Cognition & Space

What do you think about when you hear the word ‘design’? There seem to be an infinite number of definitions, and in my experience, those definitions are usually offered up with a shrug that suggests “of course, the one definition we unanimously agreed upon”. One I heard a lot as a student was ‘art but with clients’, which to me always rang as wholly false. Another was ‘thinking made visible’, which I can kind of get on board with, but doesn’t exactly fit design specifically (after all, wasn’t it first said that ‘good writing is thinking made visible’?). My least favourite has always been ‘problem solving’, because after all, isn’t every profession based around solving problems? I’ve heard increasing numbers of people quote Steve Jobs in saying that design is how something works, which halts the gears in my head. It feels right, but it only feels right. Because design, as I know it, isn’t necessarily how something works, as much as why or what.

I’ve been thinking about the story of the blind monks and the elephant a lot this year. My default assumption is usually that I’m only seeing a small part of the whole, and that my opinion is based on an incomplete picture. That usually leads me to do two things. 1: investigate further to try and see the rest of the elephant. 2: make inaccurate proclamations based on biased and incomplete resources.

So I’ve been thinking about my own definition of the word (as I hope everyone does about their own practice) to try and explain what I talk about when I talk about design.

The root of the word comes from the phrase ‘to mark’ or ‘to sign’, which makes sense, even in a modern context. We consider something to have been designed once we have a tangible thing that can be communicated to an outside party. Marking, whether it be a sketch, a melody, a wireframe, seems to be the integral defining stage that moved something from being not designed to designed. And if something has been accidentally marked, accidentally generated, we wouldn’t still say ‘what a fantastic design’. In the way that the word is used today, design only exists as a byproduct of intention. An accident, or a coincidence, or a natural occurrence does not get the blessing of the word design. And if it does, it falls within a religious conversation that leads well outside of my definition. An argument I will permit is whether or not it has to be a human intention. Or if any conscious decision by anything to mark anything qualifies as an instance of design.

If you’ve gotten this far, and we agree that design as a verb is the intentional marking of something, then we can start to think about how that informs modern use cases; because I know that unto itself, it’s not exactly a very useful definition.

As far as I can tell all design falls into two, and only two, different categories: cognitive design and spatial design. And that within that, there are only four actions that can be applied: mutation, translation, manipulation and distillation. This may seem limited (and it in fact may be), but I think it can be used as a pretty healthy lens through with to unpack any given instance of design. At the very least, I’m confident that it’s more useful than ‘how something works’.

When I say cognitive & spatial design, I’m referring to the delineation between our minds and our bodies. And with design as a tool of influence to be used outside of ourselves, how we act to engage with either the mind or body of another individual (or in some cases both).

Cognitive design refers to anything that involves the transmission of an idea. Anything that can, without any physical interference, alter the way another person feels, thinks or interprets a scenario. While there are multitudes of uncategorized forms of design that do this, I’ll highlight a few common examples to start forming a map within the modern landscape of design. Illustration, packaging design, advertising, book design, type design, photography, writing, filmmaking & sound design all exist predominantly within the cognitive landscape. Persuasion graphics are intended to communicate an idea to an uninitiated audience, illustration is meant to distill information or to provide visual context, photography and filmmaking transpose spatial (often, though not always) information from one context to another. While there are always examples that do not transmit information in some manner, the dominant use gravitates towards the distribution of information.

Spatial design in the inverse, does not inherently communicate new information, but instead defines new patterns and experiences on a physical level. Some examples that predominantly fit this categorization are architecture, fashion design, industrial design, user experience design, automotive design, interior design & environmental design. Though unlike the examples of cognitive design that sometimes very neatly into a singular category, fields that predominantly engage in spatial design more often than not have a cognitive element to them, even at the behest of the designer themselves. For example, the most pure modernist architect would have a hard time preventing their intellectual ideals from becoming visible to the person who ultimately engages with it, even if it’s ironic to their professional ideals. Our basic cultural understanding of space will never allow to hand of the creator, and the information that came with it, to fade from view. Equally, if the tangible qualities of an object alone were the only face of an expression of industrial design, I would imagine fewer people would dogmatically buy iPhones, and the likes of Sony and HTC would not be in the same market position they are now.

But the crossover  is where these categorizations actually become interesting. For example, with video games, you’re often navigating a designed space, but doing so within a system wherein the only possible end result is new information. Does the physical traversal of space still fundamentally count as a traversal of space, or do we round-down to the idea that it is technically only the collection of information in a way that is distinct from how a chair is operated? For sanity’s sake I am making a blanket rule that virtual space is not meaningfully different than material space, (though I could still be swayed about the condition of objects within that space which only serve navigational purposes such as a rock within a non-procedurally generated game, which harbours a designed information-value that is completely separate from its material counterpart). Equally, wayfinding within a physical environment intends to teach you, but it’s intentions extend only as far as the navigation of the environment it exists within. It’s sole purpose is to enhance the navigation of the space, which is why I’ve created these two camps to begin with.

It could be argued that all design is cognitive design. That any interaction humans (or other sentient species) have with anything is first on an intellectual level, and secondarily based on the physical characteristics that the thing has. As an example, a spoon may just be a cupped tool designed to fit within a single users hand, you could easily decide that the spoon isn’t anything until you understand (or more accurately, it communicates to you) its own function. And that the reason we go out of our way to design spoons is so that we can more easily communicate that function. So I am going to qualify the notion of spatial design. That, while the communication of a core concept may be requisite to the functional success of whatever the thing may be, the core (this is why I covered the fundamental purpose of design early on) of design is the intention of the designer. And that if the transmission of information only occurs to serve a greater, spatial/navigational end, then the cognitive component of the design process can be counted as negligible, given that humans (and other sentient species) experience everything on a conceptual level first in order to engage with it.

That isn’t to say that a cigar is just a cigar. Any given piece of spatial design can create dialogue, if that dialogue is designed into the work itself or can be extrapolated from the work as a new piece of information. then there should be no argument otherwise. Though I do specifically mean ‘a new piece of information’. Cognitive design performs four potential information actions. It translates information from one medium to another, manipulates understanding, mutates an expectation or distills something greater (and if you feel like this is too limiting a definition, I encourage you to apply any of these lenses to your own work and see where they fall short, I would be happy to amend my list). Reiteration of existing information does not fall within these possible actions. If a designed object or system can be potentially read as a confirmation of existing knowledge without contributing new information or affecting that pre-existing knowledge, than it falls outside this definition of cognitive design. This brings me back to the elephant and the blind men that I referenced at the top of this piece. What is inferred from a work of design based on the biases of the individual interacting with it has little to do with the work itself.

Which leads me to think about instances of spatial design that neutralize, or ignore a cognitive understanding of itself. This largely encompasses areas of engineering, wherein the decisions of the creator would not impact an intellectual understanding of the end result, nor require an intellectual understanding in order to function.  A wind tunnel for example, enforces a physical reaction that does not require any awareness of the overall system. It is successful regardless of how aware the user is of its presence. Physics based systems defy our intellect, and consensual or not, are grounds for a purely spatial design system.

I imagine that reading all of this will lead to either one of two responses: Either ‘so what?’ or ‘what are you talking about?’

For the former, I’ve been using this model to try and contextualize my own practices. To look at the generalized categories my work falls within and try and discern more effective, useful containers for them. So that instead of thinking within structures that exist in a customer facing context, I can restructure them the design work that occurs before it becomes a customer facing object. To create a base-level language that will help me generate frameworks unbound from our traditional expectatinos of a given type of work. So that a poster doesn’t just do what posters are supposed to do, and instead to determine whether it should be manipulating information, distilling a larger idea, presenting a wholly new idea or mutating an existing thought in either an entirely cognitive, or instead navigational context. To figure out how, if design still implies a mark, we should be marking.