"Design shapes, regulates, and channels energy, empowering forces that might otherwise be spent chaotically...In an enlightened marketplace, good design reigns paramount; in a debased marketplace, design is either dismissed entirely or rudely contorted, sometimes into monstrous form…"
Roberg Grudin, "Design and Truth"

Design and Truth
Robert Grudin
Yale University Press. 2010

Let’s face it. There are certain concepts our humble brains have the capacity to imagine yet cannot define. I mean define in our traditionally Western sense; putting something under glass with a little card next to it, describing its assigned seat in the Great Hall of Ideas & Things, from which it never moves. This is a maple leaf, it belongs on a maple tree which grows over here if you treat it right. We like this approach—it orders the world and separates sense from nonsense and supposedly helps us get through the general muddle of life. But we all know it’s missing something big about the world and it’s one reason we love children’s stories, ghost stories, fantasy and magic. To recapture this, we could always try the Zen approach—no seats in the Great Hall, no Ideas even, just Things hanging about in momentary clusters in time. But for those of us stuck here in the Occidental mode, there is a third way that blends a little of East and West. Elvin Jones the jazz drummer, once described jazz in this way: in jazz, he said, you don’t play on the beat—you look for the beat and then play around it. And there it is, clear as day. Yet try to grab it in your fist and it’s gone.

Robert Grudin, a former English professor at our own University of Oregon, uses this method in his entertaining new book, Design and Truth. He takes us on a roundabout journey in the form of a loosely choreographed cultural dance, seeking out the hidden influences of “design” in our lives, from the mechanical and specific (a TV remote) to the political and general (social liberty in human society). Between these extremes he pirouettes around the history and impact of bad design (St. Peter’s, the Edsel), tragic design (the World Trade Center towers), functional design (the Norton Dominator), forward-thinking design (Mannerist art, the Palazzo Te) and reveals the power and potential of corporate design (good and bad). Along the road, we visit Hitler, Churchill, Thomas Jefferson, and William Blake among others, each one employing design to either dig their way into dark holes of malevolence or construct lasting edifices of joy and well-being. It’s anything but a boring journey, and everyone will emerge at the end with more insight than when they went in, which is about all one can ask of any experience.

Yet the feeling persists that Grudin sometimes imagines he is playing around the beat, but it eludes him; he’s circling something significant, just not to the tune at hand. Grudin makes a courageous effort at reeling in the larger philosophical notions of design, showing them at work in daily life, his daily life. I say courageous because as a rule, his daily life as a university professor in Eugene, Oregon seems comfortable and predictable—hardly Mission Impossible, even at the philosophical or metaphorical plane. But the intended message (if I got it right) is that design is not just a tool used by the great and powerful to manipulate our world (for better or for worse) but is present in everything we do, potentially ennobling our most humble everyday activities.

Suffused through these stories – the themes are presented as a series of loosely connected narratives – is the tale of Sen no Rikyu, the 16th century Japanese tea master and cultural Zen icon. Rikyu’s values of simplicity, equality and integrity conflicted with those of the ruling warlord, Hideyoshi, who celebrated power with ornament, display and inequality. The stand-off between the two ultimately led to Rikyu’s tragic and untimely forced suicide. Rikyu had designed what Grudin calls “a cultural matrix that would bring his nation into the modern world,” yet it was no match for the brute force of politics. In our time, Grudin fears the unbridled power of the corporation and its shortterm world-view will stifle the supportive aspects of design that enable us to achieve happiness and fulfillment. To that end, he’s proposed a thoughtful, albeit somewhat Utopian, corporate philosophy, for which Google is held up as the poster child. Perhaps, as Grudin implies, Google does indeed represent a 21st century Rikyu, better armed this time around with a laptop and global influence. But you don’t have to look far beneath Google’s cheerful countenance to discern the outlines of a shadowy figure within. Say hello to Hideyoshi; he’s back and he’s tougher than ever.