Jessica Helfand | Essays

On Desire

Why is desire such a compelling, all-consuming human need? For generations certain kinds of lofty aspiration were the stuff of science fiction, but more recently the fulcrum of want has successfully shifted from wishful to probable. Increasingly this is the purview of technology, and in particular of personal technology, and wearable technology, and embedded technology, and all sorts of technology we haven’t even anticipated yet. That technology provides us with things, and that these things beckon with meaning, are the bedrock expectations upon which capitalis fundamentally rests, but they also inform the degree to which design can skew the emotional reach of need—whether desperate or playful, real or imagined, yours or mine. While desire can be a willful force, it can also be deeply irrational and, at times, frustratingly paradoxical. Therein lies its beguiling power to enchant—but also, it must be said, to deceive.

Desire can reveal itself as a passing craving or a full-tilt motivation, as lust or hunger—but how does the design process itself function within this mercurial narrative? In a capitalist society it is frequently impossible to divorce design from want, to disassociate the process of formalizing a thing from its intended objective, which rests upon its physical acquisition. (As a fundamental practice, design itself tends to be targeted, goal-oriented, and pragmatic: it’s about making stuff.) Yet the question of taste makes defining desire a near-impossible task. Identifying the qualities that convey that adrenaline-rich emotional punch—the factors, simply put, that motivate desire—is what designers often aspire to do, obliging us to conduct an almost epistemological leap into the material unknown.

There are many tales of what might be called desire run amok, all of them rife with visual cues that raise alarming questions about the democracy of choice in the pursuit of desire. Adults, we are told, are increasingly turning to professional photo retouchers for their family photos, lest a random blemish tarnish the illusion of perfection as their children’s likenesses are reproduced on holiday cards or broadcast across social media. A retired editor hosts docent-led lectures at her new gallery, where her well-heeled clientele are advised to take the $5,000 they might spend on just another handbag and invest in an artist instead. And a misguided, if well-intentioned, parent who throws a party for a child based on the theme of Roald Dahl’s famous book Charlie and The Chocolate Factory—by hiring a number of adult dwarves to litearally impersonate Dahl’s Oompa Loompas—is stunned when the prepubescent guests are so terrified they hide in the supply room for the duration of the festivities. No matter that in the original story itself, the greedy children are voted off the island first, or that the ensuing result privileges the poor but honest protagonist. Here the visual trumps the actual. Design may matter, but in the absence of good judgment, we’re doomed.

Each of these examples represents a twisted path: from inappropriate notions about delight to misaligned expectations about outcomes to warped values about money. The fulfillment of physical acquisition stands at the core of all of them—“want” in its purest, most unadulterated state—and with each the point of entry is, in essence, a visual one. Doctored photographs. Overpriced handbags. Oompa Loompas. Visual literacy is not the same thing as media saturation, need not the same as greed. Desire, whether fueled by personal pleasure or by public propaganda, manifests in aesthetic choices that are inseparable from the ethical dimensions framing our lives, defining what it means to be a responsible, self-actualized, morally grounded human being. In other words, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Jessica Helfand's book Design: The Invention of Desire, will be published on May 24 by Yale University Press. It is available by pre-order on Amazon. Signed copies are available through the Design Observer Shop. 

Jobs | July 18