In Full Disclosure, a review of The Jewish Museum Berlin, the reviewer asks,
“What role does design play in the illumination of a history many might prefer to ignore? To what extent can or should it deliver painful or damning information without making the experience glamorous? How might it render such a break with civilization, making it both believable and memorable?”
When I first read those questions, I thought, “Design can do that!.” But then, as the review progresses, I wonder if design is up to it:
“How to explain the myriad oddities of the JMB exhibition—the digital pomegranates, kosher gummy bears, synagogue building blocks, and nap corners; two hundred young “hosts” deployed to usher visitors through the building and the insistent labeling that “explains” the architect’s intentions to the presumed confused (the voids are, for example, “Architect Libeskind’s way of recognizing that the destruction of European Jews in the Holocaust has caused an absence, or void, in German and European society”); the unseemly detours into irrelevant political correctness, like the tree to which you are meant to attach your answer to the question “What do equal rights mean to you?”
And in this moment, I can see the designers sitting around excited yet daunted by their chore: how do you get people to feel the way you want them too, how do you get them to actively participate in a space devoted to one of the worst crimes in history? Maybe the designers should have asked if visitors would be up to actively participating in such a creation (I have a feeling a tree on equal rights wasn’t the way….)
I can remember a moment where the world spit into two for me; the created world and the born world. I was 18 and on a tour of the Kansas City Art Institute, and we entered the design building. In the hall was an exhibit of student work– the usual, toasters, silverware, books, etc. Upon seeing these mundane objects I suddenly realized that everything around me had a human being behind it. Not just the student-built toaster, but the case that held it, the wall that held the case, the linoleum under my feet the shoes on my feet my jeans, the cat-eye glasses on the woman explaining why the school was a good investment, the brochure in her hands, everything. Everything until my eyes fell on the trees outside the window.
And even though I choose fine art (perhaps partially because of the strange repulsion of that moment where my world felt horribly wrongly artificial) I never lost that consciousness. I never lost the awareness that not only was everything man made, but that someone sat down and puzzled over how it was made. Some designers talked to users, some did not, some sketched, some imagined, some copied, some innovated but there was always a human just like me deciding.
And now, after some years as a designer, I feel vaguely embarrassed when I see something and feel the designer’s struggle. A good design feels much like a tree. You forget that a designer was there, and you don’t consider it any more or less than a landscape– it’s beautiful or it’s ugly– but not “What were they thinking?” It’s much easier to be in the world when you don’t feel reminded about someone’s sweat, worries, late night and struggles. Better to enjoy the apparent effortlessness of Google without knowing there are five people on the first result team.
So as design and designers take on work that touches our humanity, be it museums to the holocaust or designing the ground zero site, I think perhaps we need to shake off the feeling that we are “doing important work” because that makes us self-conscious and awkward. All acts of designing the world are important, and need to be approached with the same attention. Having gained awareness of the designed world, we have to protect others from that upsetting sensation. We should remember the real design work is done internally by the visitor to the museum, or the user of a website, and our job is simply to give them a decent place to have that experience. Our designs are enabling, not dictating.
If you put a fork in your mouth and you are conscious of it rather than the food it carries, it is a bad design.