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Uncommon Sense
by DK Holland

Art is famously intuitive, idiosyncratic: To explain it is to destroy it. This can also be true of the more creative applications of design. But designers and illustrators often have no choice, so they take a “create first; rationalize later” approach (since clients often require rationales).

Unlike art, design and illustration rely on a schizophrenic blend of individualized and global expressions. There is an audience plus a client plus a planet and the designer is accountable to all of them. Then there is your very own ego, the artist within the designer with whom you are ultimately allied. And then, I almost forgot, there is the profession of design which needs to advance or it won't thrive. Doesn’t the designer have that accountability as well? Are designers prepared for this heavy lifting?

In her letter, Bantjes is clearly frustrated by the laziness of design students when they come to her with ill-formed questions. Ironically they are supposedly learning to become clear communicators—or are they? If design education promotes the most successful designers as two-dimensional, stereotyping them as exotic talents. It is not stressing disciplined, critical thinking or the development of common sense. The profession is “doing it to itself.” As irrational as it sounds, the common sense of the profession (and the institutions that depend on the profession) has always been that there’s a small pond and it has a few big gloriously exotic fish frolicking in it—but since the pond is surrounded by twelve-foot-high glass walls you will probably never get anywhere near it. So students ask inane questions while circling around what they really want to know, “How does it feel to be in the pond with all those other really big fish?” In reality, good design doesn't have a star system anymore, nor is it about creating eye candy as it once was. The pond is drying up.

Creativity and innovation still thrive in our multicultural society, however, and that’s still what sets the United States apart. And the most important jobs of the future will be going to “creative” creators, according to writer Thomas Friedman.9 And “creative” creator describes designers at their very best. If designers only listen to teachers, clients, the institutions or “the audience” they serve, however, they will probably not be getting these jobs nor will they be playing a positive role in advancing the profession. If they can’t determine their own core values, challenge and develop them, act on them, it will be “garbage in, garbage out”—beautiful garbage maybe—but garbage nonetheless.

Design, like art can be the leading edge of change. It’s the gatekeeper for communication. You can identify any decade just by looking at the design style it creates. Yet what about the last two decades? Currently, when so much is changing, so much is in turmoil, where does design fit in the big conversations?10

As a child, designer Christopher Simmons attended a small private school in Canada. In the hallway a plaque read “The rules” yet the only rule below was “Use common sense.” The teachers, mainly Scottish and British, implanted their common sense in the still-developing minds of their students. There was no running in the halls since common sense (as a teacher reminded Simmons) said the halls were dangerous places. A door could fling open in your face. Simmons was reprimanded for not picking up litter on the floor as he passed. His teacher pointed out, “You had the opportunity to help the community but you didn’t. Use common sense.” In this way Simmons internalized mindfulness as well as a proactive attitude. He learned to practice self-reliance, to be an active player in his communities. And it’s in this spirit that Simmons asks, “How do we advance the conversation about design? Culture can’t be advanced by measuring against the status quo. One of the roles of art and design is to push beyond expectations. One of the roles of art and design is to expand what is known by exploring new territory. One of the roles of art and design is to invent—new languages, new forms, new experiences, new ethics. What movement is design a part of? How dedicated are we to the idea that creative work advances culture in addition to serving the needs of people, the planet and company profits?”

Designers have an advantage many people don't have—strong visual imagination—and the possibility of becoming a “creative” creator. The talent to get people involved in what they are looking at is extremely valuable. The  challenge is to make sure what they are designing actually adds value. By getting your committee (i.e., your entire board of directors) into harmony, you can develop a much faster, reliable way of assessing your common sense (thanks, Aristotle, Buddha and de Tocqueville) and respond appropriately in real time. Because most of the committee doesn’t use language to communicate in their process it’s through meditative silence that the chair is going to be able to bring the whole committee together. And, if you think about it, this is a lot like the design process.

Much of the JFK brand, built in the mid-twentieth century, was about hopes and dreams. And it was promoted in an era of less technology, less transparency. The public canonized him when he was still alive, but now that we know a lot more about the real man, his life, his failings and flaws we realize he, like Umbrella Man, was unfairly stereotyped, two-dimensionalized. The more you know about any person’s life, the more real they are to you, the harder it is to be prejudiced for or against them. We are all just humble individuals, each of us with a brain, blood and guts, chakras, beliefs and values, talent and unique common sense. CA

1.       The Umbrella Man, a film by Errol Morris, the New York Times.
2.       Cecelia Holland, Saturday Evening Post 1969.
3.       Common Sense, Wikipedia.
4.       Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker J. Palmer.
5.       Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt.
6.       Ibid.
7.       Ibid.
9.      That used to be US, Thomas Friedman.
10.    “So you say you want a Devolution?” by Kurt Anderson, Vanity Fair, January, 2012. 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.