The authority of formlessness

Lebbeus Woods, Same Difference

Lebbeus Woods, Same Difference

Form inevitably creates narrative, disclosing the intent and the hand of the author. Whether linear or non-linear, any narrative contains a particular point of view. On the other hand, formlessness allows for unencumbered individual interpretation. I think of formlessness in its purest state as randomness. The only true opposition to structure, it gives equal importance to each structural entity. It is the only truly democratic (objective) view of information.

Every day we absorb greater quantities of information. While the desire for interpreted information is undeniably growing, so is our skepticism of individual bias. And particularly when the trusted sources we rely on fail, we seek refuge in the ideal of objectivity.

In contemporary culture we tend to place emphasis on objectivity over the individual perspective, on the quantifiable and scalable over the qualitative. The desire to commoditize (or genericize) is integral to the capitalist mindset, so as to allow for the creation and repetition of models and processes. The models that we consider to have the most authority or credibility are those that are the furthest removed from an individual or individualistic perspective.

Consequently, if uniqueness of form implies individuality, there is a certain authority to be found in formlessness.

Design by its very definition implies creating form, and as such must be in opposition to randomness. However, if we imagine form as a vector, ranging from pure subjectivity to pure objectivity, could design encompass lesser grades of formlessness along that vector? If we accept that this could be the case, what then are other ways in which formlessness can manifest itself? Perhaps, if in one context giving form is about invention or innovation, formlessness could instead mean relying on established convention, in an attempt to assume objectivity. The hand of the author/designer is concealed behind the known and familiar.

Much of design strikes me as the reflection of an implied superiority of the designer/author, involving knowing the appropriate techniques for conveying a particular message—a message effectively interpreted by the designer. Yet what if, instead of relying on visual rhetoric, design focused on a generic, homogeneous presentation of material that relies primarily on the intelligence of the viewer, not the author? In this interpretation, the search for formlessness becomes the search for convention, as the pursuit of the most fundamental structures or intrinsic forms within common knowledge—a kind of universal order.

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