Play in Design

This draft is now obsolete. A far more detailed presentation is available in Of Design.

The Ampersand as Play

This form of play works with the human perceptual system's need to complete the model of the environment for the user.  The basic idea has been around since Gestalt psychology, as the idea of an emergent new item (the Gestalt, the whole which is greater than the parts, the figure against a ground) emerging as a result of the combination of elements.  The theory posits that the purpose of the human perceptual system is to model our environment in such a way as to allow us to cope with that environment.  Faced with ambiguity, or "play in meaning", humans will tend to assume that there is an underlying order, and will work quite hard to find it.

Gestalt psychologists identified a number of low-level perceptual effects (which we will discuss elsewhere) used to manipulate the perceptual field to help us create mental models of our environment (e.g. Levelling, Sharpening, Proximity, Continuity, Closure, Irradiation, Equilibrium, and the Figure/Ground arrangement).  Each of these perceptual effects provide its own opportunity for play (in the sense of making mischief, or toying with the user), as they tend to represent a difference between the actual world and our perceptions of it.  Because the perceptual system is trying to model our environment, we tend to be unsettled in situations where our perceptual system seems to be failing to understand the environment.

Example of Gestalt "Irradiation" optical illusionWe can see this uneasiness by exposing ourselves to the various optical illusions associated with aspects of Gestalt psychology.  In the example to the left, we see the Irradiation mechanism tricking us into thinking there are light-gray diamonds between the black diamonds.

The effect is unsettling because it questions our ability to understand (and thereby to cope with) our environment.  It questions whether we truly understand our world; whether we can trust the evidence of our senses.

We are driven to understand what stands within the intersection of two apparent realities.  We instinctively want to understand what the difference is between the totality and the two parts.  We want to know what this "Ampersand" is.

Example of Gestalt proximity "illusion"A similar effect works with the combining elements described by the Gestalt (e.g. Proximity, Continuity, Closure). In these effects, we see the chance for greater order, the emergence of a rule which will simplify our understanding of our environment.  In the example to the right, you likely perceive two groups of four black squares, instead of eight individual black squares.

As human beings generally only have seven ideas that they can keep active at any given time, our perceptual system tries to minimize the number of objects.  By grouping the individual squares according to proximity, the perceptual system is able to deal with the set as two groupings, rather than needing to track the individual squares.  The Ampersand here is something akin to "what is the difference between two groups of four blocks and one group of eight?"

At which point, you're probably saying, "so what"?  After all, we are not really that fascinated with the fact that we group objects according to proximity.  Everyone basically understands this effect at some level.  And even the Ampersand in the previous example, while it may unsettle us for a short while, doesn't really tend to alter our life in any huge way.  Without a larger context or a deeper meaning Gestalt effects are neat tricks to add to our palette but they do not themselves form high art.

The key to understanding the role of the Gestalt (and the Ampersand) in design is to realize that perception is an iterative process which works on both ideas and sensory input (with our expectations and experiences feeding into the perceptual process).  The Gestalt perceptual mechanisms seem to be operational when processing figures and fields made of ideas just as they are when processing the evidence of our senses.  That is, we use levelling, sharpening, proximity, continuity etc. to organize ideas and theories about our world.  What is more, when we discover a conflict, or see hints that there is a greater ordering of ideas emerging, we are instinctively driven to try to understand the situation.

For instance, in the following, the line "With no great passion" can bend to modify either the proceeding or following line.  Is the message the simple reading that statistics are communicating without passion?  Or that it is the lack of passion which prevents finding a love?  Or is it that the very idea of applying statistics to matters of love dooms love?

Statistics tell me
With no great passion
I will never find
A greater love
Then that which once I knew.

It is this process of arranging ideas; juxtaposing warring possibilities while providing continuity or proximity to bind them together, that draws in the user.  To understand their environment, the user must resolve the conflict.  However, keep in mind that the user is always free to resolve the conflict merely by ignoring it, pretending it doesn't exist, discounting its interest to them, or simply making an arbitrary choice as to the meaning.  As with most forms of play, the Ampersand requires that the user be willing to engage with the designer.

Venturi's Complexity and Contradiction is a good starting point for understanding the role of the Ampersand.

The Use of the Arbitrary in Design

This form of play involves the establishment of arbitrary starting points, constraints or rules.  Arbitrary elements in a design can provide both generative and organizational principles.  Often arbitrary generative elements are removed from the design in order to produce a negative image within the design.  This produces an underlying order, signified by the presence of what appear to be arbitrary elements, which can be detected by the user by its effects on the rest of the design, as described in the previous section.  In addition, the obvious use of arbitrary elements can be used as a tool to invoke the user's sense of play (in the sense of Universe Modelling or Safe Creation), to remove them from the situation enough to allow for examining otherwise difficult subjects.

To understand how arbitrary generative principles work, consider a design where, as their "first act", the design decides that the building will be composed solely of a collection of (primarily cubic) rectangular prisms arranged on an orthogonal grid, with only Constructivist operations applied to the prisms.  The designer then uses this rule to constrain their design, discarding any movement which would introduce a violation of the rules (or, in mannerist or post-modern traditions, allowing violations solely to "make a point").  Similarly, they use this arbitrary rule to help generate forms.  When presented with a question of what form to add, the answer will almost always be "a rectangular prism".  Of course, this is the same pattern seen with any limiting or generative principle, it is the arbitrary nature of the choice of generative principle that is applicable here.

A distinction should be made between the use of hidden arbitrary elements and overt or explicit ones.  While the design described above would be hard-pressed not to reveal its arbitrary constraints, it is also possible to use an arbitrary generative or limiting schema which is subtle enough to evade immediate apprehension.  Often this is seen as "plan jokes", such as arranging a French courtier's house as a reflection of the steps in a waltz.  This generates an Ampersand, as described above, a hidden order which the user's perceptual system feels the need to understand.  The seemingly arbitrary nature of choices imply a hidden order, and the user will tend to want to figure out the order in order to make sense of their environment.

The "hidden arbitrary order" mechanism has been used to the point of overuse in modernist and postmodernist design.  How many times have we seen designs which can be explained by "look, there was a square there, and then it was taken away", or "the plan is in the form of an hourglass, signifying the passage of time"?  Though there is a certain satisfaction for the user in discovering these easily explained arbitrary orders, much as with simple riddles that children tell each other where the entirety of the meaning is held within a play on words, but they do not tend to give the user insight into the meaning of modern life.

There is an implicit contract between the designer and the user; that the designer will have something to say, some underlying meaning deep enough to require artistic presentation and interpretation.  The user expects, on having spent the time to reflect upon a design, a meaning beyond the trivial.  The user is investing time in the apprehension of the underlying order, and too often answering that effort with what are effectively architectural puns will tend to reduce their willingness to explore any design.  Design is party of humanity's attempts to understand and cope with their world, and jokes about the nature of design are primarily of interest only to those for whom designing objects is a significant part of their world.

The effect of explicit arbitrary design choices can be seen in early works of "hard" science fiction.  An arbitrary "first step" is used as a generator (e.g. somehow a woman figures out how to become invisible, or a man finds a limitless power supply, with little or no explanation of how this happens), and that generator's effects on the "normal" world (a world normally extrapolated from our current understanding, with scientific and social continuity) tend to be the focus of the work.  By making this (arbitrary) break with reality, the designer can show the structure of our society by the way in which it reacts to the change.

In the preceding examples, we have been looking at the use of a single arbitrary element combined with an otherwise orderly and logical system.  Choosing an arbitrary organizational system, or an arbitrary technical advance to use to slice through society tends to give a sense of purpose to a design.  However, the use of the arbitrary can be far more playful.  The obvious and frequent use of arbitrary elements tends to invoke a sense of whimsy, producing a detachment on the part of the viewer from the design, allowing them to examine topics which would otherwise be offensive or troubling.  (It can be argued that this effect applies to the previous examples, as well).

For instance, Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland, or the Monty Python comedy troupe's movies or television shows rely heavily on introducing arbitrary generators and/or organizational principles into the designed work.  Monty Python's social critiques were, couched in farce and absurdity, less offensive to the general public than they would have been had the presentation avoided the arbitrary elements. This use of the arbitrary in play tends to bleed into "Universe Modelling" or "Safe Creation", both aspects of play which we will discuss later.

The Inexact

What is the attraction of a silhouette, cartoon or comic?  Why is a sketch on a napkin more evocative than a fully drafted plan?  Why are we affected by metaphors more strongly than by concrete descriptions of a phenomena?  Why does something that is "just off" disturb us?  Why do we see loose and fast music as being particularly energetic and powerful? 

Part of playing is ignoring differences or details long enough to create a coherent idea or story.  The looseness of this type of play allows us to sift and sort through our perceptions and feelings to find the underlying patterns which govern our experience.  We play with ideas, looking for things that remind us of them, trying to see within our environment rules and orderings which allow us to better understand, and thus cope with it.

Similarly, we are interested in the parti-sketch (the abstraction or inexact representation) as a map which contains the core idea of a phenomena.  We see within the parti a glimmer of a greater truth, the pure force of an idea realised because it is rough and ready. The parti sketch holds the first movement, from which all others are mere elaborations.  When we play this game we are playing a game of seeds, seeking to understand how the crude sketch is expressed in the world.  The parti holds an energy and force which conveys an impression of speed and power.  We are excited by the process of becoming, of defining what will be.

When we play with metaphors, we are pointing out the similarities (and the differences) between the subjects.  There is, perhaps, no easier way to give an impression of depth and meaning to a design than to base it on metaphor.  We cannot help but appreciate a properly drawn metaphor, a binding of things between which we did not previously see any connection.

It often seems that precision of thought is the antithesis of creativity.  The stereotypical artist is sloppy, disordered, almost random in their operation.  Creativity is, perhaps, related to that very imprecision.  When the mind seeks to grab one concept, a dozen similar ideas are returned.  The ability to see a pattern might very well be a function of an inability to distinguish between them when accessing our memory.

Reduction to the essence of a problem is a powerful tool.  Cartoons, for instance, are a form of design where abstraction and imprecision is used extensively to make it easier to communicate ideas.  Each character, a parti sketch of a human, is shown interacting with other parti sketches.  The patterns that arise expose fundamental patterns of human interaction.  Often this allows us to see the humour in life, but they can just as readily be used to educate or to sway opinion.  We see within the cartoon a reflection of patterns we see in our lives, and the abstracted and imprecise nature of the patterns allows us to consider it without getting tied up in the details.

[XXX Choose some example cartoons/comics; Arlo and Janis, Rose is Rose, Monty, Ballard Street, The Far Side]

From another angle, looseness in design is what allows for interpretation.  Venturi's touches on this in 'Complexity and Contradiction'; providing a looseness in a work of design or art is what allows for true art to occur.  He spends considerable time discussing how the collision of different ordering principles (such as in Mannerist architecture), or a slight (often minimal) contradiction between elements is what allows for greatness to emerge.  Venturi was arguing against the Modernist school; a school of theory that assumed everything could (and should) be resolved and explicitly expressed in a design; that there should be as little looseness in a design as possible.

Interestingly, the Modernist school, by attempting to eliminate metaphoric and stylistic thought from design practice, produces some sublimely imprecise designs in the sense of designs that are not overtly telling a particular story, but which hint at half-discovered patterns and ideas.  By relying on simple geometries, Modernist architecture tends to evoke metaphoric comparisons with any number of objects.  The simple forms serve as partis in and of themselves, a sketch onto which the viewer can project any number of metaphors.

Imprecision is a powerful tool for the designer.  It is what opens up our designs to allow them to transcend mere communication of an idea.  It provides the space for interpretation and internalisation which allows the user to find their own meaning within the work.

Ritual in Design

Just as imprecision can be part of our design play, so too is the development of ritualism.  Ritualistic play involves setting up arbitrary or obtuse patterns, experiences, often precise and complex, that do not match everyday life.  Ritual, of course, often plays with the arbitrary and the hidden, building up patterns that do not appear to have a reason, but reflect some hidden order.  Ritualistic play is highly constrained.  The user often experiences ritual as a compulsion, a sequence of actions which must be carried out perfectly if some effect is to be obtained.  However, much of ritual is about belonging, about connection to a higher power whereby the meaning of the ritual is explained.

Examples would include "high tea", worker's stations in factories, catholic mass, the design of entryways for houses (the process and ritual of progressing from public to private).

Has a public nature, and is often most useful when designing for public consumption.  Provides feeling of connection, security, etceteras.

Even on a small scale, ritual is a powerful tool for the designer.  The ritual of actions required to operate a device will tend to be associated quite strongly in the user's mind with the device.

Nature of Ritual as arbitrary or obtuse patterns which are repeated, and which are invested with significance by something other than the particular actions
Effect of those patterns to cause the individual to reflect upon "deeper meanings" behind what they are doing
Ideas of doing something for some reason other than the obvious, sense of purpose
Forced ritual, making the user perform a ritual through the design of a piece.  The case of the factory worker's designed station.