People think in symbols but the symbols in our mind are not the actual objects themselves. That is to say: when you think of an apple, that apple is not real. This is the treachery of symbols. The symbols in our mind don’t always match the reality of an object. We think we know how to use an object based on the symbol in our mind that we apply to it.
This leads to encounters with objects like this:
We automatically interact with an object as if we know what the object is based on the symbols in our mind. It’s second nature.
This object is perfectly functional: push on the top; liquid squirts out. But good design isn’t just designing an item that functions. It’s designing for expectations. No matter how well designed a widget may be, people expect certain things in certain contexts. They expect certain interactions to produce certain results.
As preparation for launching Space Westerns magazine I began researching Western-genre fiction. I wanted to be familiar with the tropes, plots, themes, stock characters of a Western so I’d recognize them in a Space Western story. So I read John G. Cawelti’s The Six-gun Mystique, and David Mogen’s Wilderness Visions, and Jane Tompkins’ West of Everything, and Matt Braun’s How to Write Western Novels. Now when I watch Star Trek, I don’t just see colonists and Starfleet and Klingons; I see homesteaders and the U.S. Cavalry and the Mexican Army. When I watch Star Wars I don’t see Han Solo and Chewbacca and Boba Fett; I see The Lone Ranger and Tonto and The Man with No Name. It dawned on me: this is just another example of designer Robin Williams’ The Joshua Tree Principle:
Many years ago I received a tree identification book for Christmas. I was at my parents’ home, and after all the gifts had been opened I decided to go out and identify the trees in the neighborhood. Before I went out, I read through part of the book. The first tree in the book was the Joshua tree because it took only two clues to identify it. Now the Joshua tree is a really weird-looking tree and I looked at that picture and said to myself, “Oh, we don’t have that kind of tree in Northern California. That is a weird-looking tree. I would know if I saw that tree, and I’ve never seen one before.” So I took my book and went outside. My parents lived in a cul-de-sac of six homes. Four of those homes had Joshua trees in the front yard. I had lived in that house for thirteen years, and I had never seen a Joshua tree. I took a walk around the block, and there must have been a sale at the nursery when everyone was landscaping their new homes—at least 80 percent of the homes had Joshua trees in the front yards. And I had never seen one before! Once I was conscious of the tree, once I could name it, I saw it everywhere. Which is exactly my point. Once you can name something, you’re conscious of it. You have power over it. You own it. You’re in control.
Neaderthals lived in Europe and parts of the Middle East approximately between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago. We’re discovering that they are more like modern humans than we previously thought they could be. How to Think Like a Neanderthal gives a good overview of what we currently know. Neanderthals were social, cooperative, family-oriented, planned ahead, and displayed mechanical skills. They made tools, wore clothes, used fire, and possessed some form of language.
The fact that they possessed language, no matter how simple it may have been, is interesting. Language is a symbolic communication system. In the strictest sense, a symbol is a (sometimes arbitrary) mark, sign, or sound that is understood to represent some other thing. If Neanderthals had language then they must have been capable of thinking in symbols.
They were capable of thinking in symbols, but did they create art? They certainly made artifacts. They made stone and composite tools; we have evidence of fire-making. We also have indications of artifacts that we can intuit no useful purpose for: lines carved in stone; lines incised in avian bone (raven’s wing with seven regularly spaced notches). We can’t say that these markings were symbolic, but we can say they were most definitely done purposefully.
We know that they gathered pigments (black manganese dioxide and red ochre), but we don’t know if it was for what might have been body art or for what may have been medicinal purposes. The evidence for painting is slight. One contender for a potential Neanderthal cave painting exists in Spain. It shows a series of mandorla shapes with lines drawn across them. These works are dated to the time and location where Neanderthals may have coexisted with early Modern Humans, so it may end up not being work by Neanderthals at all.
It’s still possible, it may even be likely, but we currently have no conclusive proof that Neanderthals created anything that modern Western culture would recognize as art.
It didn’t start with Ursula LeGuin, who says in The Wizard of Earthsea that discovering someone’s true name gives you power over them. Since ancient times people would have a secret name, known only to those closest to them. This lives on in our middle names, and every child knows they’re truly in trouble when their mother uses it. To the Ancient Egyptians, the name (ren) was a part of your very soul. When captured by the cyclops Poylphemus in the Ancient Greek epic, The Odyssey, Odysseus claimed his name was Outis (meaning “No one”). It is only after Polyphemus, deceived and blinded, learns Odysseus’ true name that he is able to curse him, and delay Odysseus’ return to Ithaca (yet again). Even in the bible, Adam gives names to all the animals and God gives him dominion over them.
And so it is in Art. The graphic designer Robin Williams in her book, The Non-designer’s Design Book tells us the story of her discovery of the joshua tree. The gist of it is this: until she learned of the tree by name, she never really saw it before. And she came to learn that joshua trees were planted extensively throughout her very own neighborhood. Until she learned their name, they didn’t exist.
The same is true for anything else. We typically draw things using symbols: tree, car, house. Using other symbols for the parts: eyes, nose, lips. From plants and animals, to anatomy, to machines. Once you name something you have a handle with which to grasp it. Look at drawing a spider…
A child’s first attempts at drawing a spider might look like a dot with some legs.
…and they learn that spiders have eight legs.
…that spiders have eyes.
…spiders have fangs.
…legs have joints.
…the body has two main parts, the cephalothorax and the abdomen, and all the legs attach to the cephalothorax.
…spiders have two smaller grasping legs, called pedipalps; and the fangs really have two parts: the chelicera and the fang.
…and so on, until you’ve learned enough about spiders that you can draw them 99% realistically. Until you can name, very nearly, all of their parts: pedical, coxa, trochanter, spinnerets, etc.
Repeat ad nauseam until you can draw the entire world.
But, you can’t know everything. You can’t know all the names.