Anyone who has ever taught knows that within a few days of meeting a new instructor, students—particularly grad students—develop an innate understanding of just what trigger will get that teacher off on a nice time-consuming rant or ramble. I remember an English professor who would veer from the subject at hand (the “art of the essay”) and immediately start gesticulating wildly if one happened to slip the words Agent Orange into a sentence. And then there was that chemistry professor who had only to hear the word Freon to abandon moles and measures, and launch suddenly into a tale about the police picking him up when he was wandering around town late at night talking to his dead mother.
Sadly I too have my Pavlovian responses. My students can guarantee themselves a blissful ten minutes free from design cares should they happen to use the verbs lay or lie incorrectly. I have also been known to lay about me with a large blunt instrument should I hear the old corporate chestnuts “at the end of the day,” “out of the box,” or “cradle to cradle.” But to instantly derail my plan for a nice droning lecture on how communicators make meaning or some other hard thing, all my students have to do is drop one particular word. My old students set up the uninitiated to actually say that word—it’s terrible what they do to those first-years. Generally the conversation goes like this:
Me: “Well, here we all are on the first day of class! Let’s just go around the room and introduce ourselves. Tanya, why don’t you start?”
Tanya, a self-assured brunette with straightened diagonal bangs, a vintage Pucci minidress, and oblong glasses, clears her throat and says, “Hi. Well, I’m Tanya, and I went to X University and majored in Y, and then I spent three years at Microsoft as a designer in the blah-blah group, and my passion is…”
All the second-years sit back and smile triumphantly. “Excuse me, Tanya,” I say, mouth in a frozen grin, “but I must say a little something about the word passion, and I must say it now, before I burst into spontaneous flame.” She looks around, confused, for the corporate culture from which she has just come has taught her to use the word passion to describe her interest in design.
The describing of oneself as “passionate” is pretty much a given these days if you’re in any sort of business. We get junk mail about passionate state representatives running for office, brochures from accountants passionate about filing our taxes; we find passion in plumbers and tree surgeons, and where I live we commute on the ferry with literally hundreds of passionate software engineers, sitting quietly in their clean jeans and fleece vests and Helly Hansen parkas typing away on their laptops. It’s a cliché, okay, but it is a particularly ironic cliché in the design professions, for if there is one single thing that our design language was created to eradicate, it is passion.
Passion is not enthusiasm. It is not love. It is not enjoyment, and it is not flow. Passion is an unstoppable overflowing of emotion that destroys in its satisfaction, that torpedoes lives and marriages and nations, that shoots husbands or coworkers or strangers in rage. It is the hot lava of the soul, and it burns what it pours over. It is not the positive team-building thing your supervisor would have you believe. Passion causes wars and brutal killings and divorces, and has astronauts wearing Depends and the headmistresses of girls’ schools going to jail, and gets husbands run over in parking lots. To say that a bunch of software engineers or graphic designers are passionate about their work is to try to interject sex and confusion and addiction and desire into a kind of work that is essentially asexual, organized, left brain, and sober.
Sure, we all have our consuming interests. We’ve all snatched that “I’m loving this” moment out of the air. But do we abandon logic and hand the reins of self-control over to the limbic brain because of our desire for good design? Do we step away from the well-buttressed conventions of our “designer’s life”? Do we miss a meal over it? It’s true: sometimes we like to give the impression of wild abandon à la Pierre Bernard—we design an edgy poster, use a disgusting photo to make a point, design a building that looks like a torso, string a cable in a weird way. But is that passion? Or is it calculation of the highest order—about exactly what will communicate our ideas to whom? Focus is one thing. Passion is another.
Taken as a whole, the last 100 years of design history can be seen as a violent abstraction from passion, from the bondage of longing, from needing. Certainly early Modernists professed ideals about community, sharing, and individualism. But they were afraid of passion. They had seen what it could do. And somewhere along the way, somewhere in the jockeying for position at the Bauhaus, design became a place where distance and aloofness became the ideal, where coolness and detachment became lauded, where human quirks and the admission of frailties became weakness.
It is our Nietzschean heritage. For what if things had gotten too hot among the Dadaists and the avant-gardists and the Third Reich lawyers and war writers thrown together at cocktail parties in Weimar? What if today we got upset about what our client’s product actually does to the planet, what it will do to the landfill, or to the air, or to global warming. Oh, no. Let’s not think about that, it makes my skin itch. Just like our recent ancestors in Weimar, better safe than feeling. Better to be detached so that we can all go to the same party. We want to be close, but not so close as to feel too much. We want to be apart, but not so far apart that we feel alone on the planet.
Designers aren’t the only people who feel this pull between distance and closeness. Arthur Schopenhauer famously used the example of the freezing porcupines as a parable for this careful cultural balancing act. Imagine a bunch of freezing porcupines: they have to huddle together for warmth, but if they get too close, they’ll hurt each other with their quills. If they stay too far apart, they’ll die of exposure. They have to find a place in between, where they are warm enough but aren’t being hurt by one another.
In our world all people balance distance and closeness. Designers do it for a living. What is more, we unconsciously model our social behavior on that of the designers who have gone before us. And at the end of that line are some porcupines who did what they could to survive in Weimar, who developed our rules of how a designer should act in the world, a social game that Helmuth Plessner once called—speaking of the larger social sphere—“an open system of unencumbered strangers.” For us it’s porcupines all the way down.
Design spent its teenage years in a cultural interlude that could not tolerate intimacy. Those people are our ancestors, and we reproduce their code genetically. So please, when you introduce yourself in my class, tell me you are focused, that you are interested, that you care, but don’t tell me you are passionate. I just can’t take the closeness.
© 2007 Natalia Ilyin First published in Metropolis Magazine.