The Tracery

The tracery is the ornamental stonework that is typically found in Gothic architecture. It is that complex pattern of foliated openings that we see in the windows of a Gothic cathedral, with each segment carved as if a piece of a larger mosaic. The tracery presents the visitor with two modes of experience: one from within and one from without. Standing outside, the stonework of the tracery is the main subject of experience since it is the element that is most visible. This changes when you move inside for unless the inner space is very well lit or it is night, the strongest source of light will be coming in through the windows and through the tracery. The stonework that we’ve seen so clearly from without will turn to darkness, but in turn, the carved openings will be filled with the bright light of day and will take their place as the subject of the experience. In this way, it is not merely the stonework that is the work of art, but its effect on the light that shines through it, the light itself becoming the material of the architect.

It’s a beautiful metaphor for the purpose of good design. We shape stone, wood, metal, plastic and a myriad of other resources into goods that help us survive and live, but those goods do more than merely satisfy their primary function: they affect our experience of the world around us through their use. Just like the light that passes through the tracery is transformed into new shapes, so does life change color as it is influenced by the design of our goods, and – as is literally in the case of the tracery – those goods become the frame through which we experience the world. The same light shines through both, a cheap, square window, and one with an intricately crafted tracery, but where the former uses the light simply for its utility, the latter transforms it into part of the architecture that elevates the spirit and adds value to our existence. It is the same with all good design, whether architecture or typography, the design of hardware or of software; to design something truly good is to ask yourself first and foremost what life it is that you want to live, and then use your skill in whatever field you are able to help move closer to that goal.

June 2012