“Empathy is at the heart of design.” - Seth Godin
What is design?
I think it is a good idea to often step back from what I am creatively engaged with from time to time and ask myself that fundamental question.
When I went to the university, my major focus was studying fine art through the medium of oil painting, and other related artistic media. I struggled to express myself and master the medium while, week after week, I would put up new paintings before my peers and the professor, only to get shot down time and again in numerous ways. The images were poorly rendered. The composition lacked clarity or depth. The way the subject was presented left little to the imagination. There was not sufficient conceptual depth to make the reading of this piece worth the viewer’s time. Eventually I found my artistic voice, and finished my schooling with a clarity of vision that I found compelling and which offered my peers plenty of interpretive meat to chew on. I had discovered a place that my professor had inspired me to seek. “Art should be like a funhouse that attracts the viewer into itself where they can get lost and have a meaningful experience. The most precious thing you can ever ask of a person related to art is time. The more of their time they spend with your art the better. Whether physically present, or whether their thoughts dwell on it long after moving on, it has value.” That was the message I took from my instructor that I try to bring into my art.
Art is an exchange of two individuals: the artist and the viewer. It is highly subjective and personal. Good art, in my experience and view, is only complete when what the artist has put into the piece of art connects, on some level, with the viewer. The average viewer today doesn’t give herself or himself permission to bring their valuable perspective and experience to bear on the art. She or he also does not have the stamina to work through a piece until they have a moment of greater clarity, potentially enriching her or his perspective or experience of life. Most often they want to be told, “This is what this is all about.” Or else, the art itself is too opaque except for a select few of so-called “high-minded” intellectual elites who seem to circle their cultural wagons around some kind of proprietary knowledge. In both cases, sadly, no one wins. Art remains inaccessible, or else it is relegated to the level of mere decoration.
But art is not design (exactly).
Design is a major driving force in the world today in ways that it never has been before. Design is about exchange, but not as highly subjective, asking the viewer to step towards the artist and meet on the artist’s terms. Design is more about the artist (or creative) taking a more significant step more in the direction of the viewer (or experiencer). Good design ought to strike all the five senses in some way or another. A pack of gum is no longer just a foil wrapper over some flat sticks of gum base, sweeteners, softeners/plasticizers, flavors and colors. It has become an experience. And not just an experience, but one that people are willing to pay more for. A good designer understands how to craft this experience in meaningful ways that enhance the life of the experiencer.
Apple, for me and many others, represents the pinnacle of this multi-faceted concept of design as experience. Just visit their website, walk into their store, open their packaging, or use their products. On a holistic level, it’s just plain better than all the rest, setting the gold standard to which all other design-conscious businesses aspire. Their products simply possess a functional elegance that people the world over find appealing and attractive (sexy). They believe their products will deliver a better experience of life. They understand design as empathic exchange. Period. Full Stop.
How can I, as a designer of light, embody these principles of art and design? How can I make it a holistic experience for others? How can light connect with sound, smell, taste and touch, not just seeing? These questions challenge me to strike a creative and practical balance between the tension of designing for me and designing for others.
If the above is true, and I sincerely believe it is, how can anything that falls below this standard of pursuit be called design? There are those who approach lighting as just getting light into a space as cheaply and simply as possible. There are still others who approach lighting from pure geometric alignment. There are many who are interested in fixtures more than the light they produce. There are even some lighting designers who fall more into the category of artist, while others fall into the category of pragmatist. All of what they produce is often referred to as lighting “design”, but it is not. What they all have in common most often leaves people with an experience of light, but not design. They don’t know what they don’t know, until they experience better. And the better experience is achieved through better empathy.