Paper. Paper. Paper. Paper. Paperpaperpaper. Paaaaper. Paaaaperrrr. Payyyperrrrrrr. Pa-ay-per. Puh-ayyyy-purrrrrr. Pay-per? Pay-purr?
I’m sure all of us have had the experience of saying a word so many times aloud that it becomes completely unfamiliar and strange-sounding. Meaning falls away and the sounds roll around in your mouth with an exotic new flavor.
For me, this is a simple example of a much more complicated idea explored by Kenya Hara in Ex-Formation. Hara combines the practices of design and communication with curiosity, wonder, and exploration as a way to facilitate the unknowing of the world. He quotes Socrates: “...the only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” Socrates also wrote that “wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” It seems to me that what Hara is suggesting is a method for restoring wonder to the world; a way of training yourself to see the world anew as a strategy for facilitating imagination and creativity.
At first, Hara’s suggestion that we work to un-know something seems counterintuitive. Aren’t we supposed to do exactly the opposite when designing? Isn’t our job, as designers, to demystify the world? To create order and understanding? Perhaps. There’s no denying that, in many cases, this is a service we’re trained to provide. Conjuring clarity out of chaos is indeed a difficult task, requiring close attention, rational thinking, and creativity.
Perhaps it’s more interesting, though, to create works that raise questions instead of serving up answers. Today’s world is obsessed with the instant, on-demand, 24/7, saturated consumption. There’s an answer for everything; a smooth solution. While this smoothness and immediacy can be valuable (and is valued at the highest level), I’m more interested in ideas that create friction. I’m interested in the idea that designers can use their skills as creatives to disrupt the status quo and bring a sense of magic to the mundane.
It seems to me, in my limited life experience, that highly creative people are also highly curious and intelligent people. These individuals seem to have a knack for finding novel connections and seeing patterns invisible to most. They often talk about finding “inspiration” in ordinary moments; moments that became extraordinary when they applied their unique perception and refined lens for viewing the every day.
This curiosity is something we’re born with. Children explore the world around them in order to learn about it. They’re constantly asking “what is that?” and “why?” Gradually, though, children suppress this in favor of conforming to Hara’s “I know, I know, ” because knowing shows maturity. Knowing is equated with intelligence. So we stop asking questions and start saying “I know, I know” instead of “what is that?” and “why?”
I agree with Hara that we need to trade “I knows” for unknowing. I strongly believe that abounding curiosity is a sign of intelligence. Albert Einstein famously writes, “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Recent psychological studies, according to an article by Harvard Business Review, strongly link IQ with EQ (emotional quotient) and the newly-defined CQ (curiosity quotient). While IQ measures the raw horsepower of your brain, EQ measures interpersonal skills, and CQ reflects how “hungry” your mind is for new ideas and experiences. IQ is difficult to control, but EQ and CQ can be developed- and, some researchers say, are just as important as IQ in measuring overall intelligence. Taking a swim in the ocean of ambiguity leads to a greater capacity for complex thinking. Therefore, Hara’s challenge to begin unknowing the world is an exercise in developing our CQ.
Those that pursue the unknown are called explorers or pioneers. What do we call those that reverse the process of knowing? How can we return to this way of seeing the world? How might we reveal the infinite number of potentialities that exist all around us? How can we ignite curiosity in banality? These are the questions I’m interested in pursuing.
There’s a kind of raw excitement that we feel when we encounter something entirely new. How might we return to a state where we feel like we’re seeing the world for the first time? How might confusion and ambiguity be tools for success? It’s a matter of balance- of finding the sweet spot between intrigue and frustration. Fostering a low-level state of confusion could be a way of engaging play and recapturing the mystery and wonder of the unknown. Saying it is simple, but creating work that embodies this “sweet spot,” or even producing examples of it, is much more difficult.
Curiosity should not be confused with cheap novelty- a cigarette lighter that looks like a pistol is not leveraging the wonder of the unknown. It’s kitsch. Kitsch has its place, too, in our world and can be leveraged for social critique. However, kitsch does not create wonder. It can only, at its best, foster surprising juxtapositions of form and function grounded in a specific culture.
Instead of creating kitsch, how do we create work that targets a different kind of unexpectedness; one that leverages our natural human curiosity toward the Great Unknown? How might we imagine an entirely new possibility? Is it still probable, in today’s hyperconnected, infinitely complex, “I know” age, to dwell in ambiguity and the indiscreet? It’s a game of manipulating known material, context, and form to create something that makes your viewer stop and think “what is that?” and, perhaps more importantly, motivate them to investigate.
Simply looking at something as if you’ve never seen it before- slowing down, noticing details of how an object looks, feels, functions and relates to other things in the world can produce surprising results. Charles Darwin, writes in The Origin of the Species, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” Darwin was a master of slow observation, as proven by the famous Galapagos Finches or his prediction of the existence of X. morganii praedicta (a species of moth with an absurdly long tongue).
Dwelling in wonder can open new whole worlds of thought. “Knowledge is merely the entrance to thought,” writes Hara, “...to know things is where imagination starts.” Observation gives us knowledge, but leveraging that knowledge for true imaginative thinking is another thing entirely. One can know many things. However, it takes a curious mind, open to ambiguity and unafraid of absurdity, to make unexpected connections between the things that are known to uncover the unknown. Hara call us to have the courage to be uncertain, to admit that we do not know as a strategy for design.