Design Personae

The designer as a confluence of opposing forces

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Should designers continue to act lulled by Apollo’s lyre or should we pay heed to the call of Dionysus and, perhaps, shed our own imposing ideals of an illusory reality?

Prefatory Notes

What we do has a profound impact on us and we have a profound impact on what we do. One can go so far in saying that our true materiality is realised in action and we are nought without our actions. Placing this aphorism within the context of us, as designers, and of our actions, as design practice, I came to the realisation that the practice of design, personified in the one who identifies themselves as a “designer” is an interesting intellectual pursuit. To avoid an aimless meandering through myriad multiples in the modicum of praxis, I rest my analysis of designer personae on the Hellenic dichotomy of the Appolinian and the Dionysian characters. My reasons for choosing this mould for the analysis is multifold. I try to enumerate the more significant reasons below:

  1. Ruth Benedict displays the most inventive use of the Appolinian-Dionysian dichotomy in her study of the Zuñi, Dobu and Kwakiutl societies. The treatise that emerged from this, amongst other, contextualisation of observations was one of the most definitive works that established the relationship between ways of living on the creation of culture. “Traditional custom, taken the world over, is a mass of detailed behaviour more astonishing than what any person can ever evolve in individual actions no matter how aberrant.”(2) Dr. Benedict says. This showed, to me, the far reaching consequences of the analysis of action through the Hellenic characters. It also places a dialectical question mark after the relationship between the designer’s individual actions and what we have come to collectively address as “the design practice”.
  2. Jung’s infamous personality types used the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to distinguish between our definitive psychological proclivity towards intuition and sensation.
  3. Nietzsche is the definitive genesis for the use of this dichotomy in understanding ourselves. Nietzsche’s application was more direct to the Hellenic tradition from whence this idea emerges. He describes Hellenic society’s need for the tragedy and how the Apollonian and Dionysian confluence and balance created the greatest tragedies.

Introductory remarks on Nietzsche and the other texts

This section is used to orient the uninitiated reader in the specifics of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy and, to those already familiar with the idea as such, clarify my own interpretation of these ideas. These should help to establish my modality of thought in applying it to the context of design.

Apollo and Dionysus in the metaphysics of action

I present my reading of Apollo and Dionysus in the rather lack-lustre world of mundane action. I choose this realm as my épistémè(6) because it relates most highly to the practice of the designer i.e. one of modulating systemic flux towards actions that communicate and afford interpretation. Where Nietzsche concerned himself with aesthetic, Jung with thought and religion I concern myself with the interpretation and intent of action.

The Apollonian and Dionysian Designer

Thinking of action from the perspective explained in the previous section would come naturally to the designer who is accustomed to the modern idea of a “design process”. Intent is akin to insights derived from an analysis of research data; trying can be likened to prototyping ideas; fulfilling is the fabrication of the design solution. The implications are preempted while trying and fulfilling but rarely ever analysed in the aftermath. The interpretation is always predetermined and perceived as being unitary.


1) Paglia, Camille — Sexual Personae, 1990

Paglia’s use of her literary studies to throw light on the relationship between art and the representation of the sexes, transsexuality and the sexual act in various eras. She moves effortlessly between Hellenic theodicy to Sade to the Brontë sisters, giving us a bottomless bank of thoughts and ideas to draw from.

2) Benedict, Ruth — Patterns of Culture, 1934

Ruth Benedict’s keen anthropological study was instrumental in empirically cementing the idea that culture is a synthesis of individual patterns of action that grow into things that shackle us because we lose sight of their constructibility.

3) Schopenhauer, Arthur — The World as Will and Representation, 1819

This work along with “The Basis of Morality” are the mark of Schopenhauer’s genius. In this work, Schopenhauer begins to lay down the rudiments of his thought urging the society of his day towards the importance of universality. His pessimism has had a profound affect on my own thought.

4) Nietzsche, Friedrich — The Birth of Tragedy, 1886

This was Nietzsche’s earliest work that was received by the public. The effect of Goethe and Schopenhauer are more evident in these works and begin to fade away in subsequent works. The 1886 version is a revised edition where Nietzsche, believing he needed to clarify his younger self, added an essay titled “An attempt at self-criticism” which lays down the premise of the essay on the need for the Hellenic tragedy.

5) Jung, Carl — Psychological Types, 1921

Jung’s preoccupation with reconciling the human psyche with the mysteries of spiritual faith and ideology is evident in this work. Jung’s genius lies in his ability to unpack and repack a concept helping the student of his work follow the organised trail of his thinking.

6) Use of the word épistémè

This word was made prominent by Foucault in “The Order of Things”. Foucault’s hesitance, like my own, to propose unified theories that suppose an absolute truth caused him to identify “systems of knowledge” that allow for a certain kind of information, knowing or inquiry to emerge.

7) Hornsby, Jennifer — Actions, 1980

Currently a professor at Birkbeck, University of London, Hornsby’s action theory uses a semantic analysis of the idea “all action is bodily movement”. While the conclusions drawn from it are more pertinent in the domain of linguistics (dealing with the idea of language games following Wittgenstein), Hornsby’s action theory stands out because of it deals purely with action and does not immediately concern itself with morality and ethics.

8) Audi, Robert — Action, Intention and Reason, 1993

Audi’s action theory is centred around the causality of action. Being driven by his epistemological thought, his meditations on action are explicitly towards what drives one to act and what is the nature of that driver. Audi currently teaches at the University of Notre-Dame.

9) Use of the term “Socratise”

Nietzsche blames Socrates’ moralisation and hyper-cerebralisation of Hellenic society for the demise of the perfect tragedy. Sophocles and Aeschylus took the format to the apex of its glory through the perfect mingling of Dionysus and Apollo, celebrating the meaninglessness of existence. I see this as similar to the demise of instinctive and ambiguous action in design as corporate organisations and consultancies began to cast their Apollonian shadow on the likes of Moholy-Nagy and Castiglioni. What is even more worrying is that a practice that discusses the effects of bias on its outcomes is entirely skewed towards a pseudo-liberal ideology. I think that ideology is the Socrates of our time and hence the “Socratisation” of the design practice seems to be a befitting term.

Written by

Design Poet | Artist | Philomath

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