Heart of Design I

One of the best things about formal study is the ability to really inhabit the learning process.  In art and design, there is an abstract/theoretical facet to that process, as well as a practical one.  Irrespective of medium, it is through the hands-on investigation of our materials that we become acquainted with the shape of these ideas and “ground” the abstractions.  During my own formal design training, I learned that the story of design encompasses all aspects of human endeavor, including but not limited to fine art and craft.  As a more mature designer, I see this affirmed again and again.  Moreover, I feel that design as a conscious act extends to the universe as a whole, but this isn’t an essay on metaphysics (or at least not entirely).  It suffices to say that the simplest acts of human expression involve some act of intention on the part of the maker (even if seemingly unintentional) so, by extension, all acts of expression are acts of design[1].

Whether or not all acts of expression meet the criteria for “good” design is a subjective matter and very often culturally determined, although we also know some design transcends cultural distinctions, perhaps because it contains universal “truths” about the human condition, or satisfies some universal human need.  Whatever the case, the act of design is a universal act (I have humans in mind as I write although an argument could be made for the purposeful acts of creation by other creatures, e.g., spiders (web-construction) and beavers (dam-building), etc.).  And, whether creative expression addresses the olfactory, sonic/auditory, tactile, visual, spatial, conceptual, functional, symbolic, ritual, literal, worldly, mundane, practical, interior, exterior, architectural, industrial, or technological dimensions of human experience, the process always draws upon universal elements and principles.  The “elements”[2], consist of the parts which combine to form a whole – the backbone of any work.  The “principles” are the glue, the synthesizers which make the work greater than the sum of its parts.  And, even when creative expression deliberately goes beyond the conventional (where the “rules” are “broken” to forge new creative links), there is still evidence of these basic components at work.  It should be remembered, however, that as with any overlay, there are limits to what this one can describe.  Ultimately, creative expression cannot be reduced to these components.  Creative works (whether called art, craft or design) are integrated composites of, among other things, materials, techniques, intentions, context, as well as how the user/observer/participant/invitee interfaces with the offering.  This analysis provides only a useful structure within which to articulate pathways and process.[3]


In the beginning, there was the dot.  There is always a point of beginning in any investigation and this one begins with the point.   Although subordinate to the line in western art and design, the dot is truly the seed of all expression.  One point in time, one object/body in space, one pixel in a field, one particle suspended within a million, one tone, one syllable in a word, one note in a chord, one beat of a drum, or of one’s heart.  The dot or point is foundational.  When I was learning about mehndi patterns, I discovered that the dot or bindu is a symbol for the vast creative potential of the universe, “the mysterious matrix…from which everything emanates and in which everything merges.”[4]  All of creation begins from a seed.  All lines begin with a single point.

The dot/point/counterpoint has an amazing history as an element of human creative expression: petroglyphs, Pointillism, poetry, pixilation, symphonies, beadwork, mandalas, Morse Code, to name a goodly few.  It is quite simply the driving force in our attempts to describe the vast complexity of the pulsating world of form we inhabit.  And the dot supersedes the line, for within every painted line are pigment particles suspended in a medium; within each pencil mark, graphite particles bound together; within each piece of cloth molecular matrices of plant or animal fiber held together by stitches, loops, intersections; within all objects points of light bouncing back to us and resolving into something “solid.”  The dot or particle (and it’s “motion” correlate, the wave) is fundamental – but, of course, it can’t be separated from its context: the meaning of a “dot” is contained in its location, and space around the dot derives its meaning from its relationship to the dot.  And that’s where the real story of human expression begins.

[1] Webster’s: design v.t. to invent and bring into being || to plan in the mind || to intend for a particular purpose; n. the formal structure of a picture || the combination of parts in a whole || a plan conceived in the mind || a purpose, intention

[2] This overlay is derived from Design Through Discovery by Marjorie Elliott Bevlin (Wadsworth, 1994)

[3] There are many excellent texts on art and design theory.  I will make reference to some of them along the way, but much of what will emerge here will be based on my direct experience in/with a variety of media.  I pursue this in part as a means of enriching my own process within each of the media forming foundation of my personal creative expression (not the least of which is textiles).

[4] Roome, Loretta.  The Timeless Art of Henna Painting.  New York: St. Martins, Griffin,  1998.


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