Personalities and Individual Differences, Journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences, Vol. 3, 1982, pp. 83-84.
Recently, William Drenttel, Ben Fry and I were invited to participate in a symposium in the UK that paired graphic designers with microbiologists, to look at the intersection of design and science. Fearing that the venn diagram uniting these disciplines might contain, in fact, little in the way of overlap, I set out to do a little research — whereupon I stumbled upon a 25-year-old study showing that male graphic design students were more likely to be psychotic than their female counterparts.
Instantly, I telephoned a friend who happens to be a clinical psychologist: he observed that if you cast a wide enough net, pretty much everything starts to look a little psychotic. He then pointed out that while an initial research study may have targeted graphic design students, not nearly enough research has been done on graphic design faculty.
Calmer now, I persevered: would I find more connections as I probed the boundaries of environmental sustainability, climate change, cell biology? What about the fact that I don't know anything about cell biology? What then?
I soon discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary has published a list of the 250 most famous words in science. As for an equivalent lexicon for designers, it turned out there were several: I conflated them and then looked for words in common. Curiously, I found only one.
Synthesis — that's it? As I sat there in England listening to scientists eloquently explaining their work with protein architecture, I was stunned — for while my scientific aptitude was (is) negligible, I understood perfectly what was going on. They showed molecules magnified through extraordinary microscopy; viruses made visual by light and shadow; forms made visual through science, and made understandable because of how they were visualized.
And I always thought visualization was what designers did.
It's a simplification, but one well worth considering. Contemporary design culture privileges authorship, values entrepreneurship and autonomy. We prize novelty and innovation, reward advancement, and celebrate progress. We look ahead, not behind — and seek enriching collaborative partners with whom to crystallize our collective visions.
Scientists look inside. Backwards. And then they look deep. They ask questions based on what they see, and look again. It's a perspective that combines scrutiny with humility, specificity with open-mindedness — factors not altogether mysterious to designers.
Bacteria exchange signals generated by synthetic circuits to form colorful patterns. The bulls-eye pattern (left) formed around a patch of turquoise cells, which send a chemical message. Surrounding cells turn green near the center, where the message is strong, and red farther away, where the message is weaker. Multiple patches of messenger cells (center and right) create more complex patterns. Similar multi-cell communication circuits could form complex biological structures such as liver or skin.
Photograph by Ron Weiss, Princeton University.
Last week, I found myself in a hospital where I toured a research lab with an immunologist. He explained how scientists look at pathogens and consider better models for treating disease. Such observation, in turn, leads to more targeted clinical trials and more effective pharmaceutical therapies. But it all begins by looking at cells dividing in a petri dish. A few days later at the AIGA National Conference in Denver, biologist, writer and "biomimicry" enthusiast Janine Benyus identified existing forms in nature — from the abstraction of the Fibonacci series to the specificity of a butterfly wing — as a paradigm for rethinking man-made practices and ensuring a more sustainable future. She discussed the finer points of bird migration and showed breathtaking images of life forms, all of them perfected over time — and none of them new-and-improved.
It's a fascinating model for design thinking, seemingly antithetical to the pursuit of innovation, yet stunning precisely because it veers wholeheartedly in the opposite direction. It's the less-is-more of the new age — history as novelty — with scientists the makers, the form-identifiers, the paradigm-shifters. Scientists probe and manipulate and channel and divide; they split and fuse and spike and engineer; but most of all, they look. They are the keen observers of our future because they peer so deeply into our past. They are historians, anthropologists, archaeologists of the body, the mind, the air, the planet, the universe. As a visual maker, to spend any time at all with scientists is to become at once profoundly aware of our similarities and devastated by that which divides us. In an age that is likely to be remembered for its self-absorption, it is an extraordinary thing to witness a lab filled with people devoting themselves passionately to understanding what DNA looks like, or how the immune system behaves, or what infection means for a human being fighting for her life. It's radical. It's humbling. And if we don't begin actively seeking new opportunities to learn, collaborate and contribute to this critical community of thinkers and doers, then we may have good reason to revisit that psychosis study.
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