“Design thinking” has emerged as one of the most significant concepts in the design profession today, since it is leading to a rethinking of what design is and what design does. For many people, design is an add-on, something that is synonymous with “styling.” But design is not decorating, or styling; rather, it is problem solving. One of the design profession’s challenges is to move people’s understanding of design from an activity that lies at the periphery to an activity that lies at the center. As Tom Peters said in an interview in @issue, “The dumbest mistake is viewing design as something you do at the end of the process to ‘tidy up’ the mess, as opposed to understanding that it’s a ‘day one’ issue and part of everything.”
This coming Thursday, a great designer who is also a great design thinker will speak at the JW Marriott in Grand Rapids. There is a famous moment in one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays (Hamlet) in which a group of actors show up at the Danish Court. Polonius, a gabby, self-serving, and self-important politician attempts to describe the kinds of plays these actors can present. They are the best, he says, “either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.”
When asked to write about Ralph Caplan, I thought of these lines—not because Caplan is in any sense a Polonius, nor because he fits into categories, but precisely because when it comes to thinking and writing about design, he is one of the few whose essays beautifully navigate the categories of strict rules (“the law of writ) and impromptu performance—“the liberty.”
Ralph Caplan is a design thinker whose essays transcend any attempt to pin them down. He is an “essayist” in the original meaning of the word. Originally, an essay was an “attempt,” a brief foray into a subject and the sharing of one’s thoughts about a subject with others. Caplan’s essays in Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design recall in their approach, their fluidity, their range of subject, and their sharp insight the work of the original essayist—Michel de Montaigne.
Caplan’s essays have an ease about them, almost as though their tight design, their polish, their clarity, and their transparency were the result of an impromptu performance—as though he dashed them off in one bright moment of insight. Considered as art, they are an example of the art that conceals art; considered as works that have been designed, they are examples of transparent design–design that functions so smoothly that it attracts attention to itself only in its beauty, originality, simplicity, and transparency.
Today, the concept of design thinking plays a prominent role in design’s consideration and articulation of what it is and what it does. As with any significant abstract concept, design thinking inevitably leads people to attempt to bring precision to the concept—to define it and in so doing to distinguish it from other modes of thought, other human endeavors—to recognize that plays may be tragedies, or they may be comedies, or—unfortunately for Polonius—they may slide all over the place and into so many categories as to become ridiculous. Ralph Caplan’s beautiful essays defy being categorized. He is a wonderful example of a designer whose beautiful designs include some beautiful essays on design itself.
In 1994, Oliver became Dean of the Faculty at Kendall College of Art and Design and was named President in 1995, at which time he worked with Kendall’s Board of Trustees to merge Kendall with Ferris State University. He serves today as President of Kendall. Oliver’s blog can be found at: oliverhevans.com