Jessica Helfand: Design For Humanity

September 9, 2016

Shot and edited on my brilliantly designed, newly purchased and immediately outdated iPhone 6 s



I’ve just completed reading Jessica Helfand’s new book, Design: the Invention of Desire, and oh what a read it’s been. Helfand integrates a collection of essays and artwork to elevate the discipline from ‘stuff’ and ‘interaction’ to what is intrinsically human.


10 essays commenting on design through humanity’s most essential currencies - authority, fantasy, identity, consequence, compassion, patience, solitude, meloncholy, humility, memory, desire and change.


The book opens with the following D.H. Lawrence quote:


“You can’t invent a design. You recognise it, in the fourth dimension. That is, with your blood and your bones, as well as with your eyes.”


Each essay corresponds with paintings that Helfand created as consequence to her rigourous exploration of cells, bones, blood and sinew. Diving deep into the world of scientists, pathologists, doctors and micro-biologists, Helfand projects microscopic slides on canvas to paint interiors as expressions of built and imagined exterior worlds. 



Most poignant for me were her essays on patience, solitude, humility and desire. In a world where we are tethered to devices, communication across developmental stages becomes increasingly challenging. The ‘wicked’ problem here is that even post conventional audiences use iPhones, MacBook Airs and iPads – all with an autoimmune-like-disorder triggered by infantile impatience. How might we find simplicity on the other side of complexity in this territory? An inquiry I am deeply fascinated by and committed to exploring further in my own work.


In her essay on humility, Helfand reveals the story of her late husband’s cancer journey. Here I paused to conjure death’s avatar as the Thracian crone goddess, Hecate, who walked abroad on nights when the moon was dark attended by a pack of hound dogs. Once decoupled from power and influence, wealth becomes less about all things made, unmade, distributed and communicated and more about wisdom at the crossroads of our beginnings and endings.



In essence, the book explores ‘what’ we are designing and ‘why’ we are doing it with deep consideration for how little is known of conscience or consequence amidst a relentless impulse to design better futures. After all, guns and the second amendment were both design conceits.


Shot and edited on my brilliantly designed, newly purchased and immediately outdated iPhone 6 s


Until next time, this is Susanna Carman asking you to consider 'from what to what' as you imagine your own futures. For more about Design, Leadership and Business, visit, or spend time informing your freshest thinking by visiting: 

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