Representation – The Big Middle One

It had probably always been there, a curiosity for the truth, but I didn’t really know it until the autumn of 1988. I had enrolled in the Welsh School of Architecture. A venerable old institution based along the grandiose Portland Stone parade that the Marquis of Bute wedged into the centre of Cardiff.

There I was, full of balls and brains starting University amongst a swagger of would-be designers brimming over with mutual, positive reinforcement for how clever we all were. A few disorienting days in and the first assignment lands. A suitably awe inspiring project to design a national icon. “First design critique is next week”, the grinning professors declared.

So next week you turn up with all your drawings on huge sheets of paper and pin them to the wall. You stand in front of your peers and a row of five architectural academics who unbeknown to you, are in full Haveseenitallbefore Mode. You start to explain your momentous entry into the annuls of architectural history with the purpose and vision for your wonderful design and they quickly tear you to shreds in front of your new friends! It soon becomes clear that this is a form of ritual humiliation, some people cry and some people leave the course.

Two weeks later I’m back. This time I’ve done some research, sharpened the pencil, read some journals and prepared a rather eloquent pitch full of cutting edge stuff. They systematically tear me to shreds! More people cry and someone’s mum rings in to complain. A few conspire to revolt in the only way a bunch of naive architectural students can: by doing more homework. So two weeks later I’m back again with 200 hours worth of design. I nearly cried.

“You soft arsed little shite” I remember saying to myself, “those pompous old bastards are not getting me, I deserve to be here”. So I change the style of my illustrations, add copious annotation to the drawings to remind myself why it was like it was, cite precedent, expand upon the philosophical route of the innovations to precedent I’m incorporating and god forbid, I actually visited the real site of my design. I went there, studied the environmental factors, the angles of the sun and the vistas from where the imaginary building would be situated. I spent a few days talking with people, observing the human interactions, flows of activity and sketching out in detail a sense of place for my design.

Two weeks later, I stand aside an altogether different proposition described in an eclectic display of images, diagrams, annotations and a large cardboard landscape of the city. I stare everyone down and start by telling a story about the impact that the existing gap in the city had on the people who inhabited the space around it. My new design, my discovered truth, was not to lose the shaft of sun and warmth that allowed people to gather, eat lunch, rest, chat, fall asleep and fall in love amidst a dower, otherwise grey cityscape. My solution, while pragmatic on the inside, added that sense of invitation, attracting people to the building by capitalising on sunlit ground space in the design concept. The curmudgeonly old bastards got up, walked slowly over to my display and started delicately adding to my notes and sketches. Their old brains mused together over things I could barely follow and they drew me into the dialogue by asking the best questions ever – while looking me straight in the eye. A polite round of applause was followed by two days of beer therapy.

In the space of a few weeks, a bunch of wily old professors who barely lifted a finger themselves, had taught me to look out for, recognise, interpret, critically analyse, design antidotes to and most importantly never use, bullshit.

A lesson that never leaves you is sometimes called a Threshold Concept, one that when experienced, changes the way you see the world and you simply can’t go back. After seven years learning how to meaningfully combine form, mechanism, interaction, function and purpose in the transformation of ideas into behaviours, I also worked out that I’m not a commercial Architect. Fortunately, learning how to create the space necessary for other people to do something useful, is extraordinarily transferable. These days, I rarely design buildings, but I do design tools, methods, approaches, quick ways out of dark corners and a wide range of devious tactics that create the organisational space for people to do their thing. Meanwhile the Bullshit Gland can never be switched off, and neither can the Tourette-like foghorn it’s connected to.

This sequence of blogs on representation is fueled by my early experiences in the world of design and a couple of decades trying to put it all into practice. There are always manipulative, self-obsessed liars and charlatans, but most people don’t set out to misrepresent things and ideas; just like me and the other students of architecture. We didn’t know any better, because we were yet to learn the right way to take an idea and turn it into something real, through the application of a little critical thinking. I now see bullshit everywhere, confusing people, claiming insight and evidence and undeniable success without any real substance. Obfuscated in terminology, biased toward hidden agendas, smeared over personal triumphalism and shamelessly worshipped in a lather of slimy spin. If 2016 has taught us anything, it is that misrepresentation is incredibly dangerous.

I’m not suggesting there’s a conspiracy (that would make the actions secret and clever), but I work in the NHS and it is under attack, by the forces that would seek to take it from you. He says, lightening the mood with a Harry Potter reference. So it is morally incumbent upon us all, not to fall into the trap of false gods, fakes news and weak ideas hidden under a steamy smear of half arsed Representations. Sorry, but I love the NHS and I have to do my bit, albeit slightly abstract and philosophical, to try and at least save it from bullshit. I actually got into the Health Service by mistake, but that’s another … Story.

Representation in a Story

If I’m going to talk about representing things using ‘Story’, I had to tell one about how I came to have some insight worth sharing. There are entire university departments committed to storytelling, whether in the oral history traditions of Welsh culture, or the considerably less poetic musings of some blogger. It’s a big field and I can’t possibly do it justice here, but I promise to come back to the subject. Several times.

5-story-archetypes
Five Story Archetypes

Anyway – as I’m a fan of archetypes to communicate complex ideas – there are roughly 5 archetypal stories: the task, the journey, the bond, the battle and the crisis. The latter includes all of the former which is why, by definition, the big mess is last. Have a go at the adjacent quiz, courtesy of them, those, these, him and that lot.

Every Story type has roughly the same construct: there are things, people and places, events strung together, construed consequences and lessons to be learnt. But perhaps most importantly, the audience always experiences the Story in real time.  Phenomenologically speaking, whether the tale is contemporary or steeped in the myths of ancient fables, everyone experiences stories in real time, while reading or watching or listening. The best stories have you clinging to the next encounter before it comes in blissful anticipation. Boring stories are different and interestingly or is that ironically, in Representative terms, they are often diagrammatic in form.

Stories are also dialogic, they are capable of changing the past. Some anthropologists suggest that as a species we should be reclassified as Homo Narrans – the story telling ape. We naturally seek meaning in the world around us and construct stories to explain why things are, as they are. Once revealed, a Story can alter what you thought you already knew. Stories can change how you see the world in a way that not only alters the past, but also changes your perceptions of the present and the future. Stories are literally, time travelling devices. More on that another time.

The mark of a good story, is simply the ability of the audience to faithfully retell it. And rather eloquently, this reveals a truth about stories themselves: that they are more concerned with truths, than facts. A fact says “he was six feet and four inches in height”, while the truth says “he was tall”. How can less information be better than accurate statistics? Well, if this was a story about a basketball team, he would probably be the team shortarse. Whereas tall, sets him in context. And herein lies my most useful tip about when to use a story to represent something – when the context is more significant than the attributes of the thing itself.

As a result, stories are always and preferably, open to a degree of interpretation, especially in the retelling. In my ongoing nomenclature for the degree of Representation that would put a Story at R60%. That means a story is never one way, it’s not a monologue, it’s a dialogue with the audience. A very long time ago, an old Greek bloke said the key to human influence, or engaging an audience, is found in the three modes of persuasion:

  • Ethos – demonstrating trustworthiness through action
  • Logos – being able to articulate meaning to engage others
  • Pathos – understanding the humanity of the situation

In contemporary cognitive science terms, we now know that the messenger, the storyteller and their perceived ethic, are incredibly influential. Being able to articulate yourself and your ideas, to represent them in a way people can understand and engage with, is incredibly powerful: from simple images to the most amazing state of the art of storytelling (there’s Harry Potter again). However, both pale into insignificance if your story holds a person, if only for a moment, to glimpse a reflection of their own humanity.

I’ll definitely do more on the art and the science of storytelling, but for now, that’s The Big Middle One.

Featured image.

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