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Uncommon Sense
by DK Holland

The head became decapitated from the body when Western philosophers started to give more credence to logic and intellectualism than holism and sensibility. By ignoring our mind/body connection, common sense stopped making common sense. But redefine the term as meaning to bring your senses, chakras and intelligent beliefs into harmony and—voilà—holistic common sense leads to a richer life and community. Most of all it can further all your conversations.

If the people we communicate with don't understand us, if they don't “get” our sensibilities, nothing good happens. We know this instinctively so if we want to get something done, we seek common ground.

There are all kinds of dialogues, ongoing conversations within groups. Families need them. Communities promote them. Teams require them. Good governance relies on them. Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Socialists, Anarchists, even Tea Partiers and Occupiers use them to eventually establish their “party lines.” That’s how they learn to function well within their groups, to make progress, but since political parties seek to differentiate themselves, they tend to be polarized from other parties, often insulting each other, labeling each other as “ridiculous” or “silly” or lacking “common sense.” We hear this daily on the news. It’s the Hatfields and McCoys all over again. This is, in itself, silly and ridiculous since it doesn’t advance anyone’s conversation. It doesn’t help improve the lives of the people they represent or the world in general, which is the big goal we all share. Isn’t it?

One approach to advancing conversations is to host discussions on issues, but require that the participants only reveal their positions at the very end. This promotes open dialogue, encourages empathy and dimension, avoids labeling or oversimplifying of viewpoints.

Teams that are homogenous, become limited in their value especially if their goal is, as in the role of designers, to create communications that reach out to a broader audience, one that doesn't share any “common sense.” Coca-Cola famously established a team to rethink its brand offering in 1985 deciding to change its tried-and-true cola formula. So they launched New Coke based on blind taste tests. Everyone knows Pepsi tastes better than Coke so improving Coke’s taste is common sense, right? Not so. An immediate hue-and-cry from loyal Coke consumers caused Coca-Cola to—tail between its legs—abandon its strategy, and quickly develop a nostalgic Coca-Cola Classic brand, returning ironically to the original, less tasty formula. A more diverse team might have questioned the narrow mindset of the New Coke concept. Coca-Cola could have avoided this whole mess including the huge expense. Consumers had a similar response to Pepsico’s new Tropicana orange juice packaging a few years ago, perhaps for similar reasons: The lesson hard learned in both cases, common sense makes no sense when it comes to taste. And change is not always good.

Aristotle, Buddha and de Tocqueville had the right idea. Science confirms that the nervous system links directly to the brain from all over the body forming a “committee” of mini brains that decides on our actions, with the prefrontal cortex (which has access to language) acting as interpreter—chair of the committee.5 And if it is disciplined and mature (usually when you are in your mid- to late-20s), then the prefrontal cortex is able to hold onto and compare two opposing concepts at the same time and make more holistic decisions. Holding two opposing ideas at once is the very definition of irony. It’s a mental exercise unique to humans that helps develop capacity and wisdom (since life is chock-full of irony). But what if the members of “the committee” aren’t on good terms with each other, or just aren’t communicating very well? The chair cannot even convene a meeting. The results can be embarrassing, not productive, even illegal.

Obviously we’ve all had one or more of our body parts take over, if just for a moment, involuntarily refuse to coordinate with the rest. This is not news. A girl is “hot” so guys flock to her led by their “lower brains.” Your boyfriend wants to tell you something, but you have a “gut” feeling that it’s not good news. Your “heart” is broken when your girl tells you she doesn’t love you anymore and you can really feel it—right there—in your heart muscle. This mind/body connection is why men’s magazines bulge with full-bleed photos of naked women; monks meditate on mental images of rotting corpses to dull their sexual impulses.6

People who write about their experiences, express their feelings through free writing (stream-of-consciousness writing, done without editing for a length of time, over a course of time) have less disease and recover faster from illness than those who don't sort out their “story” over time, don’t make sense of what has happened to them. Optimists do better because their common sense tells them there is a purpose in life. They are more apt to grow from the experience and become less afraid of failure and chaos.7 Developing a healthy body/mind connection advances the conversation within your “committee” and your ability to understand the world opens up.

But how do you inform yourself, learn about something you can't really know about? The very original designer/typographer Marian Bantjes wrote an open, well-meaning letter to students who are seeking to understand how “famous” designers work8 in which she advised students to “...learn to form your own opinions and find the evidence to support them...” But if you don’t challenge your opinions (which are so often being pushed by one member of your conflicted “committee”) you won’t grow. Plus justifying what you already believe nurtures prejudice not an expanded worldview, but Bantjes is simply urging students when they come to her with questions about how she works, to think for themselves. “What if, instead of asking me these questions, the students asked themselves?” She says, “Of course it’s much, much harder to do that, but ultimately more rewarding. They need to learn to think and come to their own conclusions.” They might learn to use their senses in a whole new way.

Some of the more sophomoric stock questions Bantjes gets from students (some are smart, all are posted on her site) suggest that their “conversations” are indeed stuck in the mud of narrow thinking. What is your favorite font? What is your favorite color? What is/are your favorite music/books/movies... Common sense says these questions are totally irrelevant to both the student’s evolution as well as that of the designer being interviewed. The answers would not advance any conversation in any direction. Bottomline, they are mostly asking Bantjes to do their homework for them. And while she has complied over and over, Bantjes suggests, “Pretend I’m dead.” Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.