The Dangers of Passionate Design, Part Some of Many

Natalia Ilyin's thoughts on passion in design, from Metropolismag, via Sterling:

The describing of oneself as “passionate” is pretty much a given these days if you’re in any sort of business. We get junk mail about passionate state representatives running for office, brochures from accountants passionate about filing our taxes; we find passion in plumbers and tree surgeons, and where I live we commute on the ferry with literally hundreds of passionate software engineers, sitting quietly in their clean jeans and fleece vests and Helly Hansen parkas typing away on their laptops. It’s a cliché, okay, but it is a particularly ironic cliché in the design professions, for if there is one single thing that our design language was created to eradicate, it is passion.

Passion is not enthusiasm. It is not love. It is not enjoyment, and it is not flow. Passion is an unstoppable overflowing of emotion that destroys in its satisfaction, that torpedoes lives and marriages and nations, that shoots husbands or coworkers or strangers in rage. It is the hot lava of the soul, and it burns what it pours over. It is not the positive team-building thing your sup­ervisor would have you believe. Passion causes wars and brutal killings and divorces, and has astronauts wearing Depends and the headmistresses of girls’ schools going to jail, and gets husbands run over in parking lots. To say that a bunch of software engineers or graphic designers are passionate about their work is to try to interject sex and confusion and addiction and desire into a kind of work that is essentially asexual, organized, left brain, and sober.

... It’s true: sometimes we like to give the impression of wild abandon à la Pierre Bernard—we design an edgy poster, use a disgusting photo to make a point, design a building that looks like a torso, string a cable in a weird way. But is that passion? Or is it calculation of the highest order—about exactly what will communicate our ideas to whom? Focus is one thing. Passion is another.

Taken as a whole, the last 100 years of design history can be seen as a violent abstraction from passion, from the bondage of longing, from needing. Certainly early Modernists professed ideals about community, sharing, and individualism. But they were afraid of passion. They had seen what it could do. And somewhere along the way, somewhere in the jockeying for position at the Bauhaus, design became a place where distance and aloofness became the ideal, where coolness and detachment became lauded, where human quirks and the admission of frailties became weakness.

It is our Nietzschean heritage.... What if today we got upset about what our client’s product actually does to the planet, what it will do to the landfill, or to the air, or to global warming. Oh, no. Let’s not think about that, it makes my skin itch. Just like our recent ancestors in Weimar, better safe than feeling. Better to be detached so that we can all go to the same party. We want to be close, but not so close as to feel too much. We want to be apart, but not so far apart that we feel alone on the planet.

[Scho­p­en­hauer famously imagined] a bunch of freezing porcupines: they have to huddle together for warmth, but if they get too close, they’ll hurt each other with their quills. If they stay too far apart, they’ll die of exposure. They have to find a place in between, where they are warm enough but aren’t being hurt by one another.

In our world all people balance distance and closeness. Designers do it for a living. What is more, we unconsciously model our social behavior on that of the designers who have gone before us. And at the end of that line are some porcupines who did what they could to survive in Weimar, who developed our rules of how a designer should act in the world, a social game that Helmuth Plessner once called—speaking of the larger social sphere—“an open system of unencumbered strangers.” For us it’s porcupines all the way down.

Enough With It!

Two aphorisms spring to mind: "Whatever is done out of Love lies beyond Good and Evil." (Friedrich Nietzsche)

And: "It is the air that connects us. / It is the air that separates us..." (Yoko Ono)