design theory and practice: morphology, semiotics

design language practice and theory 

updated: may 2006

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morfogenesis in nature and the design process


Products, specifically  from the point of view of designers, can be considered as texts in a hitherto rather unknown product language. In analogy to these 'texts' we might consider the details of products, or the equivalent functional area's, as 'words' and their topological organization as a syntax in this three-dimensional language. It is on the level of these three-dimensional signs that I suggest the semiological analysis of products. These signs have, as all signs, a signifier or expressive aspect and a meaning or significating side. We will consider here the first aspect, the form of products, their signifying components, in a special morphology that reveals eventually, as we will see, a pragmatically insight in the nature of the seductive power of design. 

Merrell, in his analysis of semiosis as a process of progressive acquisition of meaning of signs, has made a significant step in the direction of the definition of three-dimensional signs: 

    "The products of three-dimensional semiotics from within human bio temporality can be related to... 'homeomorphic' (iconic) models.... 'Homeomorphic' models are intuited, developed, and perceived chiefly  from within the domain of secondary qualities, of what is on the surface to be seen and sensed in terms of  relatively immediate and less immediated sensations. These items of experience, rather than mere two-dimensional surfaces, are actually three-dimensional entities the intuition, conception, creation and perception of which move along one-dimensional trajectories 'world lines' in three dimensional space."(1)
In this statement Merrell points rightly at the unavoidable semiotic and plural level of perception of signs in space-time and lays, in a more general context, a realistic foundation for the morphological section of design theory. In particular in homomorphic models signs develop in the 'domain of secondary qualities' that is, in conformity with peircean semiotics, on the level of signs as homepages, that is not the primary level of iconicity of pure appearance, nor the superior level of symbolicity, but within the semiotic process, on the level of signs "without their being any conscious and intentionally established relation to the type of which they are an indication". As a matter of fact forms of design objects are, even if they are the result of technical or ergonomic reasoning, essentially 'free' interpretations or conscious representations in time space.  This is particularly true of the so called details of the product because the relation to recognizable 'functions'  tends to be of minor  importance than their mere formal expression.  "God is in the details" said Aby Warburg. Details are in design what  "Denkbruchstuecke", thought fragments, mentioned by Walter Benjamin, are in relation to the reiteration of  philosophical contemplation. "Their value is the more decisive the less they can be directly correlated to the basic  concept'. They are the actual deposits of 'true' meaning, asserts the german philosopher. (2)
Sign complexes are also the subject of René Thom's theory on structural stability and morfogenesis, a general mathematical theory of the description, classification and development of forms in nature. And nature, as a reference, is since D'Arcy Thompson always in our gnonoseologic perspective. 
Thom considers morfogenesis in its local dynamic situation as the more or less probable behavior of sets of points. This behavior can be classified in a limited number of topological models, each type characterized by one or more different 'attractors', or probable stable configurations. An object is thus a closed sub-set or complex of points in space-time. 

As an example we can take any detail of a product such as a lid, a hinge, a knob, a handle, a ventilation opening, a display, etc. The relative area's are sets of points with a common functional goal but with infinite feasible formal variations. It is this freedom that makes design altogether possible. The three-dimensional surface is created by sets of points organized along 'lines' that reveal preferences. These can be, for example, a predilection of symmetrical motives or geometric solids, patterns of growth in nature or any others. A classification of these patterns is possible by analyzing the principles of their topological formation. Actually a whole new section of topology is under construction as 'chaos theory' in which giant (perhaps sometimes overvalued) steps has been made, in the wake of Bénoit Mandelson, in the revelation of mechanisms, fractals, that underlie dynamic systems such as the living organism or the turbulence of gases or liquids. Essentially it proves that any process, even seemingly random ones, can be described by mathematical algorithms, that in reiterated application are capable to generate  complexity as two-dimensional combinations of intrinsically simple, one-dimensional, classifiers, or selective 'if...then' strings. (5)
In our case we talk about the creation of surface area's, or membranes, containing myriad's of points that follow certain patterns of common similar, if not identical, 'behavior' that are, in other words, subject to 'attractors', such as concaving or convexing, protruding or penetrating, deviding or connecting, bending or undulating, stretching or contracting following the concept of the designer. Any of these and many other verbs that describe actions in space, or gestures, are descriptive of the grammar of design language and, in accordance to chaos theory, combinations of relatively simple linear sets of points, or lines. 

Moreover these lines and the membranes that they describe, being signs or combinations of signs, do have meanings. But these meanings are completely different from the more evident meanings concerning products as protheses and area's of products as expression of functions. They belong, as I see it, rather to forgotten archaic languages, as Ur-omens, in use by man since primordial times, long before invention of written language. as we can see from archeological reperts and as remnants of so-called primitive languages. 
Line segments, straight or bend, either horizontal, vertical or inclined, single or in repetition, circles, crosses, chevrons, serpentines, spirals: they all were actually signs in this original sacred language, that were materialized during the Antique Neolithic Era (VIIth - IIIrd millennium b.C.) onwards, both as in- scriptions on all kinds of surfaces, precursors of our characters and numerals, and as manufacts that were called by the ancient greeks 'xoanon', figurines. Marija Gimbutas, in the wake of Johann J. Bachofen traces these artifacts back into even earlier archaic times and suggests that they represent mostly a female life giving and life taking bird goddess, source of all life and of the entire universe. 

xoanon statuette
 statuine of a neolythic goddess (from the cover of Gimbutas' book)

This suggests a the existence of a common source of divine representations, artifacts and  even written language. It is in these remote origins that lies, in my opinion, the secret of our esthetic feeling, maybe scattered in incongruous bits, broken vessels, but still powerful in its subconscious presence; perhaps even because of this. 
Design morphology seems to lead us back through Euclidean geometry past a variant of biological taxonomy adapted to artifacts, towards the deeper nature of art as a manifestation of the eternal human need for transcendence. 

Perhaps we can say of design what Baudelaire said of temples: 

    Where man passes through forests of symbols 
    That observe him with familiar looks. 
That takes us back to or starting point , "The semiosis of Design"
and, as we will see, to the theoretical analysis of its fundaments. 
  1.  Berhard E. Bürdek, "Design: Storia, teoria e prassi del Disegno Industriale", Mondadori, Milano, 1992 (Köln, 1991) (ritorna al testo)
  2. Hans Ulrich Reck, "From "Invisible Design" to Invisible Design. Challenges the Media Pose for a Contemporary Design Theory", ne formdiskurs. Journal of Design and Design Theory, 1,I/1996, p.46 (ritorna al testo)
  3. D'Arcy W.Thompson, "Crescita e forma", (1917), Bollati Boringhieri, Torino, 1992 (ritorna al testo)
  4.  cfr. René Thom, "Stabilité structurelle et morfogénèse", InterEditions, Paris, 1977 (1972), p.8: "La construction d'un modèle quantitatif global...reste évidemment l'idéal qu'on doit s'efforcer d'atteindre; mais la chose peut être difficile, voire impossible;...même si l'obtention d'une dynamique d'évolution globale n'est pas possible, on n'en aura pas moin une intelligence locale bien améliorée du processus." (ritorna al testo)
  5. Gilbert Durand, "Le strutture antropologiche dell'immaginario", Dedalo, Bari, 1972, p.398 (PUF, 1963) (ritorna al testo)
  6. Walter Benjamin, "Studi sulla filosofia metafisica-storica",  (1916) G.W.II,1, p.156 (ritorna al testo)
  7. Marija Gimbutas, "Il linguaggio della Dea. Mito e culto della Dea madre nell'Europa neolitica.", (1989), Neri Pozza, Vicenza, 1997 (ritorna al testo)
  8.  Tra i tentativi significanti di formulazione di un linguaggio iconico vorrei menzionare quello di Claud Cossette, che si può trovare nello sito seguente (in lingua francese): 


further theoretical considerations

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   andries van onck