Self Expression

All action and creation are an expression of man’s self, in the most literal sense of expressing an idea onto the world. A brute wages war so that his name will be remembered. A scientist seeks to uncover the world, for the same reason. A philosopher seeks to restructure thought, so that the world of human perception begins to mirror his own. An artist makes things in his own image. A designer, or a maker of any kind, seeks to embed his self into his work. All action or creation are man’s attempts to express his finite life onto the infinite world around him, to defeat death by making the world a little of his own.

In ancient Greece, this happened overtly. The pursuit of excellence and fame was the point of man’s life, to the extent that the polis—the ancient city state—was not thought of as an organizational structure that helped men survive the threats of nature, but as a community that helped man survive time itself through the process of remembrance. If your words or deeds were worthy of remembrance, they would be remembered—at least as long as the polis lived. Rome’s ambitions were not material—the city was supposed to be eternal not for its own sake, but for the sake of those who built it. The polis is a structure able to survive through time, and men carved their lives onto it hoping for the same.

The Judeo-Christian religion, which has projected itself over the Western world from the time of late Antiquity, has turned pride into a sin, overturning the early Greek mindset and replacing it with more humble pursuits, such as that of helping the poor and the needy. But the underlying human energy remains, and it continues to exercise itself despite the reversal of values, and even despite the promise of life after death. The most obvious outlet for this energy are activities like sports, in which competition is the whole objective, although even there open displays of pride are frowned upon—you can compete hard to win, but you are expected to be humble about it. Of course the same energy expresses itself in other sectors like business and politics, but everywhere the façade of humility is maintained.

The effect of this façade is that it conceals from the conscious mind man’s objective of self expression. If this objective is pursued, it is done on a subconscious level. Look at the field of design. Designers today operate as “problem solvers” rather than artists, whom they were historically. The designer feels the struggle between self expression and the fulfillment of external requirements, and he finds his solution in systems and processes (e.g. grid systems, design patterns, A/B testing, user testing). By systematizing his work he relieves himself of having to express subjective judgements, extinguishes his desire for self expression by making it impossible. Design becomes akin to a construction of a formula which takes in a set input and spits out the desired output. Having created the formula to satisfy the requirements of the project, the designer stands back and lets it do the work, preventing his subjectivity from making its mark.

But by surrendering his subjectivity, he resigns himself from the world, he prevents his finite self from expressing itself onto the infinite world around him. At best, his work expresses selves other than his own, at worst it adds to the pile of collective garbage that possesses no taste, no personality, no judgement of its own. It is not uncommon to see design “guides” advocating this destruction of the self, calling for the maker to rein in their subjective taste lest it encroach on the needs and requirements of the brand. The unexamined belief here is that there exists some objective “taste” separate from any one mind, and that by surrendering theirs the designer is able to produce this “objective” work. The truth is, such a “taste” does indeed exist—it’s called tastelessness—a product of too many cooks, or perhaps those who aren’t cooks at all! The choice should never be about whether or not a designer should express their self onto the work, the choice should be between whose self gets to do it—between who has the better judgement, the better taste. Remove the designer’s self from the work and you take away the only soul the work could ever have.

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

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