The Art of Thinking Through Making
I am at heart an irrepressible classicist who likes my type justified and prefers Merchant Ivory to Miramax. I'm an incorrigible Anglophile, a devoted Francophile and I am utterly convinced that my DNA is heavily weighted toward the first half of the twentieth century. I'm kitsch-averse, but I do cling to certain kinds of nostalgia, particularly that which conjures theatrical re-enactments of times long gone. (That would explain the Merchant Ivory fixation.) And I am fully aware of indeed, an advocate of the degree to which visual thinking makes history real.
Thinking through writing, as I am doing now, is one way of experimenting with the expression of an idea. But thinking through making work is entirely different. I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that, as a tangible proving ground for a hypothesis, the idea of thinking through making is perhaps unique to designers. We demand nothing less of our students.
But have you tried this yourself lately? It's really hard.
This year, I took a leave from teaching to begin work on a new book, an exploration I chose to parallel with the pursuit of a new body of work in my studio. I have long tried to sustain a practice in which I write to figure out what I can't make, and experiment with form as a way to push the idea even further. Framed by inevitable demands of consumer culture the clients, the budgets, the insatiable technology the process of making work is, more often than not, curtailed by reality: it's not so much what as when, and how, and of course how much it costs, how much time it takes, how much impact it has when it's out there, orbiting solo as that final, autonomous, designed thing out there in the world.
But back in the studio, the dialogue between the maker and the thing is something quite different: there's a kind of blind faith, an anti-discipline at work in which the process of discovery is fueled less by what than by what if? What if you turned it upside down? What it you switched materials? What if you shut out the noise that smacks of responsible conclusions and replaced it with loopy questions, fragmented notions, implausible fictions?
This is where the pencil comes in.
Drawing is the point of contact in which idea begins to approximate form. There is a kind of transcendent energy in the sketchbook, or the tissue, or even the napkin upon which the simplest of doodles begins its long, twisted road to realization. It's all grist for the mill, and the studio is its incubation chamber: not the studio with the white board and the IT guy and the phones ringing and the incessant emails, but the studio in which the ideas seek, and ultimately start to find, their burgeoning, fledgling form. Cezanne once wrote that the painter must enclose himself within his work, and it is true that such investment physical, spiritual, and deeply intentional is, in fact, what making work is all about. But as the public's media appetite moves further away from the dreamy landscape of imagination (think Reality TV and confessional memoirs) the danger for design, I think, is imminent. Sure, design serves a pragmatic need, but that doesn't mean its point of departure needs to position itself so firmly in the realm of logic, does it? Drawing, as the primary gesture of making, reopens the doors of the imagination and recasts the process as something completely different. Scary, because you don't always know where you're going. But somehow, you know when you get there.
There's time, later for logic, for editing, for justifying all that type, for putting up those responsible roadblocks that we all must, on some level, choose to embrace. The studio, at least a little piece of it, is not the place for such duty-bound thinking. Somewhere, somehow, it must be the place for thinking through making.
But don't take my word for it: the only way you'll know for sure is if you turn off your phone, pick up a pencil and try it yourself.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
, a founding editor of Design Observer, is an award-winning graphic designer and writer and a former contributing editor and columnist for Print, Communications Arts
magazines. A member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale
and a recent laureate of the Art Director's Hall of Fame, Helfand received her B.A. and her M.F.A. from Yale University where she has taught since 1994.
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