New anthropological studies of designer roles add a new perspective to designers’ understanding of their own role. And that is important. In today’s globalised and high-efficiency society, it is more essential than ever for designers to be trickster characters, maintaining their unique approach to the design process. Tricksterism ensures a degree of change and renewal that is crucial to our society, says anthropologist and management researcher Karen Lisa Salomon.
By Trine Vu
One evening in November when the editor of design at the national Danish newspaper Politiken, Søren Nyeland, heard anthropologist and management researcher Karen Lisa Salamon present her research into the designer’s role as a trickster character, he came to see his own role in a new perspective.
”I virtually envisioned myself wearing a fool’s cap, bells and all. Her description is uncannily apt, and it is liberating to have this image put into words and given a scientific basis. This awareness of the trickster role achieves two things: It offers a better understanding of one’s own role as well as a better understanding of how one is perceived by others,” says Søren Nyeland.
Designers’ awareness of their own role is one of the key points in Karen Lisa Salamon’s current research. She believes that today’s globalised market and altered forms of production generate new grey zones in the field of design and requires designers to have a keener understanding of their role.
|The god Hermes in Greek mythology is an example of an ancient trickster character. Among other roles, Hermes was the patron of boundaries and of the travelers who cross them. Hermes was also the bringer of dreams.|
Illustration: Mette Bager.
”What happens when the designer is part of a larger production system? What role can the designer play in this context? The designer is a sort of mediator between the investor and the consumer – between decision-makers and laypeople. On the one hand, there is a product to be marketed. On the other hand, there is the consumer’s desires and taste,” says Karen Lisa Salamon, who works independently and has her own company, etnograf.dk.
She argues that globalisation opens a range of new opportunities because it offers the designer a global arena, but that it also makes the designer more vulnerable because design contains cultural elements, which requires the designer to juggle the different perceptions of artefacts in different cultures.
And it is precisely in relation to the designer’s role as mediator that Karen Lisa Salamon introduces the trickster character.
”What’s unique about the trickster is that this is a character that exists in many different cultures and across the ages. We know the trickster character from stories, fairytales and legends: Reynard the Fox, Robin Hood, Harlequin, Pippi Longstocking – as well as from ancient times, for example as the god Hermes.”
”While those in power are always focused on achieving their goals as efficiently as possible, the trickster is characterised by playfulness. The trickster has no aspirations of being the best or the first and thus entering the power game. The trickster’s only ambition is to be the best possible trickster. When things come to a standstill, the trickster interferes and creates motion – the trickster shows up and begins to move things around: ‘What if we tried this; where might that take us?’ The trickster is motivated by curiosity and an urge for mischief,” Karen Lisa Salamon explains and then links the trickster image to the designer’s situation:
”The trickster is constantly overstepping boundaries, thus making the boundaries more apparent to others, and that’s interesting in relation to design, because innovative design is about overstepping boundaries.”
|Harlequin is a classic trickster character. When Columbine is suffering, unable to do her beautiful pirouettes because her father intends to marry her off to some dull old dolt of a husband, Harlequin works his magic and thwarts the father’s plans. “A vibrant cultural life is an impossibility without tricksters,” says anthropologist and management researcher Karen Lisa Salamon. |
Illustration: Mette Bager.
To explain the trickster role in relation to modern society, Karen Lisa Salamon turns to some of the classic characters from stories, fables and fairytales: the lion, the fox and the mice.
”The lion is the king, the powerful, the self-obsessed and the non-creative. The mice are preoccupied with doing their duty with the least possible effort; they are nice, predictable, lazy and uncreative. The fox is the trickster who makes things happen.”
”Without the fox, without the creativity and the transcendence, we wouldn’t have a proper fairytale. We need the action; we need the spark of innovation and change. The transgression of boundaries is a part of human society,” says Karen Lisa Salamon and adds that from a design management point of view the trickster role is important because it is a transcendent force that opens the potential for new markets.
”The director who can’t handle pranks or the transgression of boundaries risks digging his own grave. We need the trickster because the key is to be able to work magic, making something out of nothing. In their role as tricksters, designers can provide this element of magic,” says Karen Lisa Salamon.
At Politiken, Søren Nyeland recognises the conclusions in Karen Lisa Salamon’s research.
”As the editor of design I’m always asked to conjure something up – literally: Go work your magic! This expectation that the designer must be able to pull something out of the hat, like turning on a tap says a lot about the perception that others have of you as a trickster character,” says Søren Nyeland, adding that as editor of design he has to be even more keenly aware of his use of the trickster role, and that sometimes he has to distance himself from it, as his managerial duties often require him to intervene in decision-making processes.
Nevertheless, it is essential for designers to assume the role as tricksters, he says.
”Politiken’s slogan is ’The Living Paper’, but Politiken would not be living if it did not have layout designers, illustrators and graphic designers to create the crazy angles that the journalists miss. Even when we’re pushing a deadline, my people come up with new ideas – like cropping a picture in an unusual way to achieve a novel expression,” Søren Nyeland explains, adding that one of Politiken’s designers is a particularly good example of the trickster character: Peter Sætternissen, who is so aware of his role that he has adopted the last name Sætternissen, Danish for print gremlin.
|When the graphic designers at the Politiken newspaper brainstormed on the assignment of a full-page graphic presentation on Influenza A, they came up with the idea of creating a design that speaks directly to children. This is a good example that designers think differently and are often the ones who come up with the unusual ideas that add life to the newspaper, says Editor of Design Søren Nyeland. |
(Click on the image to get a bigger version in PDF format).
Illustration: Claus Nørregaard. Used as full-page illustration in the Danish newspaper Politiken Sunday, 22 November, 2009.
But tricksters do not work alone, and the editor of design emphasises that being a trickster at Politiken involves being a good mediator.
As an example he mentions a recent idea development process where the objective was to design a full-page graphic illustration about influenza A.
”In the design bubble we got the idea that the illustration should speak directly to children. Next, the journalists got involved, and now the illustration is posted on the wall in many kindergartens around the country.”
In some regards, the trickster role resembles that of the court jester, but Karen Lisa Salamon does not view this as a risk:
”The court jester is seated next to the king and is allowed to speak the truth because it is risk-free – the jester’s words don’t ‘count’ in the power game. The king can simply laugh off the jester’s unpopular truths, but he might still learn from them and be affected without losing face. In this way, the jester might gain influence nonetheless.”
Søren Nyeland is very aware that the designer’s role must not be viewed in a condescending light:
”We used to be sent off to play with the visual presentation aspects. That may seem somewhat condescending, so my standard reply is that ’in our department we don’t play’. My people are involved in a daily development process where journalism and design are both on the line. We’re not just there to deliver a trick as icing on the cake,” says Søren Nyeland.
Cover illustration: Mette Bager.