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Probing the Depths of What Makes Us Human with Design: The Invention of Desire

Katrina Kufer By Katrina Kufer Published on August 29, 2016
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The soothing façade, white space and gentle distribution of text blocks in the 230-page tome Design: The Invention of Desire makes for a rather beautiful book. One would assume as much, given that it is all about design, but Jessica Helfand does not quite set the reader up for what turns out to be an elegant, eloquent, philosophical and brutal confrontation with what makes humans so very human. And nothing illustrates the innate character, desires, needs and complexities of our species more than design, the resulting physical manifestation of the aforementioned.

Helfand, an artist, designer and theorist, collects a vast pool of references, examples and theoretical trains of thought that she organizes into twelve appropriately titled chapters, such as Authority (chapter one), Identity (chapter three), Melancholy (chapter eight) or Change (chapter twelve). She categorically and systematically deconstructs the various facets of being human by addressing a core set of intrinsic universal values; but this only becomes entirely clear around chapter four or five when the tone of the book takes a sudden shift. Until then, it is an entirely different journey.

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Cerebellum, a painting from Helfand's book

The book is unmistakably based on human beings, from the cover design and back-cover copy to the scientific images that zoom in on mitochondria, the hypothalamus or even the intestines. The abstraction causes a dichotomous reaction: the reader self-identifies with the imagery, but then also experiences a sense of removal that transports them into a dreamy, metaphysical plane. For just a few images in the book, this may seem like a strong reaction, but given that it is all about the psyche, it all seems rather intentional.

It is an exercise in self-immersion and Helfand does so from all angles—she is going to get you, one way or another. One method is to use personal, anecdotal stories that are sprinkled throughout. While the additional examples are broad, from sex toys and Paris’ (recently removed) bicycle-lock-laden Pont des Arts to mass-shootings in the USA and poverty in India, the use of firsthand examples speaks to the reader in a way that is difficult to ignore. The first few chapters adopt this approach directly, while the second half broaches more varied perspectives. It is a smart tactic: admitting the reality of one’s self, both good and bad is difficult enough, and Helfand’s light touch successfully puts readers in front of something perhaps not new, but with what has been taken for granted in an age of hyper-stimulation. It is a willing coercion to go back to the basics.

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But what are the basics? What is Helfand saying? She is saying a lot. The publication is a serious schooling in everything from Einstein quips, to the state of affairs in cities, to philosophical musings by Kant. She suggests that fantasy drives creation and our acquired and developed knowledge keeps design evolving, leaving humanity in a cycle of producing and consuming. Design is not as effortless as merely acquiring an object. It is easy to become lost in the fascinating mini-case studies Helfand presents, but the tangents readers’ brains will inevitably go on are tempered by chapters that are brief enough to keep them engaged, (mostly) on track with plenty of spice, yet long enough to satisfy the argument she presents.

Each chapter can be read separately, but it is a book best devoured in one go. The initial chapter brings up questions of what design is, who is a designer, posing an endless amount of lines worth highlighting such as, “Design matters because of the why, not the what, the sentiment, not the acquisition.” Or, further on, musing how design has caused a reinvigorated desire to engage with fantasy. The almost immediate shift away from typical associations with design as perfunctory is a refreshing jump… but one that quickly turns into a headlong deep dive into a critical but productive look at the human psyche, observing how we “[pride] ourselves on a kind of amped-up, decentralized efficiency, we inject value into the thing that helped us get there, our fidelity directed to the prop rather than the person.”

Chapter five may present truths, but it is a harsh reality to consider that design begins somewhere between need and desire, manifests and evolves with fantasy, adapts to then dictate our identities, but can lead towards greater humility, memory and ultimately, change (by chapter twelve).

The previous outline is brief, but by the time the reader emerges for a much-needed breath of air, albeit with eyes wide open, Helfand has taken a very large and penetrating metaphorical spoon to readers’ brain soup. She talks about ethical responsibilities, design as a reflection and exploration of our selves and the somewhat dystopian elements of an evolution towards a life lauded as advanced, simplified and engaged. She plays devil’s advocate; perhaps all these design interventions intended to quell our inadequacies are not, in fact, a response to need, but a create-the-demand situation. As Einstein said, “It is appallingly obvious that technology has exceeded our humanity.”

Design was perhaps once in our control, but due to its very basis, fulfilling human desire-cum-need, it has seemingly run rampant. Such is the natural complexity of human emotion, desire and need, thus, a perfectly reasonable, and even expected, development – or as Helfand succinctly remarks, “Desire is one third of the platonic trifecta: together with emotion and knowledge, it is what defines all human behavior.” And desire, it seems, is just another word for design.

Design: The Invention of Desire is a proverbial sucker-punch to the gut, but a needed one, a masochistic must-have because that is what a good book should do. It gets a reader shaken, stirred, turned-around and most importantly, gives them a good reason to think. The book is contemporary, accessible, relevant, and applicable to everyone because in the end, it is about everyone. As Helfand highlights, Time magazine’s 2006 ‘Person-of-the-Year’ was not a designated individual, rather, its cover offered a computer screen with a reflective sheet that would show the face of the reader. You. A final note suggests that the things we want make us who we are, and through design, we both indulge ourselves and digress into mass uniformity, which “may reveal itself as a truly dystopian legacy.”

Desire may lead, but Helfand asks, “Must we follow?” 

Katrina is a contemporary arts editor/writer and TCK based in the Middle East with a special fondness for abject art, gourmet cheese and asking too many questions.


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