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The Design Whisperer

Last week's New Yorker has an unintentional (I think) theme running through a number of its articles: the idea of presence. There's a Malcolm Gladwell profile of "The Dog Whisperer", Cesar Millan. There's another profile of Patrick Leigh Fermor, the English adventurer. A piece on iconoclastic filmmaker Robert Altman in Talk of the Town, and even an interesting view of thrill-seeking molecular biologist (yes, you read that right) Charles Zucker in "The Search for Sweet."

All of these articles note, either directly or indirectly, about the effect that certain people have on a room, changing its character, making more things possible simply by being there. Gladwell's article, which he talks about on his blog, is overtly about this, and specifically about the actions that the Dog Whisperer employs to achieve this effect.

Designers, of course, need this exact same sort of presence. My old grad school professor Dick Buchanan would call this the design attitude and note that it is one of the four vectors of organizational change. In Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling also notes the way designers' presence (being "designerly") can affect change.

"Being designery is what one does, as a practical measure, in order to overcome the reactionary clinging to the installed base of malformed objects that maul and affront the customer. What cannot be overcome with reason can be subverted with glamor."

The industrial designers of the mid-20th century knew a lot about this. Raymond Lowey projected an air of bon vivant with his French attitude and water coolers filled with martinis (!). Henry Dreyfuss with his brown suits made to stand out from the standard blues, blacks, and grays.

Knowing a designer needs presence is not the same as a designer having presence, of course. It's certainly not enough to simply wear a brown suit! But then, what actions can be done to create presence? Dick Buchanan might say it's how a designer wields rhetoric to make his/her point, how designers present themselves and their work in a persuasive manner. But that bumps into the question of ethos: the character of the designer. Presence, one assumes, is part of a designer's ethos. Does one become charismatic, or is one born charismatic? If you aren't born charismatic, are there actions one can take to make yourself moreso?

Obviously, I'm not through puzzling through this.

Originally posted at Saturday, May 27, 2006 | Comments (1)

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