Published on 16 September 2019
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Democratising understanding in a complex world

In her series on Practical Wisdom in a Complex World, Dr Penny Mealy discusses democratising understanding using the fascinating case of how modern furniture design was revolutionised for the masses by duo Charles and Ray Eames.

“We wanted to make the best for the most for the least”

This was the philosophy of Charles and Ray Eames whose signature stylish furniture became an icon of modern design. Central to the success of their furniture was the primacy of the human form. An Eames chair is designed to accommodate the shape of the sitter, and not the other way around. But achieving aesthetics, affordability and comfort was a classic design trilemma. It was only after years of tinkering with a home-made plywood moulding machine (affectionately called ‘Kazam’) and countless experiments with different materials that Charles and Ray finally stumbled on solutions that allowed them to bring sleek, chic furniture to the masses. 

Although finding a way to democratise designer lifestyles wasn’t easy, the persistence of this husband-and-wife partnership paid off.  Their designs transformed middle-class America in the 20th century, and continue to remain influential today. And the Eames didn’t stop at chairs. They brought their playful creativity and imagination to bear on a range of different areas – including architecture, film, exhibitions and even worked their magic on leg-splints for soldiers in World War II. 

Could creativity help democratise understanding?

The Eames never really ventured into the world of market or policy design, but it is an interesting thought experiment to imagine what they might have come up with. They had a knack for turning the obscure or ordinary into something engaging and extraordinary. A classic example is their 1977 film, Powers of Ten. Opening with a one meter square overhead view of a couple having a picnic, the film successively pans out to a 10^24 view of the universe and then zooms all the way down to 10^-16 view of quarks. Logarithmic scaling is not the kind of topic that you would imagine would appeal to a broad audience. But by representing the power – and awe factor – of non-linearity in a way that is attractive for ten-year-olds and physics professors alike, the short film became so popular it is now preserved in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically and aesthetically significant.

Another delightful example is the 1965 four minute film, ‘Sherlock Holmes in the Singular Case of the Plural Green Mustache’, in which a puppet-style Sherlock Holmes solves a baffling case using Boolean logic. A train – the Glasgow express – has been stolen, and on an intricately designed railway station set, Holmes and his bumbling sidekick Watson engage in a captivating interplay of deductive reasoning:

Watson: “Scotland Yard is mystified”

Holmes: “That’s because Scotland Yard thinks as you do”

Watson: “Oh, I suppose you think me simple minded”

Holmes: “Not simple minded enough Watson.. Now look at this problem as a series of simple, true-or-false statements…”

Sherlock holmes

For the Eames, film was a unique canvass capable of blending scientific and artistic expression. But they also viewed it as an important medium for understanding, explaining and ultimately solving problems. “Putting an idea on film”, Charles said, “provides the ideal discipline for whittling that idea down to size”.  Mediums clearly matter – not just for thinking the unthinkable, but also for expressing otherwise inexpressible ideas. 

Creative approaches to overcoming ignorance

One of the most interesting characteristics of this dynamic duo was their approach to ignorance. Although Charles had trained as an architect and Ray had studied painting, the couple were continually taking on new work and design challenges in fields that were completely unfamiliar to them. For the Eames, the unknown presented a source of novelty, and their creative process ultimately thrived on learning. In a documentary about the Eameses, Richard Saul Wurman said “[Charles] was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. The journey of not knowing to knowing was his work.” 

By finding creative ways to captivate and express their own curiosity, the Eames found very natural ways to connect and communicate with much broader audiences. Such an approach provides an interesting counterpoint to recent discussions about the role of experts in democratic life. Learned specialists will undoubtedly always play an important role in informing the public.  However, some of the most effective communicators could be those that initially know very little about a particular topic, but can creatively express their learning process to laymen. While Michael Gove’s assertion that “people have had enough of experts” has proven to be highly questionable, expertise alone is unlikely to be enough. There may in fact be something to said for taking a more creative approach to overcoming ignorance.

Further articles in the Practical Wisdom series:
Towards Practical Wisdom in a Complex World
Seeking Clarity in a Complex World

The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the Bennett Institute for Public Policy.

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