Dunbar's Number

A Personal opinion on the difference between an Artist and a Designer

(This edition was heavily inspired by my favorite science podcast, We Have Concerns.) Sorry, no product updates this time, I’ve been told to not “scoop” myself.

Hi, I’m a Designer. Despite the many primary self-identifiers I have access to, Designer is always first. “But what makes a designer?” an imaginary reader asks, looking up to me with the eager expression of a curious and unusually intelligent child (a Danny Freeman from Flight Of the Navigator type.)

Dunbar’s Number is a theory that humans have an average limit of 150 meaningful relationships, posited in 1993 by Robin Dunbar. Outside of that number, the theory states, humans lose focus on people - we don’t hold other folks close in a way that impacts our life.

More recently, researchers at the Institute for Future Studies (cool) in Stockholm (even better) published a paper that states that there is no measurable cognitive limit on human group size. Our groups of meaningful connections can infinitely expand.

I overthink every human interaction I have, overworking interactions until a perfect (to me) diamond of compressed intention, specific to the individual, is created.

It’s meaningful relationships all the way down.

I do the same with object design - the exact same thing. Object design for me has so much to do with the people that will interact with the object. I don’t make anything to exist In the Void. I make Work that is made for use.

I need my furniture, especially, to be incredibly good at being what it is. Within the collectible design market there are many designers making furniture that has no practical value. Uncomfortable, fragile, experimental beyond usefulness. Which is great, it’s good Work - but, I (speaking into the void) would argue that those designers are artists. Their furniture doesn’t solve problems for other people, it only solves their own personal problems. A few years ago I attended a furniture design show entitled “This Is Not a Chair.”  It was full of incredible work, and had an absolutely perfect title; out of 40 chairs there were maybe three I would sit on. 

I’ve read many times that the concept of “designers solving problems” is bogus, that one more special chair in the world doesn’t solve a problem - I disagree! One more chair doesn’t solve a universal problem, but it does solve a small problem - and the willingness to acknowledge and care for those small problems, problems that maybe effect just a handful of people you haven’t met: That is Design.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, he tells a story about his father throwing away broken glass. Instead of dumping the shards into the trash bag, his father puts the broken glass into a cardboard box, and tapes it shut. When questioned, he responds that it’s so the Garbage Collectors don’t cut themselves. His circle of people to care for is vast, including the most peripheral characters.

When I hear that story, I see a Designer. His father doesn’t just include the Garbage Collectors in his list of meaningful relationships; he develops solutions to improve their lives. He solves problems.

Feel free to send me your differing opinions. To borrow sentence composition from the afore mentioned We Have Concerns,

The difference between an artist and a designer isn’t a fact, it’s a feeling.