Your Remit as a Designer

I gave another talk last week and the question came up, as it often does, ‘why the big interest in science?’ It was an innocuous enough question but one which always requires a long answer. I never particularly enjoyed the sciences at school, but the Creative Review Annual cover from 2010 and Discover Magazine 30th anniversary cover all relied on scientific explorations. My entire Bulk of Reality project is inspired by the terms and ideas behind modern theoretical physics and, in fact, my next major project (a music video) will see me back in the lab with a former co-conspirator, Jason Tozer.

Like a lot of designers, I came into industry expecting to design album artwork, posters and t-shirts; the classics. As reality sets in you realise there are other ways in which your skills will be needed (that and the music industry upped and left us behind some time ago); letterheads, annual reports, business cards and of course digital media etc. Less glamorous – to some – but all equally valid ways of earning a wage. Wayfinding systems, packaging and branding project etc come up, and gradually you seep out into industry until you find an area you’re comfortable working in and come to a rest.

As diverse as these areas are – after all, what does a death metal album cover have in common with museum signage? – and as visually ripe as they can be, they’re still a little ‘expected’, and don’t particularly chart new territory for the industry.

I read a while back about Daniel Tammet, who is an autistic savant. Or a genius, depending on your viewpoint. He can’t tell right from left but he can calculate pi to 22,514 decimal places – the European non-assisted record. In addition to his extraordinary mathematical abilities, Tammet is also a linguist and has created his own language, ‘mänti’. One difference between Tammet and other savants is his ability to actually describe what is happening in his head. Traditionally savants struggle to communicate their abilities – which is why they’re so endlessly fascinating to scientists – but Daniel has been able to verbalise his abilities so well, in fact, that he may have actually uncovered an entirely new way of learning to work with numbers.

Tammet, you see, visualises numbers as complex shapes and sometimes fractals. In fact, each number up to 10,000 has it’s own unique shape in his mind. Some are ugly, some are beautiful in his words – metallic, reflective, sparkly even – but by combining these shapes, multiplying them by each other and subtracting shapes from one another he creates complex structures in his mind representing unfathomably long numbers which only usually exist in the domain of computing. It’s like a hyper complex version of asian maths where children are taught to allocate lengths of coloured rectangles to numbers. Below is his own drawing of how he sees pi itself. Got a kind of Mike Perry thing going on:

If you’re wondering where I’m going, the point is this: visual people solve problems differently.

If you give a mathematician a problem and a designer the same problem – not necessarily a numerical one – they will likely come at it in very different ways. Mathematicians may excel in calculus but a designer’s role is communications – in helping others to understand. It’s understandable to be wary of getting involved with things that you don’t perhaps immediately grasp, but if you take the time to do so, you’ll probably be able to explain it to someone else much more clearly and simply than the mathematician would, through use of diagrams, illustrations and imagery.

That was the entire thinking behind my Bulk of Reality project. The terms and ideas in that field are so abstract; so oblique in fact, that there’s almost no way to simply write them down without resorting to abstract metaphor. How does one envisage an 11 dimensional universe for example? I decided therefore to try and bring some of these ideas to life using simply typography and whatever tools and tricks I had at my disposal. It’s an ongoing project and something I imagine I’ll keep going back to and revising. The goal, one day, might be to work with a physicist in and assemble them into a book in order to help more people grasp what an insanely exciting field of study this is.

My role in all of this doesn’t change; I’m still the designer/typographer but I do wish more people would get involved with other areas. I think of DaVinci in this way; undeniably a genius but an artist first, or at least at the same time. He saw the world in a very different way and communicated his ideas to others through his drawings and inventions. A visual person invented the helicopter; could a visual person therefore not come up with his or her own universal theory of everything, picking up where Einstein left off? Garrett Lisi’s TED talk from 2008 is essential viewing in this respect:

Lisi is a scientist (and not a particularly great public speaker), but a very visual guy nonetheless, and the images and patterns towards the end of his talk are as beautiful as the ideas themselves. A lot of the ideas he talks about have since, well, I won’t spoil it, maybe you can do your own research, but the fact he – and others like him – were able to come at things from a different perspective in the first place is reason enough to try. Those researching the human genome and ploughing new territory in protein strand research are working with actual origami experts to try and discover new and more efficient ways to ‘fold’ dna and proteins in order to isolate those genes which are potentially disease causing. I’m not even making this up, see the documentary ‘Between the Folds’.

A designer’s work may not take place in the lab but I think everyone should spend a certain amount of the time outside of their comfort zone and try and solve problems greater than ‘how tightly should we kern this headline?’ or ‘how big should this logo be?’ I wasn’t intending this to be a ‘design can change the world’ speech but apparently that’s how it’s going to end up. So that’s why the big interest in science.

You have abilities; use them.

Just a thought.