The Tabula Rasa and the Labyrinth

The future of design rests in the paradox of simultaneity: too many and too few limitations confront the designer of tomorrow. As technical barriers to achieving every imaginable form disappear, new problems arise through economic, social, and moral dictates. In this sense, the future designer works within a context of the tabula rasa (that is, the blank slate of producible possibilities) and the labyrinth of reality (the thorny considerations of who makes things, with what and how they make them). Therefore, the role of the actor operating amidst this polarity will increasingly bifurcate into the realm of the possible and the realm of the actual.

The abstract nature of these two focal points in no way makes them irrelevant, for the designs that fulfill them the least are, on one hand, superfluous and short-lived, and on the other, depressingly bound to the status quo of consumer capitalist market values. Rather than working blindly between the tabula rasa of possibilities and the labyrinth of actual challenges, the designer of the future must occupy these two realms in the mode of potential design and existential design. Although these fields are not mutually exclusive, they hold divergent motivations and opportunities, and resolving the two spheres will inevitably become the aspiring designer’s challenge.

Potential Design
What does one do when (almost) anything is possible for (almost) anyone? This is a formidable question not only in terms of the end product, but equally with respect to the tenuous role of the designer in the current state. The idea of the death of the designer has gained traction as methods of production have decentralized through technological advances, promising a three-dimensional printer in every home and obviating the need for officially educated and sanctioned designers.

Yet this is hardly a new subject; Walter Benjamin had already raised the issue in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” when he discussed the changes effected by the improvements in printing presses technology at the beginning of the twentieth century. Benjamin concluded that “the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character” as “literary license…becomes common property.”

Though a parallel transition may steer design in the same way in the future, it is important to remember that the author has hardly disappeared since Benjamin wrote his words. The coming ubiquity of three-dimensional printers does not entail the decline of the role of the designer, any more than the rise of two-dimensional printers has caused the extinction of writers, publishers, and graphic designers. However, Benjamin’s prescient observation about a change of character means that the future designer’s function must transform.

As the means of fabrication become more accessible, users will demand more personally tailored objects and environments. In the field of architecture, the importance of mass production has already lost sway to mass customization in forward-thinking designs. Furthermore, product design presents the additional possibility of enabling consumers to physically output their own objects. Potential design, therefore, deals not with striking signature forms, but with the definition of frameworks, tools, and systems with which designs are realized.

Potential design will redefine notions of authorship that currently position the personality of the maker as the utmost in design identity. Rather than defining themselves through iconic physical manifestos, potential designers will instead engineer the variables and constraints of fabrication in such a way that the consumer feels the freedom and fractal diversity of nature, rather than the patronizing limitation of color palette and size.

In a way, the challenge of potential design is to create products so seamless that they seem to have been made with the particular consumer in mind – though there may be thousands of other unique consumers with their own genomically related products. Still, the need for potential design cannot be quenched through a sheer variety of options. Aleatory experimentation in purely digital design will become less defensible as the process grows to include more meaningful determinants. Price, scale, material availability, and local concerns such as climate and habit will seep into the customizability of potential design.

The tabula rasa will be inscribed with context.

Existential Design
As much as the future of design will be characterized by the potential of technology for contextual adaptation, it cannot be the only factor. Again, in Benjamin’s words, “the destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ.” The tragedies of World War I that informed Benjamin also inspired the German artist Hugo Ball to say, even more succinctly: “men have been mistaken for machines.”

Though these statements were made in response to the physical destruction of people and buildings, they can alternatively be interpreted in relation to the erasure of cultural customs, locality, and meaning caused by the hegemony of automated mass production and economies of consumer manufacturing. Human behavior is increasingly being defined by the incidental effects of industrial design, rather than by the habits and needs that inspired this design in the first place. This criticism cannot be dismissed as Luddite nostalgia when the consequences are so far-ranging: the alienating influence of activity stripped of ritual is a contributing cause of the many sensory, communicative, and cognitive disorders facing a growing number of children in modernized countries.

The Finnish architect and theorist Juhani Pallasmaa proposes an alternative to this desensitized situation in The Thinking Hand. He asserts that “beauty is not a detached aesthetic quality; the experience of beauty arises from grappling the unquestionable causalities and interdependences of life.”

The recent resurgence of craftsmanship in design reveals that in the future, beauty situated in the details of life will not be considered a superficial quality. In fact, most people are desperate for meaningful moments in their lives, whether they are found in built environments, communication tools, modes of movement, or protocols of eating and drinking. The sensual opportunities of these daily habits have only begun to be explored with an aim of creating new rituals, yet this territory demands deep investigation in the future.

Existential design, therefore, is a complement to potential design; it is immersed in the emotional, haptic present. It offers future designers the chance to preserve the accumulated knowledge of craft, traditional customs, and collective memory as globalization and technological progress work to flatten out these cultural idiosyncrasies. These personal and rooted narrative elements transcend mere sentimentalism; they must be viewed as valued assets in the physically manifested future.

If potential design asks, “Can it be?” existential design demands, “Is it good?” This question must be situated in specific cultural and material landscapes; as the citizens of emerging economies command a stronger consumer voice, designers will have to focus their research on the minute aspects that distinguish one place from another, lest these cultural idiosyncrasies be smoothed over. Future designers have the power to determine which vernacular traditions will be salvaged and which invented rituals will gain embedded significance.

Existential design must also confront and utilize new technological potential to develop a diverse palette of materials, colors, smells, textures, and operations. At the moment, the marketing of design rests almost exclusively within the visual field, as images are so easily transmitted between distant locations. The other senses have thus become secondary; future designers must rectify this imbalance if they wish to create resonance between users and things or spaces.

The labyrinth will be inhabited in loving detail.

If the simultaneity of too many and too few possibilities is the obvious problem of the future of design, than the undercurrent is the problem of meaning. The technological advancement of the past few decades has begun to crack open the field of realizable dreams. Even so, it is still unclear why things should be the way they can be. Potential design and existential design are two strands interwoven into the discourse of our common future, presenting the designers of tomorrow with a dialectical tool of inquiry. Without that, designers are wandering blindly through a maze. They must choose instead the synthesis of tabula rasa and labyrinth in their pursuit of a contextually situated future.