DesLens: Paradoxical Unity —Perhaps None is Most?

I remember my dreams of being a designer before I stepped into design school. The process of creation and building has always fascinated me ever since my dad bought me my first Gundam kit at the age of 5.

Even though it came pre-coloured and with a fixed instruction manual, that has never stopped me from slapping on my own paint and modifications. This, together with Lego sets and other building blocks allowed me to immerse myself, swimming into the flow of my imagination. It served as the spark for me to create all that I loved and with that, I stepped into design school.

One of the kits I built in 2015.

What a let-down.

Those were my first thoughts when I learnt that I can’t just sketch beautiful products and expect to sell them, the importance of users — the dialogue they have with products and experiences. As I continued further into my design journey, I began to subscribe to the notion of embracing the user’s autonomy, that a product should be — empty, as Kenya Hara puts it.

I’ve later came to find that this school of thought lies in parallel to the idea of paradoxical unity from Tao (philosophy), a belief system that has since transformed into a religion during the Shang Dynasty. ‘Tao’ (道)in Chinese refers to ‘way’, a ‘way’ of living or set of belief systems originating from a figure known as Lao Tzu. To be honest, this ‘way’ is in itself paradoxical for reasons you will come to discover.

Statue of Lao Tzu in QuanZhou. Source.

This set of beliefs were then documented in the second verse of the ‘Tao De Jin’(道德经)in the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E. where the notion of paradoxical unity is spoken of:

“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty,

only because there is ugliness.

All can know good as good because there is evil

Being and non-being produce each other.

The difficult is born in the easy.

Long is defined by short, the high by the low,

Before and after go along with each other.”

Wait, so how does this mystical voodoo-woodoo apply?

Personally, I saw the value and interrelation between contrasting elements fascinating, the idea that one cannot exist without the other. That made me aware of the duality of the numerous labels we place in our everyday lives. The judgments we make without noticing and the placement of these elements into preconceived baskets. This very awareness which nudges us to take distance and perhaps apply the Solomon’s Paradox and notice these subconscious labels we slap onto our daily experiences.

Similarly as designers, try as hard as we may, we cannot avoid placing our preconceived judgments and opinions into our works. Arguably, in my opinion, the most successful designs and systems afford for users to make it their own without the designer enforcing his beliefs and dictating what the user can or cannot do. They embrace the fact that designers know next to nothing about the users and allow users to use it as their own without forcing their way through.

I’m trying to avoid making it sound cheesy but it’s almost like saying that the best design is no design at all, where this ‘emptiness’ of prescribed functions affords for users to adapt as they see fit, to see potential rather than an instruction manual.

Perhaps the most poignant example I could give would be one of the many thought experiments back in school. All that we had as the brief was the word ‘repair’. The seemingly simple brief opened up a whole new space for exploration as it challenged our preconceived ideas of what repair is and made us accept, and eventually embrace what we don’t know about repair, its practices, traditions, and values. To answer, we first had to question. To know more, we have to acknowledge that we don’t know much at all.

Japanese Kintsugi Repair. Source.

Looking back, I ask myself if it was this sense of wonder - of not knowing nor caring about what I’m creating when I was a child that drew me to design in the first place, to allow my imagination to flow. It was the potential that those ‘unfinished’ kits and blocks offered which kept me fascinated. And as I begin my career now, I wonder where this spiral would lead?

The purpose of the DesLens series of articles is to serve as thought experiments on various lenses that designers can put while exploring their works or life. These thought experiments seek to seed questions for designers, to continuously build upon our approach and may come from a variety of different fields such as psychology, sociology, architecture etc. It complements the multifaceted exploration channels that designers use while exploring in order to connect the dots that are uncovered along the way.

Paradoxical Unity —

Solomon’s Paradox —
Kenya Hara’s Designing design —
Dieter Ram’s ‘Less is More’ —



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Shawn Ng

Shawn Ng

Designer living in sunny Singapore. I enjoy exploring new perspectives that can shape creativity and design.