Is This Still Design?

It seems as if my focus has not been on design. My daily concerns revolve around writing, either posting to Horizons of Significance, or fretting and scheming to find ways to get my fiction into print. I do feel pangs over whether I’m neglecting this blog, and miss sinking my teeth into an ongoing project. Even so, these reactions appear to me to be more sentiment than substance. In the end, I don’t believe I’m neglecting design.

I am not practicing design, or any of the spatial and visual arts these days as I concentrate on verbal expression. in part, this is purely practical, barring “commissions” – the quotes underscore the futility of even considering such projects in this economy. But that’s not the only reason, or even the predominant one – it never seemed to stop me before even when there was little or no money in it.

As a do-er; planning, designing, plotting, and making are appetites that run deep in me. There is such a satisfaction to be had simply putting on the traces, and pulling against the resistance of a job. Like with many normal, laudable, useful impulses, this one has been toxified. Too many people pushing too many projects using too much energy and not enough consideration for whether the enterprise is a good idea. The world is clogged with doing, clogged with clever, a midst a dearth of restraint and wisdom.

If I were wiser, perhaps I would know what to do in response. I’m not, nor am I in a position to leverage any particular call to action into widespread acceptance. I can recognize the need for restraint, and in a very simple and direct way, respond to this need by not doing. I’ve taken this one step further with this blog by setting up a forum where I not only advocate not doing, but constantly throw out concerns and questions that might lead others to call into question what they are doing.

Is this still design? I think it is. One of my most profound lessons in design is embodied in a quotation from Lao Tsu, “If you do not know what to do, do no thing.” This was second only to learning the value of an eraser! Both present apparent passive negations as positive actions that lead to a sought after result. The stillness he calls for provides us with the only chance to find a place to stand when we ultimately do act. It gives us the space and time to consider why we feel challenged, and leads us to look at the widest scope of possibilities before accepting an apparent “need” as something actionable. It points out the way inaction can be the best path to a lasting result.

This last point may seem the most confusing, but it is the most important. We have over done, over built, over acted; because we could. There really is no more cogent reason. We could, we had “surpluses” of energy and “wealth” available, just begging to be put to “use.” It’s a wonderful thing to have such an opportunity, but like a feast-day, it’s best if it comes around rather infrequently. When it becomes habit and expectation, then its atrophies us as it bloats us and makes us increasingly incapable of dealing with any lack of excess.

Maybe this is what I’m working on as a designer, cultivating and building a capacity for a lack of excess. It is easy to jump to the conclusion that a lack of excess is the same as constricted circumstances, or poverty, or famine. We are still some way from these extremes, and it is also more useful to leave that dichotomy of wealth/poverty, and look at a broader continuum. Instead of only seeing these terms at each end of a line, we can find that they are in a spatial continuum where these qualities are foci hanging in space held together by a relationship within a continuum with many areas that fall outside this simplistic view of human possibility.

Unless we stop and take a deep reckoning of how that space is laid out, and what our relationship to its various networks, are, and how the various fields of influence are arranged; we cannot break out of our current assumptions. If we remain bound to a line between wealth and poverty then we are all destined to greater and greater impoverishment.

This is what’s at stake, why I feel it so vitally important to “do no thing” while grappling with these questions. Habits need to be broken, other habits instilled. This takes energy and attention that is otherwise squandered in business-as-usual, or what has replaced it in most cases, Managed Adaptive Decline.

If you find yourself flustered, angered, or simply nonplussed by this prospect, I would suggest this shows how deeply captured you are by the current process, and I would point out that this represents a greater need to find ways to begin doing no thing. Begin to quiet the noise of all those “needs” and “demands” and you begin to find a space in which to work.

All designers are deeply aware of the folly of doing without consideration. That may be our driving motivation as designers. We chafe at the lack of foresight in others, the flailing impatience, and resulting waste of effort, resources, and opportunities. It’s now time we turn this impulse on ourselves.

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