Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Why Artists & Designers need Scientists: Exhibit A

Posted 22 Oct 2017 / 1

I have always had a prediliction to root for the little guy, but sometimes you actually need to be the little guy to see how little guys are treated. And at Pratt, a behemouth of art and design, science is the little guy (or if you prefer, gal… in our department our most presigious scientists are women). That’s fine with me: I enjoy being in the minority. But sometimes, I do feel like a rebel faction embedded in ideologically hostile territory. Man, I just want my field respected enough to be taken seriously. To not be appropriated. To not be distorted. Is that too much to ask?

With that context, you should be able to understand my sense of horror when I came across the above event announcement for the DESIGNA: The DNA of Design symposium. Where do I start with the blurb above? It is so short, and yet it manages to perpetuate so many wrong and disturbing ideas about our scientific understanding of genetics. The only way to make sense of the mess is to de-construct the mess…

The first question I have is how seriously to take what it says. Is it really about genetics at all? Or is genetic language being used as a “prop”, as a new way of packaging and promoting whatever it is that these designers want to say about the state of design? Perhaps “DNA” is just shorthand for something that I don’t understand or know about, just an appropriation of scientific language to mean something design-specific? Or is it possible that whoever wrote this doesn’t know what the “DNA of design” is either… maybe this is just a tag line that “sounds cool”? It would be pretty lame if this whole symposium was built around a meaningless veneer of “DNA talk”, but that’s possible.

Another possibility is that genetic talk is being used as a proxy for something else, intentionally or unintentionally. Perhaps when these designers are talking about DNA and genes, what they really mean is culture. Is it possible that this symposium is really just about the cultural evolution of the public’s design aesthetic? Maybe I can just re-write the paragraph in the following manner to make it clear that this symposium is not about genetics at all:

A brand’s possession of a fundamental social identity is incumbent upon the inherent desire for design to be part of a person’s cultural inheritance. Today, appreciation for design is not just for the sophisticated few. Instead, the mantra of stores, like Target, is “design appreciation for all,” knowing that all people contribute to the propagation of design culture. The symposium will deal with the crossover of design as a state of mind and a state of fact from every design discipline — fashion, interiors, products, entertainment, and transportation. Join our distinguished panel as they explore the evolved cultural basis of design.

If what they are really talking about is the evolution of culture, everything in this paragraph makes a whole lot more sense! Of course the only thing remarkable in this statement would be the idea that designers are not the only people who contribute to culture. I really hope that’s not some revolutionary idea in the design community!

My final (and by far worst) option is to take the genetic talk in this symposium description seriously. Maybe they really think that they are exploring the genetic basis of design? Take what’s been written at face value and you end up with a pile of problems. Ignoring the confusing idea that brands have DNA, we still have to figure out what “a person’s genetic blueprint” is. Are we really talking about common human genetic architecture here? (Yeah, I see that biologists appropriated a design term, but I think they did so while staying true to the meaning of the word “architecture”). If we are talking genetic architecture, who exactly is doing the desiring to have design be a part of that genetic architecture? What do our desires have to do with the state of our genome?

And did I miss a big scientific announcement? Was it not only discovered that there is a gene locus that makes us appreciate good design, but also discovered that all humans have nice, functional alleles at this locus? (Thank you to the Target Foundation for Genome Research for ridding of us of our previously-held eugenic ideas about only wealthy folks having the “design gene”!) There’s so much cringe-worthy talk here. Just the idea that there is in any way “a gene” for such a complex behavior as designing (and appreciating “good design”) is tough to swallow; even the media seems to be slowly picking up on the idea that there really aren’t genes “for” anything, especially complex behaviors that result from the functional overlap of hundreds of different traits.

What makes this use of sloppy, meaningless genetic language hard to swallow is that it is a cheap stand-in for what could be a really interesting engagement between the fields of design and biology. To what degree are humans “evolved to design”? How did design serve as an adaptation to our ancestors, and what does that tell us about our current behavioral drive to design? To what degree is the drive to design universal across the human species? To what degree is there a universal design aesthetic across the human species? How do our evolved biological predispositions towards design interact with the rapidly-evolving cultural landscape of design? Can design as both a process and a product be improved by better understanding the psychological and cognitive processes that underlie our use of design to modify our existing environments? So many good questions not at all asked!

Looking at my three options explaining how this symposium got wrapped in genetic talk, I would put my money on the first explanation: “DNA” and “genes” are just appropriated terms that are being used to suggest (without any scientific basis) that both brands and people have “essences” that can be boiled down to some common code of design. Based on what is being said in this description, it doesn’t appear that this symposium is about how and why culture changes (in other words, cultural evolution). And I have my hopes set on the idea that it is not possible that the genetic sophistication of these designers is so low that they literally think that people have a “design gene”. So my best guess is that the truth is kind of in the middle: “DNA” and “genes” are appropriated terms that are trading on the massive (but unfortunately all too common) misunderstanding that our literal genes are somehow a fixed code that defines our personal (and perhaps species) characteristics. It’s a bummer, given how interesting it is to ask the very real question how has our evolutionary history influenced why we design, the way we design, and our design aesthetics?

Now that would have been a great question to build a scientifically-serious design symposium around!

And by the way, that Marc Rosen above is not our beloved Mark Rosin, in case you were wondering…

A Minor Post, Adaptation, Art & Design, Behavior, Cognitive Bias, Cultural Evolution, Evolution, Evolutionary Psychology, Fashion, Gene-Culture Coevolution, Genetics, Happiness, Human Evolution, Industrial Design, Pratt Institute, Psychological Adaptation, Science in Art & Design

1 Comment to "Why Artists & Designers need Scientists: Exhibit A"

Chris Jensen 14th December 2017 at 2:32 pm

I found it fascinating and instructive that DNA seemed to have nothing to do with this symposium as described here:

Kind of figures that the whole DNA thing was just sort of a shiny wrapper. It is annoying when people outside your field use tropes from your field as superficial wrappers!

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