Language does not just refer to that which is spoken. In linguistics – written and spoken language – we use the meaning of the signs by their dictionary definition. Effectively the “denotation” of the sign. A structure that we use to communicate that everybody can understand and follow. The words have a fixed meaning.
But what about that which does not have a clear denotation? Astronomer and scientist Galileo was quoted as saying “Mathematics is the language god used to write the universe.” He believed that there was a formula to the creation of all things that exist – assuming that all things were created. I do agree that mathematics is a form of language. It is actually a translation by man that tries to decipher the universe, one that is being continuously re-interpreted.
The reason mathematics and physics is a translation rather than an outright language is because with nature we try to understand the “denotation” – assuming there is a “denotation” -, it is a constant unravelling, discovery and misinterpretation, much like trying to decipher a foreign language for the first time on your own. The science we knew 10 years ago already seems pre-historic. Nature and the universe do not clearly use numbers. Whatever the language is it is hidden around everything and within it. So why are we so confident about using it? Well we should not dispel math and science for these findings are the best possible translations we have at this very moment in time, and at this moment… and this. It is the most trustworthy system we have so far.
If we apply this to design it is about the rules we set ourselves and in the order we use them. American designer Christopher Alexander created “A Pattern Language”. A book of “eternal” design elements with the purpose of creating a scientific formula for many different types of architecture. Based on computer language Alexander and his team attempted to structure beauty and engineering. The rules in this book create a prescriptive approach to what needs to be done in order to assemble a “healthy environment”.
“The street cafe provides a unique setting, special to cities: a place where people can sit lazily, legitimately, be on view, and watch the world go by […]. Encourage local cafes to spring up in each neighborhood. Make them intimate places, with several rooms, open to a busy path, where people can sit with coffee or a drink and watch the world go by. Build the front of the cafe so that a set of tables stretch out of the cafe, right into the street.” (C. Alexander, 1977)
But can beauty be calculable? Does that same idea of beauty even translate in the same way to everyone? Alexander and his team even state as a conclusion:
“[…] each pattern represents our current best guess as to what arrangement of the physical environment will work to solve the problem presented. The empirical questions center on the problem—does it occur and is it felt in the way we have described it?—and the solution—does the arrangement we propose in fact resolve the problem? And the asterisks represent our degree of faith in these hypotheses. But of course, no matter what the asterisks say, the patterns are still hypotheses, all 253 of them—and are therefore all tentative, all free to evolve under the impact of new experience and observation.”
“Connotation”. The interpretation of a sign beyond its denotation or of a sign with no apparent denotation. If I continue to use the example of linguistics it is most notable in the form of poetry, and in metaphor. It becomes about the relationship between the signifier and the signified. It is the theory that everything has a code, that everything is an expression. There is a form of enjoyment in the decrypting of a language. We feel it when gazing at pieces of art, paintings of abstract expressionist and any design work. We are always looking for its meaning. We like to believe it has one. Find messages in the tiniest places. Places we think no-one else would even have looked, that discovery that makes you truly in touch with the designer, sharing a secret that only you and the designer know. And as a designer how do you know that the person translating it speaks the same language?
Roland Barthes – famous for his work on semiotics and language – paints a picture of Japan in his writings about his encounter with Japanese culture, society and language. The book itself if an exhibit for decoding communication: written in French – translated in English about expressing the experience of Japan. The passages run as forms of dialogue between East and West and in fact tell us more about Western thinking than it does about Japanese sensibilities.
“Another function of the two chopsticks together, that of pinching the fragment of food (and no longer of piercing it, as our forks do); to pinch, moreover, is too strong a word, too aggressive […]for the foodstuff never undergoes a pressure greater than is precisely necessary to raise and carry it; in the gesture of chopsticks, further softened by their substance – wood, lacquer – there is something maternal, the same precisely measured care taken in moving a child.” (R. Barthes, 1970)
He constantly finds himself in a pattern that contradicts his own. The beauty, it appears, is not one he is used to but he does appreciate it. At moments he is in shock but at the same time in awe. The problem is that Barthes forgets that in order for the food to be the small shapes and sizes they are to fit perfectly for chopsticks they need to be cut and sliced beforehand. But it is the connotation Barthes derives from the use of chopsticks that has made him come to this conclusion about Japanese dining.
It shows that you can have a completely different perception of beauty but still appreciate that which is unlike anything you have ever seen before. It also shows that the “intention” has an impact on the overall physicality of it. It is important to know the connotation behind everything you do and to know it is the best possible choice you can make because as Barthes has shown this translates to the observer whether they are aware of it or not.
So how do we communicate our ideas and our intentions? Physical aesthetic alone is not good enough to warrant any long term admiration. Why do we choose the things we do?
What do your choices say about you? What is your language?