The fascinating thing about this bicycle that I’ve just described, is that whatever is in your head is likely to be completely different to the design I have visualised in my head. Furthermore, as I kept describing it, your idea of this bicycle likely changed and shifted. And once I mentioned the pantone colour codes, you likely didn’t even know what colour to imagine, due to its abstract specificity. So, what’s happening here? How is it that with the use of words suddenly you can visualise a bicycle, and why is it that your bicycle is completely different from the person’s next to you, and how does language allow for ambiguity and also extreme precision that seemingly limits your imagination? Language has a powerful ability to represent the real world and, at the same time, let you colour the meaning of things like ‘red’. However, it also appears to be capable of giving you zero creative freedom by way of its ability to be incredibly precise and, as such, almost polarising. This begs the question: What does language do to the designs that you make?

Language is a rather strange concept. It allows us to tell stories to our friends, create logical narratives to create new ideas, to insult, to forgive, and to make jokes. However, most bizarrely, it has almost no real connection to the real world. This brings into mind Henri Magritte’s painting titled The Treachery of Images, in which a pipe is painted, and beneath it is written “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” The idea behind this artwork is to make you aware of the fact that you are looking at a representation of a pipe, and to say that it is a pipe would in fact be wrong. In much the same way that you immediately understand that there is a pipe represented in Magritte’s painting, when you read or hear a word, you can’t help but instantly understand the concept that the word signifies. This works in tandem with designing, because when you describe a red bicycle that doesn’t even exist yet, people are able to conjure an image of this thing, and then go on to build it. This provides a foundation for the interaction of your subconscious mind (psychological understanding of words and the generation of these words) and the language itself; however, this does not necessarily mean that language can enact change on the physical design itself, and it seems reasonable to assume that it can’t… or can it?

Treaty of Peace with Japan (with two declarations). Signed at San Francisco, on 8 September 1951

At 4 minutes past 9 o’clock on the morning of September 2nd, 1945, Japan signed the official Instrument of Surrender. Interestingly enough though, the state of war for WWII officially ended in 1952 with the signing of the treaty of San Francisco (shown above). The speech act of a declaration is a powerful thing. In this case, the action of language had real consequences for the whole world. This proves that language has the capability to affect the real world outside of language itself. This is known as a performative speech act, and was proposed by philosopher John Austin. As opposed to merely describing and observing the world outside of language, the borders of their respective universes collide, and what is said suddenly impacts reality. This is an exciting prospect because it suggests that language could impact, if not enable, the realisation of a design.

Up until now, the assessment of the design process, labelled “Designerly Thinking” has led to a model-based definition of how designers do what they do: solve badly-definable problems by creating solutions out of seemingly nothing. These models base their structure on the biological understanding that we have of the brain; that is to say, the divide between the function of the left and the right hemisphere. Due to the strange and complex nature of designing, it is clear that one needs to operate using both analytical, logical skills, as well as creative, irrational idea generating skills. These skill types fall into the opposing hemispheres of the brain, and as such, the models of Designerly Thinking propose a sequential flip-flopping between these skill types, and therefore, the hemispheres of your brain. However, I feel that language is rather quickly overlooked in this biological model.

Different aspects of language allow for different styles of thinking. For example, the construction of a joke is almost always a creative act. That is to say, by way of changing the order of words, or using combinations of words that are taken out of context, suddenly the meaning of these words can become different – essentially, you can play with the semantics of words. However, in contrast, language can provide some of the driest, most logical and analytical tools that we have after mathematics. In these designerly thinking models, language is taken for granted as a purely analytical tool. This is based on the research of Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory which suggested that language’s control centre was placed firmly in the left, analytical hemisphere of the brain. The problem with this, is that since 1983 when this research was done, the position that language takes as its own singular logical intelligence has been brought into question. Gardner has also conceded that the different aspects of language, such as syntax and phonology lie truer to language’s assumed position as an analytical tool, whilst things like semantics and pragmatics involve other intelligences.

Language facilitates ambiguities allowing for further creativity and interpretation, as well as being able to be much more specific and analytical than things such as sketching. As a result, language manifests itself in almost every aspect of the design process, bridging a gap between creative and analytical thinking. Considering my own experience in design projects, depending on the rhetoric of the rubric, people produce completely different results, and design in completely different ways. The first design course is focused on ambiguous terms that speak about a house in relation to its surrounding garden and landscape. In turn, questions such as ‘how do you determine the border between garden and landscape?’ and ‘What does it mean to create a landmark?’ arise. These questions provide room for endless discussion, and really, depending on your interpretation of the word ‘landmark’ you can design something completely unique. The second design subject of the bachelor’s programme focusses itself intensely on the technical quality of your building. ‘Is my building stable?’ and ‘Does your building control a comfortable climate?’ and ‘How much energy does your building require to function?’ are the guiding questions of the design. Here, the questions are largely limiting in nature, and require a specific answer – if your design doesn’t support its own weight, then you need to change it. Only by asking these questions, and talking about the design in this limiting manner can it be ensured that the building will function, however, it serves no room for speaking about the potential symbolic meaning of the library you want to design in an impoverished neighbourhood. In this way, the eventual product that you produce will be based on the way that you choose to talk about your design, because your language will bias and prioritise your thinking about the design. I believe that by combining these ways of talking about architecture and the built environment the best results can be achieved, allowing you to play with the meaning of words to generate interesting and creative ideas, and then to use words as tools to strictly define that which has been created, and impose limits on it using rational language.

A language based Model of Design Cognition, Christopher Clarkson

And so, I propose a different model for design cognition, in which language is the driving force behind your actions and your design. By eliminating the duality of former models, the creative and analytical powers of language are unified across the spectrum. While moving vertically over the spectrum, the designer is always creating while analysing, and continuously evaluating while making. Depending on the task at hand, the designer moves from a more analytical state of mind, to a more creative and vice versa, to reach a design solution. I suggest that the manner in which this is done in the proposed model is by means of changing the way that language is used.