Hats off

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

Designers choose the message

I’m wearing a hat as I write this. You would call it a cowboy hat. The man that sold it to me called it a sombrero. That is likely because he is Mexican and I was in Mexico when I bought it.

Why would a grown urban man, such as myself, wear a cowboy hat?  I’m a long way from cows and I sold my pickup long ago. Once, as a youth, I would have had a better right to such costuming, as I was a boy looking after cows, sometimes even on horseback. But now I’m not.

Sombreros and cowboy hats

For me its two things: its protection from the sun, which I need here, although I could obtain it in a variety of other ways, and it’s a costume, as I just noted. In Oaxaca, the old men, those that know what hard outdoor work is, or was, wear hats like this. The townies, and the young, don’t.

I’m feeling myself to be somewhat of a Hombre Viejo myself these days, and there is something comforting in wearing a reminder of my youth: both the time and the hard physical work are behind me now. Dressing like this reminds me somewhat of my father. He wore cowboy hats too. But not quite.

His were carefully chosen to be a bit more elegant and a bit more restrained. The role he portrayed was that of the cattleman, not the cowboy. He was an owner and he hired the help that wore the more exuberant hats and boots and belts. The distinction mattered to him. But, at this moment, I don’t mind looking like a hired hand.

Anatomy is destiny, according to Sigmund Freud. The beautiful people know this, as do those that drew a shorter straw. Personally, I’d like to be taller, but that isn’t my destiny. I have to do what I can, with what I have. One of the things I can do is wear a hat. Or boots with heels. Both will make me look taller and probably foolish as well. Mark Twain noted that clothes make the man and that is what we try to do – remake ourselves in some image that we choose.

Design is, I think, a version of the clothes making the man. This may be more obviously true of interior design, or some forms of it, where space is carefully clothed and arranged to create an impression or an experience. Just as our clothes are an extension of ourselves (however hopeful or deluded), the spaces we claim as our own are an extension of ourselves too.

Design speaks

The objects in the spaces become part of them, as they are experienced. Furniture is an obvious example in that it is often covered in fabric, just like we are with our clothing. With other artifacts the relationship may be not quite as clear, but it’s there. All created things speak to us, in some way, about something. They are signals, proclaiming or betraying our hopes and fears, our aspirations and our fantasies, our wealth and our ethics.

There is even a fancy way of describing this truth and it even has its own academic discipline: semiotics. To see this more clearly, we need only to consider smart phones and all of the kinds of messages that they send: voice, text, demographic and maybe social anxiety and covetousness as well.

When we design, we make decisions. If we are good designers, we will be making decisions based on an awareness of a great number of options, which we carefully consider and evaluate. Part of this evaluation ought to be an awareness of the reality that, whatever we do, will be saying something, not only about we, the creators, but also about the consumers who end up experiencing what we have produced. Part of what we set out to do, even before the pragmatic decision making part, is to understand what needs to be communicated.

Knowing this may enhance our sense of responsibility. It may also increase our scope to be an agent for bettering the world. What we create matters, in ways large and small. Ultimately, it’s about communication, and we as designers get to choose the message.

It’s not an easy job, and it may be convenient to pay it little attention. But it’s an interesting one. I’ll tip my hat to that.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.


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