Faith and Design

Context

This is an essay that I wrote for my graduate class at Carnegie Mellon University at the end of our semester.  They asked for an explanation of the faith and worldview that they saw underpinned my teaching - and they deeply appreciated the teaching so they were intrigued and respectful.  Carnegie Mellon is one of America’s top private universities: it is in Pittsburgh Pa.  It is a ‘niche’ university, excelling in its chosen  faculty ‘products’ but deliberately not trying to provide broad coverage of faculty offerings.  It is among the top two or three computing and engineering schools in the States and its Design school (the oldest in America) is also among the top two or three.  It is an exotic and intoxicating intellectual blend of the liberal arts and the sciences.

My faith and my design:
How they interact

Tony Golsby-Smith  Dec 1995

It occurred to me after our class discussion yesterday that I should lay out for you some of the faith that underlies my work in design.  This is in response to Peter’s question where he noted the dry atheism or agnosticism that rises as you go up the academic ladder, and contrasted this with my faith - asking whether my faith was somehow connected to my business and work.  The answer was of course that this is so.  But upon reflection I thought I could lay out for you all the system of faith that underpins my work; this is something that Dick[1] and I have talked over a lot - he has always encouraged me to be explicit about the spiritual side of my work because he sees that it leads me to a kind of dialectic or truth that lifts me into more than just rhetoric.

Firstly let me say that much Christianity has a lot of difficulty accommodating design to faith - because the various doctrines seem at face value to militate against things like creativity, initiative, discretion etc.  I don’t want to address this directly except to acknowledge it in passing and say how misguided and sad that kind of worldview is.  I am familiar with it and have suffered from it myself as a younger person.

These ideas are not in any particular order because they interplay with each other.

Shadows of significance

In my work I look for what I think of as ‘shadows’ - ie thoughts or ideas that are shadows of the divine.  I guess this is a bit Platonic - I see life as we know it can shadow the divine.  If I can identify a divine principle behind an idea or a methodology I am more confident to expect it to apply widely and pervasively; this is not to say that I tediously look for shadows of the Almighty in everything and am paralysed if I cannot find it - just that I am more confident of significance if I find a shadow.  By significance I mean that the benefits of the idea will extend beyond utility and function and touch the human spirit with joy or rest in some deeper way.

I must also point out that most of the public faces of Christian faith have a legalistic or behavioural impetus behind them which is most coercive and even sinister - I believe that living a life of faith is an art.  It certainly feels more like art to me than legalism.

Imago Dei

The bedrock idea I have is ‘imago dei’ - or image of God.  The Genesis account of creation makes the major point that God created human beings by a different and more personal agency than how he created the rest of creation - he ‘breathed his spirit’ into humanity whereas he only decreed life to emerge for all other creation.  Leaving aside the tedious and distracting debates over creation v evolution, we have a key point here - ie that humanity is kind of divine.  That on a scale of finitude and mortality we are closer to the animal kingdom, but on a scale of spirit and personality we are closer to God.  This means that for me all of us are made in the image of God, we have the shadow of heaven within, although we also have feet of clay.  So for me an issue like ‘user testing’ is a diminished version of a greater truth - that all are to be respected and dignified by products and services, that none are to be belittled by products or information, that none should be made to feel silly or ignorant.  Rather they should be mediated to discover some remnant of the divine and beautiful within themselves.

I couple ‘imago dei’ with the act of creation in the second verse of the Bible, which I mentioned in my Nierenberg lecture.  This is my bedrock principle for what design is - I see that God ‘designed’ the world at creation - and that we follow in his footsteps when we design anything.  That is why I believe that design is a holy thing, a special thing - and that it is the process of design that matters not the subject of design.  Whether a housewife designs her daughter’s bedroom or an architect designs a multimillion dollar building, both are touching the image of God in creation, the joy and satisfaction both get mirrors the joy God experienced at creation - both acts are of equal significance because basically what is happening is that both people in the process are joining with God in this act of creation.  That is why I value every act of design so highly and disdain the sense of scale and importance we give to an act of design according to its apparent size and monetary value.  It is also why I believe that interfering with the impulse to design is a desecration; because we are interfering with the impulse that is divine and that originated the world.  That is why organisations have much to answer for.  I am more in awe of God than prestige and organisational authority over this matter.

The actual act itself is also a matter of never ending inspiration for me.  

Creativity

“The earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God was moving (hovering) on the face of the waters”

The three fold transition is instructive and captures how I feel when I design .  We have discussed the issue of the four orders of design - and in particular how we should choose how ambitious in scope we should be.  This verse helps me a lot here.  It seems like design must seek out the dark place - the void, the formless, it must identify this place and having found it say “this is what I must work with to transform”  So I feel myself when I am being briefed about a problem asking myself “Where is the dark place ???” I am so eager to hunt it out and find it because that is where my act of design must begin.  I also love the ‘hovering’ word to describe the first engagement of the creating spirit with the formless void - it is what we must do first.  Not judge or decide or brainstorm - but hover. Suspend judgement and listen. Problem finding.

The  process of creation is further described in the remaining section of the first chapter of Genesis.  This is a very profound piece of writing - to me it is like peering down a vast tunnel or time tube to another place - the intersection between infinity and mortality.  You will notice that the act of creation takes two dimensions - a pulling apart to form and a filling.   First God pulls apart light and darkness ( imagine that!!!), water and atmosphere (heaven and earth as it were), then land and ocean.    These three great divisions undergird what I have noticed experientially in the thinking process of design - ie that we begin with a situation that is like a primordial soup of confusions and the first task mentally is to divide - to pull apart into underlying constituent elements that emerge into sets of fruitful paradoxes.  That is, first we pull apart the elements that were confused and indistinguishable, then we can set them into useful antitheses[2], finally something emerges - another thing that was not there before takes shape, becomes seeable.  After the pulling apart God ‘named’ the emergent properties - just as we name the emergent properties in our systems or ideas to capture them.  Little wonder then that Plato said he loved the processes of division and combination - they helped him to live and to think.  

Judging quality

Following this great pulling apart and emerging, came the days of filling or production - fecundity and growth.  So the early efforts of design that rely so much on scalpel like division and emergence give way to fecundity of ideas and proliferation - to themes that connect and multiply the seeds of ideas.  And it is all judged at each point by the Creator “it was good” just as we must mediate our processes of creation by similar iterations of judgement.  

So when we ‘design’ we tend to follow such rhythms rather naturally almost unconsciously - why?  For me it is ‘imago dei’ - as Einstein said we are thinking God’s thoughts after him.

[1] Dick Buchanan, Head of the Design Department at CMU & now Professor Management at Weatherhead Business School, Case Western University.

[2] The notion of antitheses is endlessly fascinating and deserves much thought and reflection.  

Communication, complexity and action in organisations

I find the information overload issue wonderfully caught in the story of the Tower of Babel which you find in the eleventh chapter of Genesis.  This is a marvellous and rather comical story.  Basically humanity had become consumed with pride and ego and so had decided to build a structure that would reach up to heaven.  This irritated God no end so he decided to put a stop to it; what did he do?  Send earthquakes, or warfare, or sickness, or ruin supplies, or spoil their technologies?  None of the above.  What he did to render the whole enterprise dysfunctional was very relevant to us who work in communication - he ruined their ability to communicate and to understand each other.  Unable to communicate they could not work, could not cooperate so the whole thing was destroyed.  This is very significant.  For a start I find the egotistical base of the enterprise very predictive of the ego driven nature of modern organisations - thinking they will last forever - and most pertinently this places communication as the key factor to influence organisational success and action.  So I have great confidence in the field that we are working in - it is not  cosmetic. I am confident to tell a modern executive that if one thing will kill his or her organisation it will be lapses in communication.

Narrative in communication

‘Story’ is a key element in my concept of design - I rely on story telling to find out what is going on, and distrust propositional axioms as the way to ‘truth’.  This aspect of story is given extra significance for me by the structure of how God has revealed Himself - through story.  The backbone of the Bible is a story  - it threads its way through about one and a half thousand years of time and place dimensionality (ie from Abraham to Christ).  This story is not glossed or refurbished for our consumption - the central players all have significant shortfalls that make them foolish at times, and not all their actions are endorsed by the narrative. For instance, the great Jewish king David cheated on one of his best friends to steal his wife - this is roundly condemned in the text.  Around this story is woven the ‘flesh’ of interpretation and celebration: prophetic books point up and explain the significance of these events, and psalms and proverbs lyricise the experience of faith and the struggles of anxiety and doubt. It is a rich three strand narrative.  

This strengthens my commitment to what I might call ‘the dignity of the uninterpreted event’.  Ie I see no need to tidy up a story - I prefer to get to the bare bones.  I do not despair that this will be a negative experience -for I believe that real meaning and growth for an organisation can occur by integrating those stories into its policies.  I see that the values and the policy of the organisation is a kind of analogue to the prophetic strand - ie interpretive.  The prophets saved events from being felt as random and chaotic, or as disastrous.  They tended to do two things - explain where an event fitted into God’s grand plan and encourage the people with hope for the future and the promises.  I see this as analogous to the role of vision and policy in an organisation: it should be partly explanatory and partly exhortational.  It should lift people from the atomism of events to the fabric of meaning.  

Experiential honesty

The poetic side of Scripture points to the need to be open to experience.  The psalms in the bible are to me the most extraordinary canonical literature in that they often record the passage of the struggle to faith - the writer is often in turmoil about events and seeks to find solace unsuccessfully in God.  They have to work things through to some conclusion.  This is extraordinary because it sanctions honesty about experience - including experience that is contrary to the ‘party line’.  The Psalms are not indulgent - the writer does not just dwell on the negativity, but has some disciplined structure to work on the negativity.  Nonetheless the whole discipline is predicated on the foundation of deep honesty and openness.  

So in asking myself what guidelines I might seek for communication and structuring corporate life - I draw some inspiration from the three strand rope of the biblical structure.

Language, thought and reality

My philosophy of language is also very spiritual - ie I do not consider language as merely a functional or transactional thing, nor do I regard words as light and ephemeral.  This is very significant for it sets me utterly at odds with positivist or mechanical views of language.  While I accept that language and thought can be studied and much can be learned, I believe that language ultimately will and should remain a mystery. By that I mean that we can fully participate in it and enjoy it but we cannot fully understand everything  about it.  The complaint I have with empiricists is that they reduce their notion of truth to what they can study and verify - which is a logical fallacy among other things.  To be able to study and verify something I must be able to reduce the range of perceptions about it to what I can gather with my perceptual instruments, and then I must reduce the questions I ask of the already filtered field of data to what I can simulate, observe and measure.  By the time I have done this double filtering what I am dealing with is but a pale reflection of ‘reality’.  I do not ask that empiricists stop their work - just that they get appropriately humble about its scope and claims.  To them I offer Hamlet’s admonition to the prosaic Horatio,
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy O Horatio!”

Language is a wonder to me - it marks out our ‘divinity’ more than anything other aspect of our experience.  I of course am including thought in language.  The process of language is accorded significant status in the creation account; when God gave humanity dominion and stewardship over the earth the process of governorship was ‘naming’ - Adam ‘named’ the animals.  It is fair to say that I also believe that this faculty has been much abused by humanity in several key ways - the dominion has ascended to eclipse the stewardship aspect, and the naming process has become a kind of rigid codifying that sits over creation like a straitjacket: to distinguish between the richness originally intended by God in naming and the caricatures it has degraded into, I call the degraded form ‘labelling’ and the rich intended form ‘naming’.  To label is to slap an appellation over an event or a thing  that allows us to refer to it efficiently but relieves us of the trouble of thinking about it; to ‘name’ is a creative sense making that engages me in wonder about the event or thing and by implication about my relationship with it.  This is like poetry.

The Human impulse to govern

The ‘dominion’ side of the naming process has got bad press today - but I do not back off it personally.  Speaking for myself, I want to have dominion over things.  Let me explain.  By dominion I mean understanding and some control - if for instance I do not have dominion over a feeling it will come upon me unbidden and dominate me.  An unresolved grief, or a not understood idea are like this - they haunt us like a shadow that we cannot manage.  But ‘naming’ such a shadow brings it out into an accessible space of our minds where we can manage and strategise about it.  So I don’t apologise for the ‘dominion’ word, and I make the point that language is the primary mediating tool for me to exercise dominion over the creation.  The second word ‘stewardship’ underlines my responsibility to care for creation - it puts the not-me world in focus rather than the ‘me’ world.

There is much more than I could explain but it could become tedious or sound too formulaic which it is not; I have evolved into these understandings over years so I don’t want to cheapen them by over summarising.  If any of you are interested in pursuing them I can write some more - the particular field that I could explore is the way we use the most problematic of all Christian doctrines the Trinity, to explore and explain the structure of experience, purpose and interventionist design.

The risks and imprecision of communication

I want to conclude with one more point which I find encouraging.  Communication is an imprecise art - much more art than science.  It is so imprecise that we can despair of accuracy and success and give up.  Much of modern theory of language that I hear seems to emanate from a kind of despair that true shared meaning can feasibly be achieved.  Once we come to understand how people have multiple interpretations of the same symbols, we quickly can plunge into a kind of relativism that says that everything is shifting and there are no fixed points of reference.  This is a fearful thing to truly believe so there is little wonder that many people flee from this conclusion to the far more comforting place of fixed dogmas - self existing truths to which we must all come.

Neither place makes me comfortable and both places traduce language.  Relativism sucks it of all point and meaning; dogma blasphemes it by making it the instrument of coercion.  Where is the middle ground or a higher way?

My major inspiration here from my faith is the story of the incarnation (human birth) of Jesus.  We Christians believe that Jesus’ birth was supernatural - ie he was born of a virgin.  This bit of ancient ‘artificial insemination’ or ‘biological engineering’ has provoked ridicule and disbelief ever since, as well as piety and adoration.  My point here though is not to argue the truth or other wise of such a claim (it strikes me that this is an utterly futile discussion - if ever there was an ‘unobservable’ miracle this miracle at the level of two cells seems to me to be it!).  My point is to explain how my believing this operates as a guiding principle for me as a designer - and a communication designer in particular.

In particular the incarnation addresses very directly this question of despair.  In essence the incarnation is presented biblically as an act of communication - ‘God with us’ or Immanuel is a title ascribed to Jesus, and He is also called the ‘Word”.  The most lyrical and (to me) sublime of the four accounts of Jesus’ life is John’s book: it begins with these words

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning. ... in Him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shone in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.   ...He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have seen his glory..full of grace and truth

                                                              John 1; 1 - 14

The point of encouragement is this: for me this was the most ambitious act of communication ever conceived or attempted: an infinite and fundamentally ‘incommunicable’ God attempting to communicate himself to a finite, bounded and fundamentally cynical audience.  An audience locked up in the empiricism and physicality of perception.  No communication gulf was ever greater!  

The risk involved in the attempt is profound - the risk of being not understood, worse still partly understood, distorted and downplayed.  I think of the despondent words of TS Eliot’s persona J Alfred Prufrock who complained after trying to bare his soul got the response, “that is not what I meant at all, that is not it at all”.  Given the mortal limitations of God’s audience, the whole enterprise is indeed like putting a camel through the eye of a needle.  But these verses from John tell me that God did make the communication effort, put every effort and resource into it, and trusted the process. Difficulties in comprehension, fears of misinterpretation, doubts about the goodwill of the audience - none of these were reason enough to back off the great task of communication.

This makes communication for me a moral imperative - not just a function.  It endorses risk taking (we all experience the risk of rejection in personal communication).  And it also seems to me to endorse a kind of approximate ‘goodenough’ evaluation of success.  I have not illusions that God had been 100% successful in ‘communicating’ to me, in that I do not apprehend fully his nature or his intentions.  But I believe. I act on the believe.  I think differently in my context.  I feel differently.  So situationally speaking the communication has had a kind of working success, without having ‘absolute’ success.

This makes realise that similar goals of working success will do me in a communication exercise.  That I need not despair, that communication is possible without stringency and totality, that it is rich and sufficient if it influences within some boundaries.  That the effort is well worth it since it is a strategy adopted by God to me.

––

I hope that these ideas are useful for you in some way.  My primary aim has to be to explain the system of interactions between my faith and the principles I have learned in it, and my working life of design.  

Best wishes

tony

Tony Golsby-Smith
Published
February 11, 2020

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