Unscientific definitions

Design is suffering from an inferiority complex, says Janice Kirkpatrick. It’s time to drop pseudo-science and learn to speak confidently and in our own language

At school I tried to enjoy science and maths and held them in equal regard with English and art. However, art was perceived as an inferior and unrelated subject and scientific “facts” were dished-out with little apparent need for further justification. They were true and art was a lot of remedial rubbish.

For us kids science was just more true lies that didn’t go nearly far enough to explain many of the facts of real life. The world was much more than science. It was love and lust and emotion and a million other feelings which couldn’t ever be measured.

Science teachers were irritating know-alls who considered themselves right and the rest of the world wrong. They saw the English and art departments as a bunch of trendy, lefty drop-outs giving occupational therapy to kids too thick to understand science. And these sad science swots, who never got a snog, have been allowed to bask in the false security of mathematical rationality for far too long.

I worry that in our constant search for new paradigms, to describe everything from soap powder to evolution, we’re only veering from physics to biology. Albeit we’re moving from a “hard” to a “soft” science, from the “dry” heritage of the 19th century natural sciences to the trendy “wet” jargon of the late-20th century. We’re still in the science block and I don’t believe it will yield a clearer picture of today’s world than it did when I was at school.

Social scientists and marketers like biology because it’s soft and squishy, not hard and numeric like physics, with its corollary of untrendy old rules. Biology’s polyform, dynamic condition can conceal a multitude of sins. Fuzzy logic and endless mutations mean we can hide behind smoke screens of changing definitions and inconclusive pronouncements.

Trendy biology is still very much a science. Like physics, it lends credibility to creative activities which can’t be totally defined. We like physics and biology because they’re in the public domain, thanks to a British obsession with yesterday’s manly sciences. But where do we go when we’ve run out of biological vocabulary? Most of us have little interest in either maths or chemistry – a fact not lost on the broadcasters who confine these subjects to the Open University.

Once again creativity shoots itself in the foot by failing to develop its own vocabulary. Creative professionals shoehorn descriptions of their activities into other people’s languages. Hoping to legitimise and quantify the essentially unquantifiable and ensuring that creativity is always slavishly mis-defined within the confines of science. Scientific rules can be applied universally, cultural activities, such as design, are not universal quantities and must be interpreted and explained in order to be understood.

When will we ever learn that all we do can’t be defined? An incomplete, messy but appropriate definition is more valuable than a slickly symmetrical but false one. The process of trying to define what we are, in many languages, is what’s important and what leads to a more complete understanding of our true condition. It’s a messy business, but so is life.

Just what does it mean if we talk about “brand DNA” rather than brand values? DNA is an abstract quantity based on numbered genes revealed to us through scanning tunnelling microscopy, or whatever. It’s just another way of talking about endless numeric mutations – more numbers. Numbers are only ever symbols of real values, and, even if these values are impossible to totally define, I think we really should have a go. Scientists have isolated the building blocks of all life. But what is the value of life and are scientists the best people to judge?

I would be lying if I said science didn’t excite me, but it always leaves me wanting more. Science strips me of my humanity, my personality and my individuality. We’re all supposedly the same under the skin, reduced to the same number of strands on our DNA. However, skin keeps us alive and lets us live in a hostile environment. It allows us to express our feelings through gesture and touch. Skin is where our countenance resides – our most profound expression of individuality. Skin contains the unpalatable mush that’s us in a usefully human-shaped bag, pleasing to the touch more than not.

I prefer to trust an imperfect, cobbled-together, eclectic explanation of the world because it reflects the world I recognise. I’m suspicious of slick and simple definitions. I wish that designers would stop expecting science to validate their work.

It’s now time to have lots of new ways to describe society, creativity and the value of what we create. It’s our turn now so let’s try and be original.

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