Looking for a book in the library last week, I came across a book called Design by Brian Webb and Peyton Skipton which documents the work of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, two designers of the early twentieth century and commissioned war artists. At first I wondered how this little book could cover a broad subject as design? As I flicked through, I realised that the book was probably titled ‘Design’ as it is so hard to define what discipline the two artists worked in as their work was used for wallpaper, illustration, advertising and surface pattern amongst many other applications.
Thinking about all the disciplines which could be attributed to the arch of design reminded me of something I had read in a book by Edmund Leach on Lévi-Strauss, a twentieth century French philosopher who comments among other things, on structuralism. What this means, is that human brains gather information collected by our senses and orders it so that it can be categorised, “…we cut up the continua of space and time with which we are surrounded into segments so that we are predisposed to think of the environment as consisting of vast numbers of separate things belonging to named classes, and to think of the passage of time as consisting of sequences of separate events” (1979:21).
To make it easier to understand, Leach gives the example of the colour spectrum. The spectrum is a continuous variation of wavelengths, red merges to yellow, it has no distinct end or beginning but the human mind categorises the wavelengths into sections to create distinguishable colours: red, yellow, blue etc. Furthermore, we attach meaning to the colours such as green is opposite to red in the spectrum, therefore we treat the two colours as two different signs, as if they are positive and negative. Red is often used for ‘stop’ (maybe because of its association with blood, Leach suggests) and so green, being opposite on the colour spectrum has become the sign for ‘go.’
Maybe this is a good ‘structure’ to also apply to design: design is the spectrum and all the disciplines are the different frequencies of wavelength of light. Design is a continuum that we have segmented into disciplinary chunks: illustration, product design and graphic design etc, so that we can understand them better and are able to converse and learn about them. I suppose that to work in a certain niche, you have to think broadly about where you fit in on the spectrum.