5- The designer as His/Her Own Witness

to come

To be engaged in a situation where one is to interact responsibly, challenges one to witness one’s own self. This “self” is to be extracted from the situation for one to be conscious of one’s environment and to act accordingly. What it means for a designer to be his/her own witness is to play his/her own devil’s advocate, to be unselfish and invisible. After all, design is not about the designer, nor is it about the commissioner or the manufacturer; it is about the solving of the problem and its end-users.

To realize a design successfully involves the collaboration of many individuals, each is responsible for his/her task and the interaction with the others. The behavior of each individual is observed and kept in balance by the other. Once during a discussion on a design proposal, a commissioner from our office remarked, “I don’t want to hear designer’s bull shit!” His remark was intended to remind us the purpose of our function, with that remark he extracted the “self” out of us. Self-denying is a challenge, after all, we started out in this world with “I”; it is one of the first words we could utter. The world swirled around us, with our mothers and fathers industriously tend 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. As we grow older, the “I” becomes less prominent for most of us, but it still surfaces when there is a lack of self-witnessing.
With the lack of self-witnessing, a certain blindness can arise; such as when designers fall in love with themselves, with their designs and with their interest for fame. It becomes harder for them to be critical or remain objective of their judgments, and thus constructive criticisms from others are denied.

Another aspect which can be hurtful to a project if the “self” is prominent, is when designers make too many assumptions based on their own behavior and thinking. Such prevent designers from foreseeing other possible situations on how the end-users might interact with the design. Take website design as an example. More than often I find myself, as a user, at complete lost in the chaos of websites. Unable to find what I’m looking for, have no clue how to move forward or return to my previous location, and in the end start to wonder which site am I on? This feeling of disorientation and frustration can mostly be prevented by having a clear overview on the “whom”, the “what” and the “where”. Many websites fail in this basic principle, partly due to designers that make too many assumptions on the user’s behavior, unaware that the “making” is not the same as the “using”. The hypothetical end-users they have in mind often resembles one no other than they.

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/herself entirely into the fictional world. There should be no visual obstacles that interrupts and diverts the reader’s attention. The typography, in another word, is to be invisible in able for the printed words to come to life. The job of the typographer is to ensure this 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”, part of the cause 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 us behind the stage; the performer is the design. A successful design is to function 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 result of such. If we, the designers, were to put our egos aside and leave the stage, the design can get a chance to proof itself.

Chin-Lien Chen