For the Want of a Better Word: Desire

By Emma Singleton

For the want of a better word as a phrase in this text is used as a lens from which I will ask what the ‘want’ is in design through the questioning of desires.

Desire, for the want of a better word, is a feeling that is a physical or mental longing for something; a goodnight kiss or the latest piece of new technology. Even the phrase ‘for the want of a better word’ is used in speech to say that you cannot think of a better description but believe – or long for – there to be one. Desires and wants are similar in this respect - they both express a sense of something more, something better or that can be improved. Plato famously said that ‘human behaviour flows from three main sources, desire, emotion and knowledge’. So, it could be said that any expression of desire is the cause for one third of our decisions, movements, and thoughts in day-to-day living. We can therefore all relate and understand these expressions of desire as it is something each of us has experienced. I desire that you will in some way find parts of this article interesting to read, but you may desire to be on a beach in the sun rather than sitting at your screen reading.

In the ‘Glossary of Undisciplined Design’ edited by Anja Kaiser and Rebecca Stephany, they footnote that ‘the classic definition of graphic design as a “problem solving” profession, or, at least, a clearly demarcated domain of products and services, has become increasingly blurry in recent decades, if only in the cultural hubs of the Global North. Largely due to the creative imperative and the promise of self-realization in Western capitalist economies, a designer’s self-understanding and areas of responsibility have widened’. This definition when read in the context of desire and its relation to design helps to explain the role of the profession, specifically graphic design, to the creation of material desire. In a sense, graphic design and to some extent all design is blurring from “problem solving” to “problem creating” within capitalistic-minded societies.

When design is “problem solving” it holds the potential to fuel thinking, alter the message and shift the result of a project for better or for worse. It can provide an impetus to try something different, learn a new skill or explore a new medium. However, there is a risk that the acknowledgment of desire and the formulation of this through design can in fact eradicate any sense of longing by achieving that which is desired. In other words, a desire may only exist as a want – it is not present – and when it becomes present it is no longer a desire.

The principle of ‘desire paths’, within public spaces and the designed landscape does well to illustrate this disparity between desire and realisation. Desire paths as described by Robert Macfarlane are “paths and tracks made over time by the wishes and feet of walkers, especially those paths that run contrary to design or planning”, claiming them to be “free-will ways”. They show a tension between a natural and a designed space, and in so doing reveal the relationship of the user to the area. They are the shortcuts that bypass the pavement, illicit wanderings against the designed route and traversed trespassing that ignores the script of ‘don’t walk on the grass’. Andrew Furman, associate professor in interior design and architecture at Ryerson University in Toronto, believes that ‘desire lines’ inform us about the “endless human desire to have choice. The importance of not having someone prescribe your path”. It is important to consider that it is more critical to understand – not exploit – peoples’ deeper needs for choice within design.

Perhaps it is by observing the way in which those who interact with the design stray against it that we can begin to create new systems that embrace – or at least allow for – these choices. In digital design, this could be heatmaps or cookie tracking. In book design this might be hand placement or the chosen reading situation. In fashion, you could look at creases and tucks. Each has the potential to give you a new or challenging understanding of how to design with allowances for desire, rather than formulate a desire. The potential to design discovery without a predetermined conclusion.

However, desire lines as a design principle won’t explain why people do what they do. This mystery is surely part of the point of allowing something off-beat to tread on the outcome and in turn help to improve its meaning. The unknown reasons behind a desire are therefore as important as the outcome of the desire even if it goes against taught logic or routine.

Observing illicit desires or tracking ramblings might lead down paths that no longer seem to have a defined destination. Physically, they can lead to a fence that has been overgrown by brambles, or otherwise, they might lead you down a shortcut you didn’t expect and force you to retrace your route. This retracing could be interpreted as the result of going down the wrong path of desire. Consequently, a desire is not something that we can determine the end of, we cannot know if the desire will be achieved or not. A desire is muddy, it is not solid, it can be washed away in the rain or dry up in the sun. Following this, you could argue that if a council solidifies the desired paths marked in the grass by making them paved, they strip them of their natural meandering state. Through the act of solidifying and formalising these lines through design they remove them from the term desired paths and instead make them designated paths. Paradoxically, creating them into the exact thing they were formed against.

On the other hand, the formalisation of these lines stops them from disappearing. That is to say there is perhaps a need in certain circumstances to be practically minded. Certainly, we should all be at liberty to meander, to get lost and in the process learn new things but there comes a point at which it is surely important to share these new discoveries and get common use out of the paths of desire.

It is also therefore important to understand and think about where desire comes from in all of us, where certain desires are activated or created. Material versus immaterial desire; the desire or want of something (commonly an object) that is new, against the desire for something spiritual, emotional, or a reality unseen. Material desire has arguably been manufactured or amplified within capitalist systems which, amongst other things, produces products that are designed to break down after several years – this is known as planned obsolesce. The rationale behind this capitalist strategy is to generate longer term sales numbers through the reduction of time between item purchasing. On the other hand, immaterial desire is more ingrained in each of us from a young age, for example, we cry when we desire love and attention as a baby and later in life act impulsively on emotional desires partly activated through hormonal changes. It is essential to realise there are differences in these types of desire, and that material desire is traditionally the form most governed by the worlds of design that is “problem solving”.

However, it is also true that the distinction between material and immaterial desires in recent decades and within the scope of design is arguably becoming blurred as certain areas of design placed within the capitalist system choose to use the psychology of immaterial desire to promote and heighten material desires. In Adam Curtis’ documentary ‘The Century of the Self’, he references Edward Bernays who “saw how ads could create desire which could be easily satisfied and thus transform people into happiness machines”. A statement that succinctly showcases the use of immaterial desire to achieve material desire within design.

Should design allow the blurring of desire for material and immaterial to continue within economic and social structures or act to break it apart? To rephrase the question, should it keep on trying to formulate desire lines?

In finding an answer to this question, we might look back at the definition of desire as ‘a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen’, the use of the words ‘feeling’ and ‘wishing’ point to the fact that any form of desire is often unattainable, it is evolving, and the result is somewhat ephemeral. The want of a better word, a better design, a better material is what keeps design changing. It is what keeps each silo of designers thinking, and it helps to drive discovery. Over time, a desire that gets solved or formalised has the potential to unlock a new path that leads somewhere else.

The want for a better – or perhaps the want to be different and go against the status quo – is something that has proven time and time again in design to be a driving force for creativity. It is admittedly a difficult topic to coherently and definitively conclude on because of each of our personal experiences of the desire and varying interpretations of the nature of design. So, is it in fact better to ignore desire altogether and focus on designing the word rather than what the word could also be?

Emma Singleton is a London-based designer and writer with a fascination for the obscure, the esoteric and the transcendental. Her work encompasses the worlds of language, signs and symbols. Within her practice she explores the overlaps that exist between design and language; producing works that weave the two together into outcomes that have been described as visually vocal. The strength in her work lies in her original mode of writing, her fascination with the obscurity of language and appreciation of detail. She has a way of looking at things from angles that question the original, expanding upon the chosen subjects visual and literal synonyms.  

By Emma Singleton