceful design suggested superb functionality and in fact contributed to it. Other examples of this happy blend include the Toyota Prius, the Taconic State Parkway, the original Casio G-Shock wristwatch, and, last but not least, the Parisian baguette.

But what of the missing extreme, the tyranny of form over function? To find a good example of this, we may look to the oft-cited but still helpful example of the Ford Edsel. In 1958 the Ford Motor Company had introduced the Edsel to compete for a share of the market between its mid-priced Mercury and its high-priced Lincoln. What motivated the Edsel's design was Ford's perceived need to make a big splash that would improve sales. Ford might have done so successfully by stealing a page from the book of European manufacturers who made comfortable cars that performed ably. Instead, Ford decided to test the limits of Detroit's penchant for mass-market battleships.

The Edsel, as one source put it, came in two sizes, "big and bigger." The larger version weighed more than two tons, much of which was made up by its giant body, which seemed to hang loosely on a more compact frame: from the side, the car looked like an ersatz space vehicle. Its rear end was dominated by gull wing brake lights so huge that they parodied their own usefulness. The front end resembled a female body part, with headlights.

Excerpted from DESIGN AND TRUTH by ROBERT GRUDIN. Copyright © 2010 by Robert Grudin. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Robert Grudin is professor emeritus in the English Department at the University of Oregon. His Book: A Novel was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize in Literature. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

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