Design is Symphony

November 29th, 2011

I posted this last year, but I want to discuss it again. From a cut section of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead:

After the explosion, his voice, his hands moving slowly as he spoke, like planes smoothing unseen walls, raised broad, clean streets and houses in the likeness of what those within should be and would be made to become by these houses: straight and simple and honest, wise and clear in their purpose, copying nothing, following nothing but the needs of those living within–and let the needs of no one living be those of his neighbor! To give them, Cameron was saying, what they want, but first to teach them to want–to want with their own eyes, their own brains, their own hearts. To teach them to dream–then give the dream to them in steel and mortar, and let them follow it with dreams in muscle and blood.

That’s what design is: a grand symphony in physical form, the physical embodiment of a brilliantly clear thesis, and one that inspires anyone who sees it through its integrity.

We are used to the idea that design is utilitarian: well-designed things are unswervingly designed to fulfill their purpose. This all feels very cold and calculated; some need is recognized, and an object is designed to satisfy it.

Well-designed things do indeed fulfill their purpose, but this formulation of what it means for something to be well-designed ignores that design inherently reflects the designer’s principles. Something that is truly brilliant transcends its purpose and becomes something more. Dvorak’s The New World Symphony is not sublime because it is well-composed, but because it is so viscerally beautiful, that it cannot be fully expressed in words. It can only be heard, and felt.

And that is what design ought to be. The principles which led to it should be so evident that the person viewing, hearing or using it feel them, feels the creator’s heart in it, and is inspired to put that same level of dedication into everything they do, too.

When I listen to that symphony, I know that great things are possible. I know that we are all capable of dreaming wondrous things, and of making them reality. I know it, because that symphony exists.