Are words things?
I often wonder whether it is possible to be a designer who uses words as a material, rather than a writer who just happens to speak about design, both on the page and out loud. I was never trained to be a writer, although language has been the channel through which I have subconsciously formulated and consciously expressed my ideas for most of my 33 years. In fact, I never thought of writing as an integral part of my practice until I came to the Design Academy Eindhoven to study in the Contextual Design master’s programme from 2010 to 2012.

The department’s rather unique concept of how a designer should interact with the world put me in an unusual position: I had a lot to say about things—not just the covetable products of design but the rather banal accumulation of objects that vastly outnumbered them—but I could not seem to materialise those ideas in the same way as my classmates. They devoted little time to sketching out or predicting exactly what they were going to do before they did it; they simply charged into the workshop and dove into the process, their critical and imaginative faculties emerging in a mysterious synthesis of hand, tool, material, context, and method of representation.

My approach was rather different. Very quickly, I realised that my background in architecture had not instilled in me the kind of thinking necessary to work in the moment with materials and processes that apply a great deal of friction to the intentions of the maker. I could solve “problems” requiring spatial thinking, but the problems prioritised in the department were much more profound—why make? how does this object respond to and intervene in a broader contemporary human condition? what relation does it construct between designer, user, and their environment?—and they had to be addressed through prototypes in which theory, form, technique, and aesthetics could not be extricated from the whole. A design project could not simply illustrate a preformed idea: it had to process that idea into a thing in the world, to manifest it as a semi-independent artefact in a real context, with complex effects that could not be precisely predicted.

Although I struggled to think meaningfully about these issues through the process of making, I was nevertheless able to use other skills I had learned before. Studying architecture in the mid-2000s was less about buildings and more about making a rhetorical and narrative argument using a variety of representational tools (a tradition tracing back to the 19th-century École des Beaux-Arts). Furthermore, that argument would be judged not only on its content but on the legibility, beauty, and ingenuity of the way in which it was described—or rather conjured up in the mind of the jury. Finally, my education devoted as much time to the studio as to architectural history and theory, which embraced other disciplines from philosophy and political critique to futurism and the history of technology, and reflected on the particular role played by creative practice in relation to those fields.

I loved drawing, reading, and writing, but it was not until my master’s thesis that I stopped considering these methods as “lesser than” design and began to conceive of a personal practice that used those tools of analytical inquiry and representation in order to encounter objects in different ways. I was not an art historian, an anthropologist, a philosopher, or an engineer, and not exactly a designer—but somehow, in the combination of all of those approaches, I could be a theorist of things, combining a critical perspective with profound respect and, indispensably, a sense of empathy for designers cultivated through friendships and countless discussions, but also many hours spent at their side in the workshop. These experiences led me to believe that there is something sublime and inimitable in the act of materialising an idea in negotiation with other forms of nonverbal and embodied intelligence, from the muscle memory of the hand to the deep-seated cognitive structures of shape analysis in the brain, from the grain of a material to the tolerance of a machine.

When I write about things, I strive to bring out these tangible but unspoken qualities as a designer would understand them and think about them as the locus for the abstract concepts that constitute theory. This is not an easy task, but it is a crucial one: while theorists from other fields may refer to objects, they rarely have the expertise or the inclination to ground their arguments in their enmeshed materiality. And yet it is impossible to really understand concepts like power, capitalism, efficiency, innovation, or the avant-garde if they are described as pervasive invisible vapours (like humours or miasma in archaic medicine) rather than conditions situated in flows of material and energy at the most fundamental level. Design theory is not just something I happen to like: it is something I see as indispensable for contemporary discourse.

Even if my individual path from designer to writer is liberally strewn with coincidence, luck, blind leaps, and an astonishing amount of faith and generosity from a group of key individuals, there are also several underlying reasons why I arrived at this form of practice, at this point in time, and why this approach seems valid, valuable, and urgent. The chronology in which my education and experiences unfolded corresponds to two phenomena in the interaction between words and things—first, the entwining of verbal communication with objects and technology; second, the growing importance ascribed to materials, objects, and things in philosophical conceptions of the world, especially after the decline of structuralism. Design theory may still be a relatively niche and undisciplined field, with no defined protocol for interacting with other spheres of academia, creative and cultural production, and technological development, but I see these two contemporary conditions as premonitions of the field’s imminent fruition—and thus will explore them in more detail.

First: “language” is not an abstract, neutral, or universal medium; it is indivisible from things and conditioned by their particularity. While language has always been mediated by the form of its capture and reproduction—from oral tradition to the printing press—as someone born in 1985 and raised in the United States in a middle-class immigrant family with technophilic tendencies, I have experienced words in a remarkable diversity of forms and devices that each constitute their own materialisation. Although the 2008 financial crisis has recast the memory of the 1990s and 2000s as an era of toxic economic policies and disastrous faith in neoliberalism, I also remember it in other ways—as a time when multiculturalism (and thus multilingualism) was celebrated, when amazing new technologies appeared out of nowhere and changed everything for the better every few years, when interactive and participatory entertainment actually became possible, when our words were not comprehensively surveilled or monetised.

In 1990, we had an electronic typewriter that transmitted finger strokes to inked characters on paper: a mistyped letter was not erased but rather covered with a transparent white film. Soon after, the first real computer entered our house—a 386 running on MS-DOS, where I typed puzzling strings of letters, colons, and slashes to communicate with something inside the machine. Eventually the computer was upgraded to a graphical user interface, with software like Microsoft Word and its infinite ways of transforming the appearance of letters at the click of the mouse. In school in 1994, we learned the art of cursive, drawing a word out of continuous loops without lifting the pen from the paper. The physical precision necessary to make the gesture apparently bestowed the words with a greater beauty formality in the academic context.

That same year, when my brother said he was telling someone how to beat a computer game on Prodigy, I could not really grasp what he meant. How could words travel fast enough to constitute the act of “talking”, and how could they travel with no medium? By 1996, however, I was familiar enough with the Internet to use chatrooms, participating (rather naively) in bizarre conversations with anonymous ID names. Altavista, Ask Jeeves, and Google appeared as search engines, which allowed for a new form of navigation: instead of moving through the computer as a hierarchy of folders or categories, you could simply leap into the unknown via the transporting power of a single word. Technologies like e-mail began in skeuomorphic forms and only gradually developed a native aesthetic, and my brother even taught me the simple code language necessary to build a personal website. Amongst friends, we learned to economise our words to get around text message character limits on our first Nokia mobile phones.

The exponential increase in the complexity and variety of social media has made of language a resource to be mined for collective and personal information, something that we see as transgressing the boundary of private space (ironically, for a discursive channel). However, social media have also pioneered new ways that language can be read, particularly in the interweaving of language itself with metalanguage. Only recently, while showing an Instagram meme to a friend, did I realise that reading these collages of image and text requires a special understanding of their non-linear narratives: the eye must move around the screen, piecing together the elements of the story in the right order to arrive at the punchline. They may not be immediately legible, but they do introduce a new element of spatial complexity and overlay of foreground text and background image to the act of comprehension.

I recount this well-known and rather banal history simply to point out that it is impossible to think of words as detached from the medium in which they have been conceived and passed on. As a designer who works with words, the conscious choice of material, dimension, durability, and accessibility, the decisions to make the words searchable and editable and shareable (or not), affect not only the impact but the interpretation of language. A conservative understanding of design theory as a branch of cultural criticism maintains a separation between theory and design that is not only ideological but also material: printed in books and magazines or visualised on digital screens, the words remain relatively inert. Could we instead design new methods of writing, communicating, and reading based on the inherent qualities and idiosyncrasies of each medium? Perhaps the text could disappear entirely from the final version, as source code hides behind a public interface, while still maintaining its original intent. For theory to have an effect on things, we must pay more attention to how it is designed and made.

We can also consider words less as vehicles for meaning and more as things with histories and economies of use. In 2015, I started a project called Designing Words that tracked the etymology and popularity of words commonly used in design theory. I was curious if we could think about that vocabulary as a stock market or menagerie. Why did fabricate fall out of fashion in 1910, while apparatus reached its peak? Why has beauty decreased since 1910 while unique has risen steadily? Do words with Germanic roots (build, craft, cut, draw, feel, frame, etc.) differ in kind from words with Greek roots (contour, chair, electric, geometry, harmony, idea, etc.)? Does the origin of craft in “strength” or “sea vessel”, of talent in “sum of money”, of calibre in a “shoemaker’s last” tell us anything about the journey from signifier to signified? These questions may seem abstract, but they are essential if we expect that rapid changes in technology, new materials and inventions, and shifting geographies of production will not only demand new critical terminologies but also shape them in return.

If we can apply theory to things, and encounter words and theory as things, can we also consider things themselves as theory? Can things, in fact, constitute a way of thinking in their own right? This question has grown in importance over the past few decades for multiple reasons. First, Bruno Latour’s highly influential actor-network theory claimed that society could only be understood by accounting for the actions of both human and nonhuman agents, including objects. Second, the increasing power of artificial intelligence has shifted the balance in real and symbolic power from the human mind to nonhuman cognitive systems. Third, the gradual awareness of mankind’s destructive effects on the natural environment has encouraged a new sensitivity to nonhuman forms of experience and embedded intelligence, from organisms like plants and materials like rocks to more complex entities like rivers and mountains. It is also possible that increasing wealth and consumerism and the diminishing role of Christian religious observance in many Western nations have erased any moral hierarchy between spirit (the immateriality of the soul as the embodiment of faith, love, good deeds, and transcendence) and material (the base nature of earthly existence, icon worship, vanity, and greed). Today, looking for theoretical value and meaning in things is not only ideologically tolerated but encouraged in many intellectual, cultural, and technological spheres.

It has not always been so self-evident, however. In November 1971, Dutch philosopher Fons Elders moderated a debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, which was recorded at TU Eindhoven and broadcast on Dutch National Television under the title “Human Nature and Ideal Society”. As a structural linguist, Chomsky described the universal phenomenon of human language as evidence of an intrinsic structure within the mind, which constituted an aspect of human nature. Not only did this internal structure determine how we encountered our external reality, but it had to coincide with some aspect of that external reality. He justified this inference by comparing language to physics: both are ways of understanding and describing the world based on underlying organising principles; both allow for shared discourse between a community of people across time and space; both sustain logical analysis and creative speculation within their complex structures. Yet very few people are able to master physics, while every child learns language in the absence of any physiological or psychological obstacles, even though Chomsky called them as equally complex. Therefore, the structure of language was internal to the human mind whereas the structure of physics was not. However, Chomsky also claimed that the mind could only develop scientific theories if the structure of physics and the structure of language were, on some level, the same.

Foucault took a very different position. He questioned the existence of any innate quality that could constitute a form of human nature. Where Chomsky saw intuitive intelligence and creativity based on the shared systems of language or science, Foucault saw a restriction of creativity through the application of various systems of rules, which had to be enforced through techniques of power. There was no reason to believe that there was a fundamental connection between language and science as innate structures; instead, Foucault suggested that we look elsewhere for the systems that have enabled the development of science—“in social forms, in the relations of production, in class struggles”. And while Chomsky’s idea of intrinsic human nature and its capacity for creativity meant that there could be an ideal structure of society designed to emancipate the human and maximise their potential, Foucault was skeptical that any organisation of society could be called ideal, and that instead all institutions in society should be critiqued through the lens of power—especially power masquerading as neutral or hiding within silent, solid points of support. Without identifying the apparatus of domination embedded within the world, which allowed some parts of society to exploit others, any political revolution was doomed to reassert it. For example, he analysed the ideal society envisioned by 20th-century socialism as rooted in a bourgeois paradigm—of family structure, of sexuality, of aesthetics. Socialism was a reaction to the limitations on human potential and self-realisation under capitalism, but paradoxically, its idea of a liberated human nature was envisioned through a highly conservative model of behaviour and coexistence.

How does the divide between the two relate to the idea of things as theory? Although Foucault does not explicitly refer to objects, as he talks about the relations of production, the little-known points of support and the solidity of domination, and the bourgeois aesthetic, it becomes clear that he locates systems of rules and operations of power in the material world and its interactions with the humans that inhabit it. The external world is not a mere stage set for the performance of a specific social order: it works in concert with specific concepts of systems of rules in order to produce a collective society, both human and not.

On the other hand, Chomsky’s incredibly anthropocentric view on the world leaves little room for non-human sources of power and intelligence to have any meaningful influence—going so far as to imply that the structure of the external world must be intrinsically connected to that of human language. His ideal society is based on conditions of justice and power, which he describes as mental and social concepts without specifying how they are manifested. When he mentions Eindhoven’s own Philips in passing, he describes the hegemonic superstructure of the multinational corporation as a threat to a free society without also considering how its power operates at the scale of its products. And Chomsky seems to repeat the mistake of socialism identified by Foucault when he claims that in an ideal society, the liberated individual will instinctively perform productive, creative labour unless they are physically or mentally deformed. His outlook positions productivity as a self-evident objective and any resistance towards productivity as a form of social deviance—both qualities of the capitalist system he had previously denounced.

The Chomsky-Foucault debate was a telling moment during a time of radical change—in the wake of the youth revolutions in Europe, the civil rights movement in the United States, and the end of nuclear testing, but also at the cusp of the 1970s energy crisis, the formalisation of the environmental movement, and the scientific study of human overpopulation. This context revealed a fundamental flaw in the Modernist ideology—its dependence on the availability of infinite resources at the behest of human civilisation. Humans could no longer regard materials and objects as their faithful servants in the pursuit of an a priori utopian dream, and therefore it was necessary to begin thinking about the world beyond their own sense of consciousness.

But the environmentalist understanding of the relation between humans, nonhuman organisms, and materials and objects only accounts for part of the rising interest in things. After all, its orientation towards survival, above all that of the human species, is rooted in anthropocentric ethics. Meanwhile, theorists like Jean Baudrillard started to write about objects in more speculative and less moralistic terms, investigating with fascination the new conditions of mass media, industrial production, and consumerism as they translated into discrete artefacts. As Baudrillard later wrote in his 1986 book America, “There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room.” I share that sense of wonder as my imperative to think about, with, and through things in the pursuit of new forms and directions of knowledge.