Cognition & Space

In 2014 I was going through a professional crisis of identity. I was a year into working as a graphic designer, but I felt like I was getting lost. The word design was tripping me up. I was too reliant on it, and it’s a word that doesn’t hold enough meaning to bear the weight that I was placing on it. Superficially, when I decided that I wanted to be a designer, it was in part because the idea of being a designer aesthetically resonated with me. So naturally, as I started to actually work as a designer, those superficial preconceptions started to dissolve. Part of this came from the feeling that my governance over the word was being stripped away by a shifting tide of what and who could be considered to be in a design role. People in connected, but separate professional fields were adopting the word and I became alert to managerial and organizational roles surfacing around me that I didn’t deem as being design oriented, but had very strong justifications for their use of the word. I realized that I didn’t actually have a strong definition of the word that I was letting define me and I wanted to correct this embarrassing fact.

The English word design began as the Latin designare, which translates to the phrase to mark. From this I extrapolated that the word could be applied to anything that a human intervenes in. This tracks with modern usage, and creates a natural divide between what is and isn’t designed. It seems to be a simple line drawn between what humans have made and what humans have not made. But that isn’t necessarily very helpful. Is the molding of plastic the same application of the word as the creation of a government system, and is that the same as a wedding invitation?

Like any good neurotic, I want to be able to create taxonomies and rules over the things I struggle to understand. I’ve been able to break the word design into two separate fields. I started with three, but realized over time that there ultimately only were two categories under which all design falls. I am in no way convinced I’m right about this and would love to hear from anyone who feels differently. The two categories I have been calling “cognitive design” and “spatial design”, and the idea is that all human invention falls into one of these two categories.

But in order to discuss these two, I think it’s important to also identify the purpose and intention of design. I have landed on my own answer, but it feels strange to put such a fine point on it. So again, I am open to hearing alternatives. The singular purpose I keep coming back to is the intention to manipulate the human experience. It seems to me, in our anthrocentric world, that all design is made to alter or enhance the natural human experience. Determining this is I think a helpful step in breaking down what design can and can’t be (and also what can and can’t be design).

Cognitive design refers to the manipulation and orchestration of an idea that needs to be communicated from one party to another. It is the design of information. An advertisement, painting, book, play, movie, icon are all the transmission of ideas through a human intervened circumstance. Almost all design falls under this category, because ultimately communicating with other humans is the most fundamental and perpetual desire we have as a species.

Anything that falls outside of the realm of cognitive design automatically falls into the category of what I am referring to as spatial design. It makes sense to me (though perhaps only me) that human intervention with any thing that doesn’t transmit an idea has to do explicitly with the physical space surrounding us. Spatial design refers to a building, a city, clothing, transportation. Anything where in order to succeed as an human endeavour, an idea does not actually need to be transmitted.

Where this becomes both interesting and hard to silo into these channels are the semiotics of space, or the spatial byproduct of information transmission. For example, a building may be a tremendous manipulation of mass and form, but it may communicate a message by virtue of its physical characteristics. And if the space was designed without that message in mind, would that message be considered a cognitive design? Is all human communication, intended or not an element of cognitive design, or do we reserve the right to use the word design in that instance only to that which has human intention and motivation behind it? Or if we look at a city, a logical are pure case of spatial design, is the end goal of our roads and buildings not to facilitate the communication of other human beings, and if so, does that make it an exercise in spatial design or cognitive design first? Furthermore, an individuals navigation and use of that city is going to be based on the information they can infer and react to based on how structures are organized, so isn’t that still a raw case of cognitive design?

I am still hammering out answers to my own questions, to try and create a system that I can use to guide my hands while I work. This feels like I’m on the right path, and overtime I plan to develop these concepts into a more intelligible system. But it feels like a first step, and I believe in the utility of organizing thought, and if there’s one thing that could stand for a more intentional design, it’s design itself.