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Design Personae

The designer as a confluence of opposing forces

To save the painstaking task for some readers of wading through the poetic prose below, I present a synopsis of sorts. This article addresses a brief study of the Apollonian-Dionysian duality primarily through Nietzsche and Jung, my application of it to an action-theory that draws from the existing semantic action theory of Jennifer Hornsby and the more metaphysical conception of Robert Audi. Finally, I place the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy within the context of the design practice as it stands today, petitioning for a return to Dionysus and placing the imposing hand of Apollo at a distance to merely guide our instinctive actions.

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. Camille Paglia makes an astute observation on the difference between God in Judeo-Christian traditions and God in the Hellenic period, “In Judeo-Christianity man is made in God’s image, but in Greek religion God is made in man’s image.”(1) We see evidence of this in the great Hellenic dramas and poetry. The Gods were the most glorious exemplification of specific aspects of the human condition. They were, to put it crudely, caricatures of the core of humanity. Placing our core in beings that transcend our limitations (imposed by reality, science and morality) helps in realising the implications of these proclivities in new light.
  2. 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”.
  3. Jung’s infamous personality types used the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to distinguish between our definitive psychological proclivity towards intuition and sensation.
  4. 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.

The other esteemed authors (Paglia, Benedict and Jung) used the fundamental premise of Nietzsche’s ideas to illuminate paradoxes and relationships within the human conceptions of sex, culture and psyche respectively. In what follows, I attempt to use my reading of these ideas to further my understanding of that which has occupied my intellectual meditations — the paradoxical relationship between design personae and the design practice and its contribution to the discovery of a fundamental essence of design activity.

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.

The Birth of Tragedy is a self-confessedly juvenile work. Nietzsche was 28 and heavily influenced by Schopenhauer’s thought at the time of writing this essay. His training was always only as a philologist and the effect of that training and the fundamental intent of this piece are very deeply connected to one another. In a later edition, Nietzsche would include a prefatory note that criticises aspects of his thought. While his younger self was intent on revealing the Apollinian-Dionysian balance in the genesis of the perfect Hellenic tragedy and drawing a line to the music of Richard Wagner, he realised that his work was more ruminative on the need for the tragedy in Hellenic society and its relation to pessimism. This doesn’t change the fundamental manner in which the duality of Apollo and Dionysus are discussed. Nietzsche concerns himself exclusively with an aesthetic perspective of this duality. He talks of Apollo as an embodiment of dreams and of Dionysus as intoxication.

Nietzsche likens the vividity and perfection of the dream to the concept of Maya that has its genesis in Eastern spiritual traditions. The fetish of the illusion of perfection keeps us consumed by the Apollonian as it contrasts and comforts our imperfect understanding of the reality that we inhabit. Quoting Schopenhauer, “Even as on an immense, raging sea, assailed by huge wave crests, a man sits in a little rowboat trusting his frail craft, so, amidst the furious torments of this world, the individual sits tranquilly, supported by the principium individuationis and relying on it.”(3) Nietzsche concludes with great fortitude, “Apollo himself may be regarded as the marvellous divine image of the principium individuationis, whose looks and gestures radiate the full delight, wisdom, and beauty of ‘illusion.’”(4) The principium individuationis is a term used to describe the essence of individuation. As heir to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche identified the individual identity as illusive; something that we hold on to in order to desperately assert our existential relevance. In some sense the preoccupation with individuation has never been more pronounced in any society more than ours. The alienation that comes with the inability to assert, represent and accept our individual and collective identities stands as a testament to our current Apollonian epoch.

Schopenhauer also talks about the enchanting “awe” of the suspension of reality, when all illusion fades away and the laws of causality seem to be inapplicable. Nietzsche follows this thought suggesting, “If we add to this awe the glorious transport which arises in man, even from the very depths of nature, at the shattering of the principium individuationis, then we are in a position to apprehend the essence of Dionysian rapture….”(4) The larger part of Schopenhauer’s philosophy was centred around this idea; the dissolution of the self. This was the genesis of his interest in Eastern spirituality, his pessimism and his pronounced attempts at asceticism. Nietzsche, on the other hand, proposes that we need both Apollo and Dionysus to evolve into beings that can deal with the inherent meaninglessness of existence. “Dionysian stirrings arise either through the influence of those narcotic potions of which all primitive races speak in their hymns, or through the powerful approach of spring, which penetrates with joy the whole frame of nature. So stirred, the individual forgets himself completely.”(4) Says Nietzsche. I understand the “spring” of which he speaks as akin to the resurrection of novelty that never ceases to surprise us. The fleeting moment that we delight in upon arising at dawn, aware of the rays of sunshine that stimulate the unawakened skin, just before reality ensnares us in its practical throws, forcing us to look at black mirrors and respond to dulcet ping-pings. The emergence of Dionysus from the beds of nature, his reconciliation with his mother (as pointed out by Paglia), his sensuality and his suspension of illusory reality makes him a formidable force. But along with these come the primitive assumption of universal consent to such attitudes of intoxication and this leads to the same issues we experienced in the 60’s attempt to return to the Dionysian. What kept Hellenic society relatively in control was the imposing figure of Apollo, the provider of the ideal that we all secretly covet.

Jung is very critical of Nietzsche’s purely aesthetic treatment of the Apolloinian-Dionysian duality. He suggests that the struggle between Apollo and Dionysus was not one of aesthete but one of religion for the members of Hellenic society. He believes that the aestheticisation of such a concept is an attempt on the part of the analyser to remove oneself from the problem and start apart from it. Jung borrows Nietzsche’s conception that the duality is bridged by “a metaphysical miracle of the Hellenic will,” likening the metaphysical will to Schopenhauer’s “unconscious will” and the “miracle” as fundamentally irrational, thereby synthesising the phrase to mean an action of irrational unconscious intent. Jung uses this as a basis to delve deeper into the psychological implications of the Appolonian-Dionysian dichotomy. The dream, he ventures, is an indication of a person’s intellectual preoccupations with the world of “internal images”. Hence, the individual with an Appolonian psyche represented introversion and intuition. Intoxication, Jung suggests, is sensorial and dependent on external stimuli. The Dionysian individual is representative of the sensorial and extroverted psyche(5). Jung is also, however, uni-dimensional in his presentation of this dichotomy. He is purely occupied by the psycho-social manifestation and ignores the implications of this struggle in the realm of pure action. This causes a paradox in the character whose thought is consistently Apollonian and whose acts are consistently Dionysian. How shall we understand this person? As the perfect confluence of Apollo and Dionysus? If so, what of the actual implications of their action in the social realm?

Both Paglia and Benedict apply Nietzsche’s premise. Paglia analyses androgyny, transexuality, the very basis of the sexes and their interactions. Benedict characterises the various activities of the primitive societies that she studies through this duality of Hellenic theodicy. My reliance on their works is evident throughout this essay especially in making use of this idea to further one’s own understanding.

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.

Any action is accompanied by the interpretation of that action by someone else. The action is either executed with the actor’s determination to imply an interpretation or the interpretation is emergent of the action. This introduces intent and implication as the genesis (causality) and the effect of the action respectively. If any one of these elements are missing the ontological possibility of the action is negated or questionable. Let us presume a simple action upon which we can project these concepts such as breathing. One might question the existence of an intent in the case of breathing but the fact that we can choose to stop breathing and hold our breath implies that by breathing we intend to breathe. Then we arrive at the performance of the action. We could further split performance into “trying” and “fulfilling the intention” as heir to Jennifer Hornsby’s action theory(7). Then comes the implication or consequence of the action. The more immediate consequences are towards the actors themselves for example, breathing keeps them alive. But we are more concerned with the external effects of the action. By breathing, the actor is exhibiting their life, exchanging microbes and air molecules with other beings and so on. These outward effects are the only signifier to the rest of the world that the action has been performed. This leads to interpretation which is totally dependent on the episteme in which the action occurs. In a hospital, breathing could be interpreted as validation of life while at a yoga retreat, breathing is interpreted as a spiritual practice and, in another situation, to a soldier on the battlefield lying amidst the bodies of his fellow fighters, as the opposing army scouts for prisoners-of-war, breathing could cost him his life. The degree to which each of these is apparent to bystanders or to the actors themselves varies situationally, distinguishing between Robert Audi’s ideas of “free action” and “rational action” for example(8). Free action is uncompelled action while rational action is action that is supported by reason in Audi’s definition. Uncompelled does not mean the action does not have an intention but that this intention was not the byproduct of a preexisting condition that imposed this intention upon the actor.

Let us return to Apollo and Dionysus. The Apollinian’s penchant for the ideal combined with their proclivity towards the intellect dictates that their action arises from conscious intent imposed by external cause. Nietzsche briefly speaks of the demise of the Greek tragedy with Euripides whose writing was deeply influenced by Socrates’ moralisation. This moral code became the Apollinian hand that suppressed Euripides’ instinct appearing within his work. The room for interpretability of the Appolinian action is also finite because it operates only within the finite realm and illusory perfection of reality. The Dionysian action is more sensual in nature. It is an unmediated and unrestricted response to stimulus. The rules of nature are still liminal in our understanding and no amount of reducing them to a collection and arrangement of strings would make it less mysterious than it is. This sensual action, by virtue of its ambiguous intention invites an ephemerality of interpretation rather than imply a finite interpretation of the 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.

This procedural sequence of action guided by premeditation at each stage makes the modern design practitioner overwhelmingly Apollonian. The hand of Apollo that erases possibility and rationalises every action and every decision is omnipresent in the form of finite resources, human-centeredness and the reality of business goals. More recently, social ideology has begun to Socratise(9) the design practice subjecting it to the homogenous ideology of “woke” society. All this, while Dionysus has called on us and we have shunned him attempting to establish our relevance and self-instrumentalisation.

Dionysian designers offer a solution to some of the most important questions that we struggle to answer today pertaining to the inclusivity of our design solutions, the unforeseen implications of our interventions and so on. The Dionysian action is ambiguous and emergent as established before. Its implications are also unshackled by finite Apollinian reason. This sensual approach to design makes the designed intervention a boundary object that has multiple constructive interpretations from boundless paradigms.

Still, I do not suggest the erasure of Apollo. We do exist within some shared paradigm of reality and Apollo keeps us aware of the boundaries of this shared reality and keeps us on the precipice of over-indulgence in our instinct. Dionysus will help us address the commonality and the universality through ambiguous action. Poetry has discovered and rediscovered the balance between Apollo and Dionysus over the ages. Our own practice began as an Apollonian transcendence of the fine arts with designers like Moholy-Nagy and over time has succumbed to the extreme order of Apollo with the likes of IDEO causing a tussle between the need for individuality and chasing an ephemeral ideal. In some sense, Olafur Eliasson might be the perfect confluence of Apollo and Dionysus in the design practice today. Hemingway was famous for saying, “Write when you are drunk, edit when you are sober.” I suggest that we designers pay heed to that and rediscover the anarchic charms of drunkenness and intoxication and infuse our practice with them.


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.

From 7 and 8, I synthesised my own humble attempt at a system of action that relates to the design practice placing greater emphasis on the consequence of action in relation to the clarity or ambiguity of the intention of the action.

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.

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Design Poet | Artist | Philomath

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