To Design is to Understand

Tim Ingold describes thinking through making — a concept he interrlates with design — as a line that meanders, much like a donkey following its own path. Conversely, design has been described (through design thinking) as a straight line toward achieving some objective or solving some problem — point A to point B.

In both cases, though, design is focused on understanding the world through active engagement with it. Philosophically, it aligns itself less with the introspective and mystical aspects of the universe, and more with the practices that seek to understand the world through doing. Yet what emerges from this practical engagement strongly resembles mysticism.

Practical engagement — whether design, gardening, or fixing an engine — leads to mystical revelations. When we put our hands in the soil to plant a tomato seed, or cultivate the plant that grows out of it, we’re engaging in an incredibly practical act. And yet, if you observe even casually, from that act comes understanding. Understanding of soil, weather, and other conditions that lead to the plant’s growth. Or, understanding of the plant’s position in relationship to the sun, wind, and rain it needs to feed itself. This understanding helps us create and recognize patterns — how a plant works is not so different, metaphorically, from how we educate our children, for instance.

It is this very understanding that, while emerging from the practical, speaks to the mystical.

Similarly, when we design, we engage with material — be it a block of wood or code on a computer — to understand the material itself. But design takes it one further, for from the material emerges an object of our own design. An object that, when shared, creates a new medium of communication much like the plants, the wind, or a block of wood. This medium, or object, is both of the world and us, and therefore the individual (or object) interacting with it is interacting with both the universe and the designer.

This is both meandering like the donkey, and following the straight pragmatic path. Mysticism and the simple act of doing are not incongruent, but rather, are interconnected.

The act of designing is a way of embedding ourselves in the universe so that we can be understood through it — in communication with it. It is pragmatic in its practice, but mystical in its outcome. How special to think that, simply by creating, we can not only be understood, but come to understand, and that (perhaps paradoxically) by understanding, we can be understood?

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