Design and the non-conceptual mind

Recently Sheraton Green told me I needed to check out George Saunders. I’ve never really been a fiction reader, most of the books I choose to read fall into that “lifting the curtain on historic or cultural paradigms” genre of publication. I’m reading his recent collection of short stories, “The Tenth of December, but beyond his own actual writing he has quickly become just as much of a creative inspiration for his views on writing and process. Here’s an older quote from him via the Missouri Review:

“In terms of fiction writing, I think that if you set out to write a political story, then that is what you will get: merely a political story. Your story will be confined by your ability to conceptualize it. Our conceptual mind is much less subtle and perceptive and joyful than our non-conceptual mind.”

More recently, here’s another Saunders quote from his appearance on Charlie Rose:

“There’s this intentional fallacy that says a writer, an artist, has a set of ideas, and the story’s just a vehicle for delivering those preconceived ideas. And in fact, on the production end of it, my experience has been totally the opposite. You go in trying not to have any ideas of what you’re going to accomplish, praying that you’ll accomplish something, and then respecting the energy of the piece, and following it very, very closely. So, that’s kind of exhilarating but also kind of a very scary place. Because you think, ‘Well, I’m 54 years old, I teach writing, I should know what I’m doing.’ But, so much of the job is to kind of show up every day and say, ‘I really don’t know.”

From a graphic design point of view, I love this. Although he is discussing the role of conceptual and non-conceptual thinking in the art of writing, I think Saunders’ ideas can be applied to design as well. Designers are so wrapped up in the reasoned and the rationalized, we often forget how essential it can be to allow our non-conceptual mind to play a role in the design process.

Graphic design always associates itself with what we categorize as “design thinking”; problem solving, analyzing, predicting, objectively balancing form and function, etc. As graphic designers, it seems like we must absolutely never, EVER allow ourselves to admit that an idea just came to us or, even worse, that we just made something up. That would be a telltale sign of an amateur designer who possesses none of the characteristic analytical abilities that make design so essential. But I think design, like painting, photography, and writing (as exemplified by Saunders’ quotes above) needs to embrace and identify with the chaos, the unconscious, and the non-conceptual much more often than it currently does.

Designers have powerful organizational skills, but we are generally piss-poor when it comes to admitting that something indescribable sometimes happens in the design process. For example, consider the time-honored act of sketching. Sketching, to me, seems like nothing more than an attempt at resigning the conceptual mind momentarily to let the non-conceptual mind have a piece of the action for a bit.

Admittedly, once we find ourselves in the presence of a brilliant idea we must tame it, corral it, organize it, and see if it can still live in a conceptual design context. Editing is an essential part of the process for writers as well, and Saunders consistently speaks of his ‘rinse, lather, repeat’ process of editing a story over and over again. For example, one story included in The Tenth of December took him 12 years to get write. That said, the initial inspiration for that story also came to him in a dream. Can we start trusting in not-thinking for some stages in the design process? Maybe we can relax our anal-retentive, analytical designer brains for a bit and let our pencils drift across the sketch pad like it’s some kind of creative Ouija board, channeling the ghost of Alvin Lustig. Destroy something, stop thinking, create obstructions, make irrational decisions. We designers just need to try to be open and present and let our unconscious mind surprise us, because it will.

In truth, the real artistic process as I’ve understood it is 95 percent intuitive, seat-of-the-pants, at-the-moment decisions that you can’t even explain. – George Saunders