Sense of Design

Moataz Nasr
Moataz Nasr, An Ear of Mud, Another of Clay

Perhaps it was the 1800s when the Visual Turn happened, when man embraced his sense of sight as the truest of his gamut. The Enlightenment gave man the ability to give up the rest of his senses for his eyes most of all. There wasn’t time to sit and listen to the radio for long, we should invent something that inundates the eye. Television. Architecture isn’t majestic enough. It needs to be taller. There should be curves that are impossible. Food should look great, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be food, or even taste or smell like it. No need to have that experience of sitting on the stoop as a pie cools in the window. Smell is what creates memories. Hang on to them, but it doesn’t have too much of a function for problem-solving.

It’s obvious that design rests mostly within the visual realm. Most of us ‘designers’ do not understand that there is even a thing called ‘sound design’ or what it does or how that works. I cannot recall but maybe twice having a conversation about this weird sense of hearing that surrounds us all day long or about its quality. One of the two conversations had to do with the lack of sight, about how to design systems for the blind. Not only did most people in the room completely check out of the discussion, but I believe most were incapable of comprehension. I was impressed more by the completeness of the checking out than the lack of effort at understanding. This was a college setting. This should not be happening. And we were discussing a problem that needed solving.

I question why the emphasis of design is mostly on the visual, why this sense of sight is the most important or even why we consider it the most persuasive. The music I listen to can change the entire space of a day. Al Green can put me in the mood for love. Bach can create the desire for wine and a back porch on the beach in New England with a blanket, a sweater, a book, and my girlfriend. Radiohead makes me want to work, or lay on the floor in a dark room. And that is just music.

That doesn’t make mention of the creaks in the floorboards of that porch. The grating of the chains of a porch swing. The crackle that the tightly woven strands of wicker make when you shift your weight on them. Sound can create a space or a mood even more so than sight. It is essential for navigating our daily movements. It can create terrible irritation or complete pleasure very rapidly. Some cultures seem to have a deeper understanding of sound. Some cultures seem to elevate the ear above even the eye.

To comment, I imagine an installation devoid of visual stimulation. A completely dark room at a comfortable temperature with special hypersonic speakers set up to create ‘barriers.’ This starvation of one sense to highlight another will perhaps help create a new idea of ‘space.’ We know the starvation of one sense creates heightened acuity of the others over time, but for those with all their senses, could it also create a more dimensional sense of the world? To increase the emphasis on our lack of understanding, perhaps the sounds the speakers emit could be cultural in nature–the om of Tibetan monks, the drums of Central African tribes, the ululation of Arabic women.

Perhaps for designers, this gained level of consciousness will make us better problem solvers.  Relearning our need for sound and appreciation of all of our senses as a whole may not only help us reach a deeper understanding of ourselves, but assist in bettering how communications can be delivered or space be designed in the future. The discourse may gain a level perhaps forgotten long ago, when there was more time and more space.

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