Witnessing the “Self”

Self-witnessing is vital to human social interaction. So what happens when a designer fails to witness his/her own presence? And for a designer, is this self-witnessing to be present at all times?

To be engaged in a situation where one is to interact responsibly, challenges one to witness one’s own presence. The sense of identity and the awareness of one’s own self guide our presence in human interactions. For a designer, this witnessing of presence occurs on two fronts. Socially speaking, the presence of ‘self’ is essential to the designer’s interactions with the others; this self-witnessing may be effected by the gender, the cultural, and social identity of the designer. On the other hand, design itself asks of the designer to eliminate his/her own ‘self’. Design is not about the designer, nor is it about the commissioner or the manufacturer; it is about how the problem is solved for its end-users. It is the designer’s fundamental responsibility to ensure this. Therefore it is the gender, the cultural, and the social identity of the end-user that are of relevance, and not of the designer’s. In the pursuit for the appropriate design solution, the designer is to be a responsible witness by being his/her own devil’s advocate, to be unselfish and invisible.

Eliminating one’s ‘self’ is a challenge, after all, we started out in this world with the ‘I’; it is one of the first words we could utter. The world swirled around us, with our mothers and fathers industriously tending to our every need. We were the center of the universe until one of the other ‘I’ brutally snatched away our toy from the sand box. When the ‘self’ is not extracted, designers can make too many assumptions based on their own behaviour and thinking. Such prevent designers from anticipating other possible situations of how the end-users might interact with the design. For instance, the feeling of disorientation and frustration is common for users of websites. Many websites fail in the basic principles of providing a clear overview of the ‘whom’, the ‘what’, and the ‘where’ of a site; partly due to designers who make too many assumptions on the user’s behaviour, unaware the ‘making’ is not the same as the ‘using’. The hypothetical end-users they have in mind often resemble themselves.

Apart from the call for designers to be unselfish, there may come a time when it is appropriate for the design itself to take on the same act, to be invisible in able to function. Take the design of a novel as an example. A reader has only one interest, which is to read, to plunge himself or herself entirely into the written world. There should be no obstacles that interrupt and divert the reader’s attention. The typography, in other words, is to be invisible for the printed words to come to life. The job of the typographer is to ensure this presence of invisibility by eliminating typographic flows such as widely spaced words, long text lines, small type sizes, illegible typefaces, a page ending with a hyphenated word, and much more. The typography of a novel is designed to appear as ‘not designed’; like an invisible machine at work.

In the past decades, there has been too much media spotlight on the ‘creators’—such as books that put designers on the pedestal—. This may be one of the causes for the misconceptions of this profession. To be your own witness is also to have a sense of responsibility towards one’s duty. The nature of our duty places our presence behind the stage; the performer is the design. A successful design is to perform on its own without its ‘creator’. Its ‘creator’, as in other professions, does not work with a magic wand but with earnest collaborations and with perseverance for problem solving. Most great designs are the results of such. If we, the designers, were to put our egos aside and leave the stage, the design could get a better chance to proof itself.

Chin-Lien Chen , Chris Vermaas