Exemplars—Laziness, Originality, and Pride
Whoa! The above discussion on exemplars in design skips lightly by some issues very real for each designer:
- Isn’t copying an early design, a precedent, just an exercise in laziness? Can an honest professional do that with integrity?
- People become designers because they like to make things. What fun is there in confining one’s self-expression within the iron cage of another’s style?
- The world highly values originality and innovation and rewards them with respect, reputation, and sometimes fame and fortune.
- One’s special contribution to the human race depends upon one’s own unique vision. Isn’t it a disservice to neglect or suppress this originality?11
Lest there be misunderstanding, I most emphatically do not assert that most design problems can be solved by adapting exemplars, nor do I advocate their slavish copying.
I do assert that
- The designer should know well the exemplars of his craft, their strengths, their weaknesses. Originality is no excuse for ignorance.
- In engineering, if not in the arts, gratuitous innovation (that is, not anticipated to be “better” in some useful sense) is a foolish idea and a selfish indulgence of pride—because of the unavoidable risk of unintended downside consequences.
- Designers who master the styles of their predecessors have more treasures upon which their originality can draw.
Certainly the lazy or slack designer can minimize his work by picking an exemplar and just modifying it to fit. By and large, those who just copy do not draw on ancient or remote exemplars but only on those that are most current and fashionable. The world is full of lazy Bauhaus architecture and mediocre ranch-type homes done in Frank Lloyd Wright’s “prairie” style.
Not laziness, but a high level of enthusiasm and diligence is required for the mastery of the corpus of exemplars available in any design domain.
Originality and Pride
It seems to me that the current premium on design originality misleads. To paraphrase Vitruvius, whatever the medium, one wants a design that meets the functional need, is robust and durable under stress, and gives the user pleasure. So with Shaker furniture, with Revere’s tableware, with Peck and Stowe’s needle-nosed pliers.12
What then of originality? Well, it can certainly delight. We have all seen new designs so sparkling fresh that we rejoice at the elegance of the solution—a Leatherman folding pocket tool, a Slinky toy, a cable-stayed bridge.
But the delight lies in the superior elegance of the new solution to an old problem, not in its novelty per se. This is shown by the new delight each time we use the tool or toy. It does not fade. On the other hand, mere novelty is a cheat for satisfaction. The seven-day wonder grows old. As its novelty fades, so does the delight. The novelty seeker is perpetually driven. There is no resting delight.13
Originality as Goal or By-product. He who seeks originality is apt to find novelty, but not permanence of delight. On the other hand, he who seeks to make designs that really work is most apt to come up with new designs of enduring value, almost as a by-product.
Pride. Closely tied to the striving after originality is pride, a desire to make a name for oneself. This ancient cause and consequent of humanity’s fall infects all design, and ruins much.
Early on it manifested itself in the Tower of Babel. “Come, let us build a tower to heaven, and make a name for ourselves.”14
Shelley in one of his poems captures the ancient and modern desire: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”
The desire to be original has degraded many a work.15