September 5, 2022

Verbs find me

You’ll like hear people, exasperatedly, exclaim that they’re ‘lost for words’. That the lexicon failed them. Which is a strange thing isn’t it? They just used… three words in a short phrase that perfectly captures a complex set of emotions.

It’s a weird thing, to blame language for a failure to be able to communicate, when English offers over 470,000 (at least, in the current OED.)

I can understand people feeling let down by verbs (depending on who you ask, there are only(!) about 9000), or they must be, to keep wanting invent new ones – usually by crashing several together. See especially for trend-mapping-hashtagging – Instagrammfication’s a current favourite of mine.

Sure, verbs can sometime feels a bit tired. A little dated, rubbed flat by overuse or poor coinage, or context.

Take our friend ‘design’ . Now, here’s word. A verb and a noun. There are only 470-odd words that are (ah, and apologies for the English-centricity here, my excuse is I am absolutely hopeless at learning languages) you’d think that a word with so much potential, so many meanings packed up into it that we’d afford it a bit more, well, respect?

It’s really a beautiful gift of a verb-word. You can devise, contrive, create, execute, fashion, construct, conceive and purpose with it. But somehow, because it’s not new, we pass on it and in the process run the risk of substituting it out to the machinery of automatic inspiration. We stop designing and start copying.

I’m conflicted about AI-generated ‘creativity’. Sure, it appears artful and inspiring in a way all newly minted things can be, but it sure seems like the AI engines that we have made are already starting to run ahead of us. To become the design-process.

And the momentum appears astonishing. Jason Crawford pins its perfectly with his ‘flywheel of progress’ – something “hard to get started, but hard to stop once going.”

But it’s artifice – a hall of vanity mirrors – and the end result is a “logarithmic increases of capability and similar log decrease” – not of cost, but of distinctiveness, of diversity, difference.

How can an activity like ‘design’, in the specific field we recognise it as, in a professional space or capacity, hold for designers who want to provide (celebrate, live) this experience?

What action are you taking, today, right now, to try and understand how design can still be valuable next year, in five years?

Perhaps you’ll just shrug and keep digging deeper data-mines that can speed up machine learning, spinning the flywheel faster? If we stop thinking about these questions we fool ourselves into seeing a status quo that simply illudes us. Should we simply carry on being complicit? Retreat into ourselves, from the terror mundi that’s being remade around us, including us out?

My plan? I’m going to make like the writer Hannah Arendt; sometimes the goal is to just keep thinking – and so keep questioning. Keep at the verbs. Keep designing.

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About Richard Hill

Creative director, writer, designer, illustrator based in the UK with global project experience and consulting skills across sectors.

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