Colourless Green Ideas

How does a text work? As someone whose research involves the analysis of talk in designing I’ve been less interested in the outputs of the design process (other than as an interested, and sometimes obsessive, consumer [1]) and more interested in how to get there. A short article in the London Review Books [2] made me think a little deeper about the relationship between the two however. The article reflects on the work of textile designer Anni Albers, recently on show at London’s Tate Modern (11th October 2018 to 27th January) [3].


Figure 1. Anni Albers working at her weaving loom. The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation/Artists rights society (ARS), New York/DACS, London

‘Work’ is a deceptively simple word, however, and the article reveals the complex relationships between the practical, theoretical, and metaphorical aspects of Albers’ work.

The key relationship is obvious once it is pointed out. Text and textile. Text from the Latin textus, or ‘woven’ reveals layers above and structures beneath. When one thinks about the production of textile and the production of text (in the form of talk) one can begin to discern the relationship: patterns built up from the repetition and arrangement of core elements, and those patterns becoming elements in other types of patterns.

Figure 2 shows a typical example of Albers’ weaving and the more one looks, the more one sees different structures and elements – the vertical stripes of the threads that form the initial tension (the warp); the horizontal elements that float above the vertical in bands, focussing the viewer on the central blue band; the threaded and interconnecting trails that run up (or down) and across in the foremost plane.

Figure 2. An example of Anni Albers work.

Figure 2. Intersecting (1962) An example of Anni Albers’ intricate work.

Where does the design of Figure 2 come from?

Chadwick writes:

“The discipline of the weaver’s grid imposes itself not as a cage or limitation, but provides a structure for experiment. For Albers, creativity began with a set of rules. ‘Great freedom can be a hindrance because of the bewildering choices it leaves to us,’ she wrote in On Weaving, ‘while limitations, when approached open-mindedly, can spur the imagination to make the most use of them and possibly even to overcome them.’ Albers experimented avidly with virtuosic and hybrid combinations of weaving, knotting, twisting and braiding. But she insisted that ‘intricacy and complexity are not, to my mind, high developments. Simplicity, rather, which is condensation, is the aim and the goal for which we should be heading.’ This idea of simplified form recurs again and again throughout her writings and her work. ‘Simplicity is not simpleness but clarified vision – the reverse of the popular estimate.’”

The apparent complexity of Figure 2, then, arises out of a simplicity of vision.

The reference in the above quote to: ‘creativity beginning with a set of rules’ made me think of how designers employ language in the design process. Noam Chomsky argues, in his theory of transformational grammar, that the syntactical structures of language are invariant across peoples [4]. That every language is based on a set of underlying rules (in the case of English, verb phrases and noun phrases) that provide the structure to carry meaning. But meaning, of course, is never straightforward. Chomsky used the sentence: ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’ to show that sentences could be grammatical without being meaningful (though the sentence has now gained meaning in a different way, through its repetition). And often, as in the case of designing, the purpose of talk is to ‘work out’ meaning as it relates to the materials and objects of a design process. How does this relate to that? What do we call this? The rules of language provide the limitations that allow creative play.

Metaphors are close to the heart of that creative play and designers often talk metaphorically, as if one thing is another thing. A building might be bird or a boat; a kettle might be a pebble or a person. One idea displaces another by association and meaning accumulates and congeals [5]. Listening in, the talk of a design process often sounds meaningless, but it is talk-in-the-making, conversational threads and propositions layering on previous conversational threads to produce emergent and often unexpected meaning.

That makes the weaving of Anni Albers recursively meaningful. The repetitive practice of thread on thread, using the tension of the loom to construct an emergent design, is itself a metaphor for the conversational process that produces it; the process of design. How does this relate to that? What do we call this?

In the designed outcome itself metaphors of process can be discerned. Turn figure 2 ninety degrees clockwise and what do you see? Perhaps the shape of multiple digital audio tracks of recorded talk; multiple voices in a collaborative design process [6].

Figure 3. Turn Figure 2 ninety degrees clockwise and what do you see?

Figure 3. Turn Figure 2 ninety degrees clockwise and what do you see?

References and Notes

[1] For 10 years I kept a list of everything I bought and this blog post is an analysis and reflection of all those things.

[2] Chadwick, E. (2018) At Tate Modern, London Review of Books, Vol 40, Number 23, 6th December, pp40-41.

[3] Anni Albers Retrospective (2017-18) Exhibition of work at Tate Modern, London.

[4] Chomsky, N. (1957) Syntactic Structures, Mouton.

[5] Donald Schon develops a theory of how ideas originate in his book Displacement of Concepts, Routledge.

[6] An excellent recent research article uses a ‘weaving’ frame to analyse a software design process: Jornet, A., Roth, W-M (2018) Imagining design: Transitive and intransitive dimensions, Design Studies, 56, pp 28-53,