It was a beautiful day in Dallas, the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The president’s motorcade rolled down Elm Street where a crowd of spectators had gathered; among them a single, well-dressed man stood silently under an open black umbrella. After the heart-breaking, mind-altering, traumatic event that followed—after a bullet blew out the brains of the vital, handsome JFK a world of hope was shattered. And many would condemn this unknown man in the crowd (later dubbed The Umbrella Man) as sinister, up to no good.1
For many years, those who perused the grainy film that commemorated the murder of JFK worked hard to rationalize Umbrella Man’s menacing presence: He was part of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy. He was a look out. He was a signal man. There was even a theory that he had a poison dart gun in a contraption under his umbrella. Umbrella Man had paralyzed Kennedy with a dart to ensure the marksman's bullet would be a direct hit. A book was published positing this particular theory.
Eleven years after that fateful day in Dallas, Umbrella Man was tracked down, asked to explain himself at a Congressional Hearing about the assassination. He testified that his umbrella symbolized British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella. It was a visual protest against JFK’s father’s role in appeasing Hitler in 1938 when the elder Kennedy had been America’s ambassador to the Court of St. James. Many European governments had rationalized that they wanted “peace” with the Nazis as Hitler expanded his reach across Europe (most dismaying considering what we know today). Who would have ever guessed that Umbrella Man’s demonstration that day in Dallas was about caving in to evil? Ironic isn’t it? The Umbrella Man had himself been mistakenly tagged as a symbol of evil.
These days we are urged to “say something, if you see something.” But how can we ever really trust that we actually understand what we are seeing?
The common sense rules of daily life make it possible for us to function yet they can be exaggerated or oversimplified or overly rigid: Don’t take a ride with a stranger. You will get raped. Lock your doors or someone will break in. Keep your gun loaded, you’ll need it. While we try to control life, life proves over-and-over again to be more random and unknowable than reliable and predictable.
Our common sense is often dumbed down, warped by fear, as the reality, the righteousness of Umbrella Man illustrates. We can’t help it. It’s in our wiring to make assumptions, create stories without applying critical thinking. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed. And yet what we really should be forearmed of is to challenge our common sense responses.
“If the solution seems obvious, you probably don’t understand the problem.” —Cecelia Holland2
MAKING COMMON SENSE What does the term common sense mean to you? “Commoners have common sense.” Oh really? Aristocrats don’t? “Common sense is what we can all agree on.” But we don’t agree on much, do we? “Common sense is native intelligence.” That’s what Webster’s tells us—but native to where? Aren’t we all from different places? It’s common sense in some lands to murder your sweet sister who’s disgraced your family’s honor by falling in love with the wrong guy. Common sense tells me, that’s murder. “Common sense is sound, practical, ordinary, good judgment,” But what about the lynchings of African Americans (which occurred in the US until the 1960s)? Common sense told the lynchers that “niggers” were not entirely human anyhow. What about the common sense notion that women should not be allowed to vote? The stress could harm their uteruses (or so thought the men who had the vote). “Common sense is what’s blatantly obvious.” And simply insulting to anyone who doesn’t see it that way.
Why do all these contemporary definitions fail to take into account the complexity of modern society? Not to mention how our nervous systems process information? Consider the common sense of ancient wise men Aristotle, Buddha and de Tocqueville much of which is still relevant today.
COMMITTEE OF ONEThe Greek philosopher Aristotle (second century BC) saw common sense as perceptions resulting from the integration of all our external senses (touch, smell, hearing, sight, taste) combined with a sixth intuitive sense together forming an inseparable committee of one.3 In Aristotle’s view, humans, unlike animals, pull it altogether through their integrated six senses. This is because the Greeks saw people as far superior to animals (i.e., closer to the gods than the gutters). We know now that not only do animals have intuition, but they put it to better use than we do (e.g., dogs can sense when a person is about to have a seizure). It’s more likely that human common sense is handicapped by our human tendency to over rationalize.
DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE?When we look at a flat image, we narrow down to just two senses—sight and instinct. The Umbrella Man, the man, not the symbol, was judged based on grainy photos, wild imaginations and a whole lot of anxiety. This warping of our senses happens far more often than we realize as our world moves from face to interface limiting our sensory scrutiny, through distorted, retouched images: computer and television screens, magazines and film. In person, you might get a sense when someone is lying, but on air, when the person is reading from a teleprompter or when reading an article, the goal is to keep you engaged, get you to buy into something—the priority is not necessarily the truth. How do you apply common sense when sorting out what you are seeing or hearing?
The word yoga is Sanskrit for yoke (to harness) or unity (to connect). Since the fifth century BCE Buddhists and Hindus have sought to align the mind with the chakras—the pressure points of the body including the genitals, gut and heart—through meditation and yogic exercises. Only by calming the mind can you hope to gain perspective on the world and your relationship in it (i.e., harness your common sense). We never speak of our feelings as coming from our head: They come from other parts of our body—our heart, our stomach, our ass, our sexy parts.
After touring the rough and tumble United States in the mid 1800s, the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville became captivated by the individualistic society that was emerging here, famously analyzing this Great Experiment in Democracy in America (a book which is still studied today). He coined the phrase “habits of the heart” to describe the beliefs he observed.4 We “shape mental habits” which become “the sum of the moral and intellectual disposition” of people in their relationship to society. In other words, you pull from what you think you know, in your heart, and that forms your values and assumptions about the world. That’s your common sense. That’s what de Tocqueville found remarkable in America 150 years ago.
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.
ONE PERSON’S COMMON SENSE IS ANOTHER'S NONSENSE 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.
MIXING IT UPTeams 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.
COME TO YOUR SENSESAristotle, 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.
THE PENIS BRAIN 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.
THINK FOR YOURSELFBut 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.”
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).
DESIGN = SCHIZOPHRENIAUnlike 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.
IS DESIGN DEVOLVING?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
HARNESSING THE IMAGINATIONAs 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.
JFK, THE MAN NOT THE AIRPORTMuch 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.
9. That used to be US, Thomas Friedman.
10. “So you say you want a Devolution?” by Kurt Anderson, Vanity Fair, January, 2012.