The realm of design is so vast and philosophies for what makes good design are as varied as tastes in art. By and large the majority of design that we experience is in a supporting role. The task of the thing that is designed is not changed by the design, but it is qualified by it. A chair is for sitting, but it can be comfortable or uncomfortable, handsome or ugly. While a chair is defined largely by its function as a sitting device, it needs to have a core “chair DNA” to be recognized as such, and not confused for a couch, a stool or a horse. As a sophisticated species we have given nuance to tasks and designed tools that would achieve them most cleverly. If a variation of a task is distinct enough it breaks off from the parent task and finds it own essential design.
Art might not be readily recognized as a task, but in most cases we find tools that help us access it, and these tools of course are designed for their task. Paintings don’t need frames to be art, nor does music need amplification, but these tools assist the experience to be more effective. Amplification helps control the volume of music against competing noise and protects the sound from its detractors. Similarly frames help protect a painting from physical damage. They also protect against the damage of distraction, guiding the eye to the subject and separating it from other visual stimuli in a room.
Certainly the quality of the art has the greatest effect on the experience of the audience but the design of the means by which it is conveyed can make a distinct difference. A font can seem inseparable from the words it designs, but can greatly affect the flavor of the writing. As the eye scans across the shapes of letters fonts determine speed and quality of that movement. While the content of the words takes precedent, the font can do a lot of work subconsciously to enhance the experience of reading.
I was eating at a restaurant in Philadelphia recently and greatly enjoying the experience. The entrée I ate was hand-cut tagliatelli pasta with duck ragu, shaved chocolate and orange. Food can be impressive without being satisfying and vise versa, but this pasta was both. It was only as I was halfway through my meal that the silverware caught my attention. The metal was dense and unpolished and the shape was gently bent. The flatware’s form turned with long rounded curves. That silverware, of course wasn’t made for that particular pasta. It had to do the job of delivering all sorts of food to the mouth and yet had to seem well matched to each task.
I tried to consider how much that silverware qualified my meal. Did the food taste different because of the silverware or add to my enjoyment? Would it have made as much difference if I hadn’t taken notice of what I had in my hand? I tend to think that it did have subtle influence. The weight of the silverware gave an added awareness to the labor of eating, and the sleek curves made the movements from plate to mouth more graceful.
Fonts, frames and silverware are subversive tools. Some might say that they are doing their job the best when they aren’t noticed at all. They are rather egoless, with their creators receiving infrequent and disproportionate credit. Still their power is great because it is one that deftly adjusts the context of our experience. In a way, frames, fonts and silverware are diplomats ferrying between worlds. The thoughts of a painter, a writer or a chef merge with the thoughts of an audience by way of these conduits. As diplomats, these tools have some authority on either side of the transaction. We expect that they can speak both our language and the language of the artform.
Giving recognition to these tools reminds me that it is the interaction with art that makes it an experience. I remember the experience of art more than the art itself and this is no doubt a credit to the way it was presented.
Food can be just fuel, words can be drivel, paintings can be decorations and the tools used to convey them can be purely practical. But when the goal of these mediums is to achieve something more artful, the tools at their service can help communicate a greater experience, even if they go unnoticed.