Paint within the lines

Quest for order goes beyond design

Paul Epp

I was helping a friend paint some window frames and I was surprised at her casual approach. Half of her paint went on the glass and I questioned this. “Why does it matter?” was her reply. I was stuck for an answer then, and I still have some trouble with it.

This was back in the early ‘70s, when my demographic was enthusiastically discarding the existing rulebook and anarchistically trying to rewrite the social order. And the aesthetic and moral orders as well. Why was a bit of misapplied paint important, in the grand scheme of things?

Well, for what it represented, would be the most obvious answer. With my longer hindsight, I can make the claim that we, as a species, crave order. It is generally important to us that our built environment is orderly, that walls are flat and square, floors and tabletops are level, for instance. This seems to comfort us, or satisfy an innate craving. It’s probably atavistic and reflects a subconscious belief that an orderly world will contain its risks more effectively. Of course, we crave surprises and diversity as well. That’s the part that sets our blood in motion and makes us feel that life is worth living. But chaos without a foundation of order is probably not what we want, at least not now, 50 years later.

Another answer is that attention to detail is evidence of caring. We care for each other, as parents do for their children and then eventually, children do for their parents. We care for our friends and they, in turn, care for us. Caring is a great social good and we are immensely reassured by its presence and we rely on it to give our lives stability and comfort. It’s a great material good as well.

We want our boots to keep the water out, and our gloves to keep our warmth in. We want our (flat) walls to do the same, keep us at a comfortable temperature. If the doors of our car close with a satisfying little click, rather than a scraping thud, we are reassured that it will not leave us to walk, somewhere before our destination, despite the fact that the doors have nothing to do with the critical mechanical functions. But if someone cared enough about the doors, then they probably cared enough about the engine. We want our goods to be well-made and we look for little indicators to inform us of this.

Part of this is culturally driven and, of course, culture is formed by external forces as well. I have found it interesting to observe that certain countries have stronger traditions of doing a careful job, when it comes to the built environment. The Scandinavian countries are a good example. And Germany. If something gets built, it’s done well. We’re not likely to find paint sloppily encroaching on the glass there. I find it very satisfying, but is it evidence of cultural rigidity that may be social as well? Building things in Japan is very carefully attended to also.

In contrast, some of the tropical countries have a much more casual approach when they make things. I’m thinking now of Southeast Asia or the Caribbean. It might be that where the weather is comfortable, there is less reason to be careful with the details. Reflexively, I’m much more accepting of a different standard of workmanship when I am where it is warm. We seem to be orthodox creatures, accepting and supporting the prevailing social and cultural norms. We are casual when our neighbours are and in turn, stricter when this reflects our environment.

What does this teach us as designers? That’s another good question. Part of our role in that profession is as a kind of gatekeeper, ensuring that things are made well. We specify how things are to be done because we know that this will have a bearing on how they will look, and what gets seen is what gets evaluated.

Painting within the lines is part of our job. Sometimes we are expected to act with carefree abandon, but usually this spontaneity is only made possible by a foundation of solid order and discipline. And that means that our paint isn’t wider than the mullion under it.

I feel like I’ve made some progress, but I’m still trying to figure this out.

Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.