Design and Myth
Redefining and Recontextualizing Design and Mythology
This piece was originally commissioned by Medium.
In ancient Crete, just south of Greece, King Minos ruled with his wife, Pasiphaë. Poseidon, god of the Sea, sent King Minos a sacrificial bull as a gift. When Minos disregarded the gift, Poseidon cursed the bull and Pasiphaë. After spending a night with the cursed bull, Pasiphaë gave birth to the Minotaur: a half-bull, half-human monster.
King Minos was enraged. He exiled the Minotaur to a labyrinth created by the renowned craftsman Daedalus. The Minotaur, trapped forever in the maze, killed and ate all trespassers.
This is an abbreviated summary of the Greek myth of the Minotaur. The story transcends authorship. It was passed down verbally for generations, like all Greek myths, shaping culture and civilization along the way.
At heart, myths are stories. They evolve, change, and grow with time, language, and culture. Philosopher Alan Watts wrote that myths “demonstrate the inner meaning of the universe and of human life.” They reflect the unspoken truths in society and culture. Plato famously spoke in myths: the Ship of State, the Myth of Er, the Allegory of the Cave (technically an analogy).
Philosopher Daniel Chandler, on narratives and meaning, says “myths help people make sense of the world in which they live.” This idea of making sense of the world means myths are filtered through individuals’ senses, their sensibilities. Myths are interpretive. The Minotaur and King Minos is, on one hand, a story of an evil king and his monster son. Interpreted another way, it shows the consequences of evil begetting evil. Myths are semiotic vehicles.There are multiple signifieds (interpretations) behind the initial signifier (myth). The value in an interpretation is not always equal to the value of the original story.
We usually associate myths with classical fables about the exploits of gods and heroes, and popular usage of the term ‘myth’ suggests that it refers to beliefs which are demonstrably false, but the semiotic use of the term does not necessarily suggest this. Like metaphors, cultural myths help us to make sense of our experiences within a culture: they express and serve to organize shared ways of conceptualizing something within a culture.¹
So what is myth? A type of symbolic narrative capable of containing multiple meanings. Similarly, design can mean many things as well.
Myths shape culture, just as culture shapes myths. Myths are mutable — their meaning evolves as culture evolves. Myths also transcend cultures and eras,staying true to themselves across time.
In the 1950s, Roland Barthes penned Mythologies, a series of essays on cultural mythologies of France. Pro wrestling, striptease, and plastic are just a few of the myths he analyzes.² In 2014, the BBC released 21st Century Mythologies, a podcast series in which Peter Conrad analyzes modern day mythologies: the selfie, the Apple logo, and the Kardashians.³ The great majority of these contemporary mythologies have been thoughtfully designed: screw-top wine bottle, e-readers, and The 9/11 Museum. (Barthes’ mythologies are more social and nuanced.)
In 1943, Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” The sentiment applies beyond architecture, to language and communication, and to the intersection of both: design. In this way, design — as a myth, a set of symbols — is not neutral. It’s imbued with tone and intent. In 1977, Roland Barthes declared, “No sooner is a form seen than it must resemble something: humanity seems doomed to Analogy.” Design is often an analogy — is it always? Design is a practice of signifying. Design is a practice of creating analogies, simulations of nature.
Let’s observe further. “Everyone [who] designs…devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones,” economist Herbert Simon wrote. Another way of putting this is to say that design edits behavior.Seemingly small design decisions can have tremendous implications. Much can be expressed through very little in visual design. Myth does the same. Through storytelling, we intend to change existing actions into preferred actions. Myth, like design, uses an economy of symbols to convey meaning and shape our behavior.
The MIT Media Lab addresses design as myth this way:
Design and mythology are both media for storytelling that represent general cultural truths and their human meaning. Like design, mythology is a universal language by which to decode human culture.⁴
There are three categories of human communication: verbal, or what can be spoken and heard; nonverbal, or what is observed and inferred; and finally, written, or anything that must be read.
These first two categories (verbal and nonverbal) led communication for eons until scribes were relieved of their duties and Gutenberg’s printing press opened the floodgates for mass-produced written and typeset communication. After 1440, written communication became ubiquitous.Words and shapes are communicated through writing, drawing, or design — logos, textures, colors. We understand so much through written messages that oral storytelling (verbal myth) is waning in our modern dialect. (Podcasts are perhaps the closest thing we have to an oral storytelling tradition.)
As an example, let’s take U.S. interstate highway signs, a quintessential design element in modern American myth. These signs — green rectangles, blue pennants, red pentagons — function as written (designed) communication.The US Road Rules are a cultural design mythology. But they are very accessible. Not knowing that a brown sign is a recreational indicator does not prevent legibility and understanding. Interstate highway signs seamlessly edit our behavior and shape our view of the open road.
Let’s observe another example. The US military rank insignia system is a designed mythology. In 1780, the first commander-in-chief, General George Washington was first to establish a marking schema identifying class and rank. Visually these signs mean nothing. They are decorative and gaudy. However, they signify so much more. This is a designed cultural mythology.
So myth is a suggestion. It’s not an absolute truth but it is a sort of social pressure that suggests truth. Myth is an urge. Here again, design is analogous.
A semiotic understanding of design and communication can empower a message and myth in three ways according to theorist Cinzia Bianchi:
- Greater intelligibility; a clear understanding yields precision.
- Greater pertinence: establishing a hierarchy and distinction through comprehension.
- Greater differentiation: relationships can be established; comparing and contrasting elements highlight this distinction.⁵
In an effort to communicate (design) and understand clearly, we must focus on interpretation, implication, and application. Changing how culture communicates changes how culture see the world.
In the words of Charles Eames, “Eventually everything connects.” And in the end, design is a myth, connecting all of us in a shared story.
- Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, 2007. Print.
- Barthes, Roland. Mythologies: The Complete Edition, in a New Translation. Hill and Wang, 2013. Print.
- Conrad, Peter, host. 21st Century Mythologies, BBC, 2014. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04lhs21/episodes/player
- Neri Oxman, Neri. “Doppelgänger.” 2011. Web. 28 June, 2018. https://web.media.mit.edu/~neri/site/projects/doppelganger/doppelganger.html
- Bianchi, Cinzia. “Semiotic approaches to advertising texts and strategies: Narrative, passion, marketing.” Semiotica, 183. 2011, pp. 243–271. Print.
- Cassirer, Ernst. Language and Myth. Dover Publications, 1953. Print.
- Ashwin, Clive. “Drawing, Design and Semiotics.” Design Issues, Vol. 1, №2 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 42–52. Print.
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