Friday, January 30, 2009

The Secret of Holding the Sword with Nothing in Your Hands

The most profound difficulty and, simultanesously, the most inspiring spirit in design comes down to a single Way of thinking: There is no approach that consistently works, there is no style that lasts, there is no form that remains perfect forever. In accepting this, however, there is complete and abundant freedom.
I have had the most extreme trouble admitting to my students (at the School of Visual Arts in New York) that I can't teach them HOW to design. I cannot tell them that Berthold Baskerville is the best typeface, or that purple and gold is the best color combination to use, or that big is better than small. Because, speaking contextually, all that can be wrong. Things are really only right in context. Therefore, as a designer, it is of paramount importance to avoid getting caught up in personal likes and dislikes, or posturing, or affectation. These modes will lead in the wrong direction, and though you may reach a goal, you haven't gotten there on the right path.

I'm not sure where I learned this thinking...
The seed was sewn by the great designer + creative director, Tracy Boychuk, who I regard as my mentor, and have done so for 7 or 8 years. She was the first to talk about appropriateness—to instill the idea that right and wrong in design are only contextually true. And that ugly can be beautiful if the situation calls for it. And so I have always strived to neglect my tastes and figure out what is contextually appropriate. I have committed to this path and found style to be an encumbrance and preconception to be certain failure.
My writing-partner (from my 1st job in advertising), Jeff Yonteff, who has been a constant inspiration and guide, introduced me to the great book, Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai, a practical and spiritual guide for a warrior, drawn from a collection of commentaries by the samurai, Yamamoto Tsunetomo. Upon opening this book, my life changed and the way I saw the world changed. The analogy of designer as swordsman never escapes my mind now. And this book opened me up to a great many thoughts on the soul, my duty as a human, the principles of Shinto, and led to the discovery of another life-altering book, The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts, by Issai Chozanshi.
More focused on the mind, and the inner path of the swordsman, I find this book to be the essential reading for young designers today. There is a deep importance placed on returning to honor, duty, discipline, cultivation of technique and immersion into process. The similarities between the great swordsman of Chozanshi's time and the true designer of today are endless. It is for that reason that all of my students read this book.
As with the Hagakure, The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts is beautifully translated by William Scott Wilson.

This preamble serves to present some selections from The Demon's Sermon on the Martial Arts:

“When you use strength to control your pull of the bowstring, you run counter to the character of the bow, you and the bow are in opposition and become two. When your spirit does not pass back and forth between you and the bow, you will actually obstruct the strength of the bow, and strip away its force. Thus you will be unable to send the arrow far or to penetrate the target with force. . .Everyday human affairs are just like this. If your intention is not true and you conduct yourself incorrectly, you will lack diligence in the affairs of your lord and be disloyal, you will dither around with the affairs of your parents and show no filial piety, and not be sincere to your relatives and friends. People will despise you, society will detest you, and you will be unable to cope with things. When your ch'i does not fill your entire body, inwardly you will be prone to sickness and your mind will be hard up; in your affairs you will be preoccupied and anxious, and you will be unable to undertake any noble enterprise. When you obstruct the character of things, you run counter to human nature, distance yourself from matters, and are out of harmony; and when this happens, you end up in conflict. When your spirit is unsettled, you have many doubts and your affairs are unending. When your thoughts are moving, you have no tranquility and make a multitude of mistakes.”

“Man's mind, too, is not without the good. When you follow your own true character and are not a slave to your passions and desires, your spirit will not be troubled, you will be in touch with the phenomena of this world, and practical application will have no obstacles. For this reason, the 'Way of the Great Learning is in making clear your adamantine character,' and in the Doctrine of the Mean it says that 'Complying with your character is called following the Way.' In explaining principle from the top, scholars express its standard. Nevertheless, the mediocrity and confusion of some people are deep, and such people are unable to change the substance of their ch'i and directly return to the spirit of their true character. For this reason, scholars preach about 'the extension of knowledge' and 'making one's will and heart sincere.' They also expound self-examination and being watchful over ourselves when we are alone, and would have us step over the true ground of self-discipline.
“Swordsmanship is also like this. Facing your opponent, you forget about life, forget about death, forget about your opponent, and forget about yourself. Your thoughts do not move and you create no intentions. When you are in a state of No-Mind and leave everything to your natural perceptions, metamorphosis and change will be conducted with absolute freedom, and practical application will have no obstacles. When in the midst of a great number of opponents, you will cut and thrust before and behind, and to the left and right. And even if your body is smashed to bits, our ch'i will be under control and your spirit settled, you will suffer no changes at all, and you will be as correct and peerless as Tzu Lu.
“If you will be like this, how could you fail or be without result? This is the deepest principle of swordsmanship. Nevertheless, it is not a Way you can climb up directly without incurring traveling expenses. If you do not try out your techniques, temper your ch'i, train your mind, or make intense and diligent efforts without fail, you will never reach the Way.”


Genèvieve said...

amazing stuff...
i recently found your blog and lost hours fascinated intead of doing horrible homeworks.
i study design myself and notice how hard it is to teach since we all have our personal opinions about aesthetics and how horrible it is for the student (me!) to realize the importance of a task and not discard it as useless immediately. the fact we are overworked, i feel, makes us even more likely to come up with easy, unprecise, methodical solutions instead of really exploring and thinking about what is more adecuate.

Anonymous said...

Nice page. I am one who appears
en passant in the preface of the book of William Scott Wilson
Keep steady, you are in the way
Daniel Medvedov

NT said...

Daniel, I'm honored that you've passed through here.
Genèvieve, I think it helps to become a master of time. One seems to feel less overworked when one isn't rushing through it. And my way is to think constantly about it, but think in a focused way. On the train, on a walk, are useful times to go through ideas, and feel them out. That way, when it comes time to execute ideas, you are prepared beforehand. If you want to pursue the discussion, you're welcome to write to me,
Good luck!