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Design and Order in Everyday Life

Author(s): Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Source: Design Issues, Vol. 8, No. 1 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 26-34
Published by: The MIT Press
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a MihalyCsikszentmihalyi
Design and Order in
Everyday Life

Art and order

Since the time of Aristotle, a recurrent theme among thinkers has
been the idea that art exists because it helps bring order to human
experience. This notion still stubbornly survives, despite the fact
that in recent times the arts have not been distinguished by a con-
cern for maintaining harmony.
Laszlo Moholy-Nagy claimed (not so many years ago) that the
goal of art is to form a "unified manifestation ... a balance of the
social, intellectual, and emotional experience; a synthesis of atti-
1) Laszl6 Moholy-Nagy, Vision in tudes and opinions, fears and hopes."' Gyorgy Kepes thought that
Motion (Chicago: Paul Theobald,
1947), 28.
people of the twentieth century live in chaotic environments, are
involved in chaotic relationships, and carry chaos at the core of
their consciousness. The job of the artist, according to Kepes, is to
reduce all this free-floating chaos by imposing order on the envi-
2) Gyorgy Kepes, Education and Vision ronment, and on our thoughts and feelings.2 Psychologist
(New York: Braziller, 1965).
Abraham Maslow expressed a similar idea when he claimed that
3) Abraham Maslow, "Isomorphic art helps reconcile the conflict between ancient biological instincts
Interrelations Between Knower & and the artificialrules we have developed for organizing social life.'
Known," Sign, Image, Symbol,
Gyorgy Kepes, ed. (New York:
E. H. Gombrich restates this theme in its most complete form in
Braziller, 1966), 134-43. his latest book on the psychology of design and decoration.4
4) E. H. Gombrich, The Sense of Order:
But what does it actually mean to say that art helps bring
A Study in the Psychology of order to experience? How does this mysterious process take
Decorative Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University, Press, 1979). place? As a psychologist I was dissatisfied with the vague and
metaphorical accounts of how art affects the consciousness of the
viewer. As a result, ten years ago my students and I conducted a
study in which we interviewed a representative cross-section of
families in the Chicago area, to find out how "normal" people
responded to art objects and design qualities in their environ-
ment. We conducted the interviews in the respondents' homes,
asking them such questions as: What kind of "art" objects did
they have in their homes? How often did they notice such
objects? What went on in their minds when they did respond?
Soon after we started interviewing, however, we realized that
we were having difficulties. The people we talked to, even profes-
sional, educated persons, had very little to say about the subject.
They were able to repeat a few impersonal cliches, but it was

clearthat art played a decidedlyinsignificantrole in their lives.
Although most homes contained a few paintingsor sculpture,
usuallyreproductions,theseworks were marginalto the owner's
senseof psychologicalor spiritualwell-being.
There were, however, in every home, several artifactsto which
the owners were strongly attached. These objects often lacked any
discernible esthetic value, but they were charged with meanings
that conveyed a sense of integrity and purpose to the lives of the
owners. So instead of asking questions about artworks, we
changed our tactic and asked what objects were special to each
5) MihalyCsikszentmihalyi person, and why.5Eventually we interviewed 315 individuals in 82
Rochberg-Halton,The Meaningof families, observing the respondents for a few hours at a time with
(New York:CambridgeUniversity these objects in their homes.
The meanings of household objects
In one interview a woman showed us with pride a plastic stat-
uette of the Venus de Milo. It was a tacky specimen, with thick
seams and blurred features. With some hesitancy the interviewer
asked the woman why the statue was so special to her? She
answered with great enthusiasm that the statue had been given to
her by a Tupperware regional sales manager as a prize for the
quantity of merchandise she had sold. Whenever she looked at
the Venus replica, she didn't see the cheap goddess, but an image
of herself as a capable, successful businessperson.
In other cases, a woman pulled out an old Bible that she cher-
ished as a symbol of family continuity; a man showed us a desk he
had built, a piece of furniture which embodied his ideals of sim-
plicity and economy; one boy showed us his stereo with which he
could make "weird sounds" when he was depressed;while an old
woman showed us the razor which her husband, who had been
dead for eighteen years, had shaved with and which she still kept
in the medicine cabinet. Finally, a successful lawyer took us to the
basement where he unpacked a trombone he used to play in col-
lege. He explained that whenever he felt overwhelmed by his
many responsibilities, he took refuge in the basement to blow on
the old trombone.
In other words, we found that each home contained a symbolic
ecology, a network of objects that referred to meanings that gave
sense to the lives of those who dwelt there. Sometimes these
meanings were conveyed by works of art. To be precise, of the
1,694 objects mentioned in the study, 136 or eight percent
referred to the graphic arts (photography excluded), and 108 or
six percent referred to sculpture, including the Venus de Milo
replica. But to be effective in conveying meanings, the owner had
to be personally involved with the artifact.It was not enough that
the object had been created by someone else; to be significant, the
owner had to enter into an active symbolic relationship with it.

Design Issues: Vol. VIII, Number 1 Fall 1991 27

A large majorityof the 136 graphicworks were homemade;
they were often the work of children,relatives,or friends.Their
value consisted in remindingthe owner of importantpersonal
ties, of the qualities of the people who made them. In some
instances,a picturewas cherishedbecauseit remindedthe owner
of a particularplace or an occasion,such as a Mexicanlandscape
bought on a honeymoon.Rarelywere the esthetic,formal,syn-
tactic qualitiesof the object mentionedas a reasonfor liking it.
Of the 537 reasonsgiven for cherishingthe 136 graphicworks,
only sixteen percenthad anythingto do with how the pictures
looked. The objectswere specialbecausethey:conveyedmemo-
ries (sixteenpercent),or referredto family members(seventeen
percent),or to friends(thirteenpercent).Formalqualitiesalone
almostnevermadea picturevaluableto its owner.In the relative-
ly rareoccasionsin which a person was sensitiveto the formal
qualitiesof a paintingor sculpture,the objectwas specialbecause
the owner recognizedits estheticvalue.By activelyappreciating
the object,the ownerjoins in the act of creation,andit is thispar-
ticipation,ratherthan the artist'screativeeffort, that makesthe
artifactimportantin his or her life.
Table 1 shows the ten types of household objects that were
mentioned as special or important by the largest number of
6) Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg- Table 16
Halton,TheMeaningof Things,58.
Percentageof respondentswho mentionedat leastone spe-
cial objectin a givencategory.
Objects Percentage
Furniture 36
Graphic art 26
Photographs 23
Books 22
Stereo 22
Musicalinstrument 22
Televisionsets 21
Sculpture 19
Plants 15
Plates 15
As the table shows, the most frequently mentioned special
objectin the home was some kind of furniture.Again,it was not
the designqualityof the piece that madeit special,but what the
persondid with it, andwhat the interactionmeantto the person.
Because differentpeople have different goals and do different
things, the kinds of objectscherishedand the reasonswhy they
were specialvarieddramaticallyby age andsex.
The youngest generationof the families interviewed chose
stereos,televisionsets, furniture,musicalinstruments,and their
own beds, in that order. Their parentsmost often chose furni-

ture, graphic arts, sculpture, books, and musical instruments;
while their grandparents'chose photographs,furniture,books,
television sets, and graphicarts. It was clear that the younger
generationsrespondedto the activitypotentialof the objects-to
what they could do with them, while the older generations
turned to things that evoked contemplation,or preservedthe
memoriesof events,experiences,andrelationships.
For example, a teenage boy said that the kitchen table and
chairswere amongthe most specialobjectsin his home because
they were very comfortable.He could also tilt the chairsandbal-
ance on them, hide underthe table, or build a fortresswith the
entireset. "(W)ithanothertable,I couldn'tplay as good 'causeI
love the feel of thattable."A typicalresponsefromsomeonefrom
the second generationwas that of one womanwho singledout a
piece of furniturebecauseof the memoriesit evoked about her
friends,husband,or children:"I just associatethatchairwith sit-
ting in it with my babies."For the older generationof respon-
dents,objectsoften bridgedrelationshipsbetweenseveralgenera-
tions: "This chest was bought by my mother and fatherwhen
they weremarried,aboutseventyyearsago.... My motherpaint-
ed it differentcolors, used it in the bedroom.When I got it my
husbandsandedit down to the naturalwood.... I wouldn'tpart
with it for anything.And I imaginethe kids are going to want it,
7) Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg- my daughter-in-lawloves antiques."7
Halton,TheMeaningof Things,62.
typed sexualroles influencethe way we perceiveand respondto
objects in the environment.Men, like many of the childrenwe
interviewed,preferredthingsthatcould be interactedwith:televi-
sion sets (ranked2 in preference),stereos(3), musicalinstruments
(5), sportsequipment(7). Womenrespondedmore like the older
generationsof people interviewedand preferredobjectsof con-
templation:photographs(2), graphicart (3), sculpture(4), books
(5),plants(6).Women,moreoftenthanmen,tendedto see objects
as specialbecausethey were mementoesof childrenor grandpar-
ents, or because they had been a gift or an heirloom.
Approximatelytwenty-two percentof the women interviewed
mentionedthatspecialobjectspersonifiedthe qualitiesof another
person,as opposedto only sevenpercentof the men.
Thesepatterns,and manyof the othersthat emergedfrom the
data,suggestthat(at leastin our cultureandin the presenthistor-
ical period) objectsdo not createorderin the viewer'smind by
embodyingprinciplesof visualorder;they do so by helpingthe
viewer strugglefor the orderingof his or her own experience.A
personfinds meaningin objectsthat areplausible,concretesym-
bols of the foremostgoals,the most salientactionsand eventsin
In the past, generallyacceptedsymbols performedthis func-
tion. Religiousicons, patrioticlithographs,folk-art,for example,

Design Issues: Vol. VIII, Number 1 Fall 1991 29

couldrepresentthe identityof the ownerandhis or herpurposein
life. But today, widely sharedculturalsymbols have lost their
powerto createorder.Eachperson,eachfamilyunitmustdiscover
a visuallanguagethatwill expresswhatthey mostdeeplycarefor.
Of the eighty-twofamiliesinterviewed,some were enthusias-
tic about their home; parentsand childrenloved the space and
the atmosphereof the house in which they lived,andfelt close to
each other. In these homes each person mentioned things that
remindedhim or her of the other membersof the family, or of
events in which they had jointly participated.In the families
where people were ambivalentabout the home in which they
lived,whereconflictset familymembersagainsteachother,such
commonsymbolswere mentionedless often.
If it is not the objectthatcreatesorderin theviewer'sconscious-
ness,does it actuallymatterhow the objectlooks?In otherwords,
arethereobjectivevisualqualitiesthataddup to "gooddesign?"
In searchof universalvalues:color and form
Artistsandwriterson artusuallyassumethat some aspectof the
visualstimuluswill have a direct,immediateeffect on the senses
of the viewer,and that psychic harmonyis createdby meansof
such effects. Certain colors or shapes are universallypleasing,
andit is by combiningtheseformalelementsthatdesignersreach
Early psychological investigationssupportedthe belief that
ed than othersto pleasethe brain.These extrapolationsfrom the
findingsof the naturalsciencesandmathematics wereoccasionally
confirmedby laboratoryexperimentson visual perception,but
turnedout to havelittleexplanatoryvaluein real-lifecontexts.
The reasonsfor this failurearenot difficultto understand.It is
true that the light spectrumdemonstratesregularrelationships
betweenabstractdimensionsof color,suchas hue, saturation,and
brightness. It is also true that when we begin to think of color in
this way we can generate categories of complementary or clashing
colors. However, it does not follow that people perceive color
according to the analytical rules developed by physical scientists.
In his delightful investigations among illiterate Uzbeks in the
Soviet Union, Luria found that village women refused to com-
bine colored skeins of wool into meaningful categories because
8) A. R. Luria, Cognitive Development they thought each was uniquely different from the other.8Instead
(Cambridge,MA: HarvardUniversity of using abstract categories, such as "brown," they said that a
Press, 1976).
particular piece of wool was the color of calf or pig dung; the
color of decayed teeth, or the color of cotton in bloom. On the
other hand, men from the same village called or named every-
thing "blue," regardless of whether it was yellow or red.
In Western culture, colors are seen in terms of a rational anal-

ysis of the physical properties of light. Having learned these
properties,one can'thelp but perceivecolors in these terms.The
names and relationshipsthat physicists have bestowed on the
light spectruminfluenceone's views. Harmonyandconflictexist
largely(perhapsentirely?)for those who have learneda specific
way of coding colors. For example,for the shepherdsof Central
Asia, color is rarely an abstractdimension. The quality of an
objectis inseparablefrom its concretemanifestation:the redness
of the appleis not the sameas the rednessof fire or the feverish
cheekof a child.Whenone uses categories,they arederivedfrom
the practice of everyday life: the Uzbek women, for instance,
found in dung andflowershandyorganizingprinciplesof color.
The notion of a universalpropensityfor certainharmonious
color combinationsbasedon "natural"categoriesor on underly-
ing neurologicalpreferencesdoes not seem tenable.True, it is
possible to threatena viewer's sense of order by distortingthe
acceptedconventionsof representation.Most people still do not
acceptthe paintingof a yellow sea, a greenhorse, or an entirely
black canvas, but not because these colors are wrong in some
absolutesense.The clashis not due to physiologicalor perceptu-
al incompatibility.The sourcesof the conflictareentirelydiffer-
ent andmustbe soughtin the habitsof symbolizationthatpeople
in a givenculturehaveacquired.
The same argumentholds true for perceptionof spatialrela-
tionships. Since the time of Pythagorasand Aristotle, thinkers
have been seeking harmony among lines and spaces-golden
ratios,mysticalquantities.More recently,Gestaltpsychologists
ers, that they possessed stimulus qualities which were more
pleasingto the nervoussystem.Estheticpreferencewas supposed
to be based on the underlying stimulus qualities of a picture,
whichwere reducibleto simplegeometricpatterns.
Like the early color preferencework, this approachassumed
simple one-to-one relationshipsbetweenabstractcharacteristics
of the visualfield andthe way peopleperceiveandinterpretstim-
uli. In fact,it turnsout thatpeopledo not necessarilyperceivethe
visual configurationsthat Euclidiangeometrymadeso popular.
Basicpatternssuchas straightlinesandrightanglesareeasilyiso-
lated and recognizedby people living in a "carpentered world,"
but those used to a more organic environmentfail to perceive
9) M. Segall, D. Campbell, and M. such "units"as separatefrom the restof the perceptualcontext.9
Herskovits, The Influence of Culture
on Visual Perception (Indianapolis: Here, the researchof Luriaprovidesinterestinginsights."'In
Bobbs,Merrils,1966). his Uzbek study he askedrespondentsto sort a numberof geo-
metricaldesigns,which in the Westernworld would immediately
10) Luria, Cognitive Development.
be classifiedas squares,circles,andtriangles.The Uzbek peasants,
however,were unableto see such "natural"similarities.For them
a completedcirclewas a ring,whereasan incompletecirclewas a
moon, andhencetwo circlescould not be sortedin the samepile.

Design Issues: Vol. VIII, Number 1 Fall 1991 31

A triangle,however, resembleda tumar (a piece of traditional
jewelry)therefore,it could be groupedwith the circleas a ring.
It is not difficult to see that the categorieswhich critics and
psychologists have used to analyze esthetics reflect theories of
perception,not the actualprocess by which untutoredviewers
apprehendvisualstimuli.The laws of perceptionarebasedon the
propertiesof light, on the axioms of geometry,but might have
little to do with the organizationof the nervoussystem,andeven
less with the phenomenologyof perception.
This applies also to some of the more recent psychological
11) D. E. Berlyne, Aesthetics and theoriesof esthetics,suchas the one proposedby D. E. Berlyne."
(New York:Appleton-
Psychobiology Like most moderntheorists,Berlyne'sideasarebasedon ancient
ideas reinterpretedthrough currentneurologicalmodels of the
mind. In this case, Aristotle's axiom has been repeated by so
manyothersthat the pleasureof perceptionderivesfrom balanc-
12)Gombrich,TheSenseof Order,54. ing monotony andconfusion.'1Accordingto Berlyne,a personis
attractedto visualstimulithatproducean optimalarousalof the
nervous system-stimuli that are neither extremelyredundant
nor entirelychaotic.Optimal arousalresultsfrom a design that
has a basicpatternor order,but enough variationto requirean
activeperceptualstruggleon the part of the viewer to recognize
andmaintainthe pattern.
Berlyne'smodelis an attractiveone, andit is moderatelyuseful
in explainingsimple estheticchoices. But as long as it remainsa
purelyneurologicaltheoryit quicklyrunsinto the sameproblems
as the others reviewedso far, in that people do not necessarily
perceiveorderand disorderobjectively.For example,let us sup-
pose that slide A containsa squarepatterncomposedof twenty-
five exactreplicationsof a simpledesign.SlidesB throughF are
the same, except that ten percentof the elementsare randomly
changeduntil slide G has no pattern.Accordingto the optimal
arousaltheory,people would prefersome of the middleslides in
the series;not A or B, which are too regular,nor F or G, which
aretoo chaotic.In effect,this does not happen.One reasonis that
people do not perceiveorderand disorderin the designsthe way
their mathematicalstructurewould seem to require.Some per-
sons rate slide D as the most regular,for example,while others
perceiveF and G as the most regular,eventhoughobjectivelyit is
clearthatA is the most regularof all the slides.
Thereis no questionthatpeoplecanbe easilytrainedto recog-
nize which design is more orderly accordingto some objective
criterion. In the laboratory, one learns readily to agree with
whateverthe experimenterwantsyou to see. But the fact remains
that in reallife people do not carryin their mindsyardsticksfor
measuringabstractconceptsof "order"or "disorder."Whatthey
see andwhat they preferarenot determinedby objectivecharac-
teristics of visual stimuli.

The social construction of visual values
This does not mean, however, that how a thing looks has no
bearingon how it affectsthe viewer. Visual qualitiesobviously
have a lot to do with how we reactto an object or an environ-
ment. But our reactions are not direct "natural"responses to
color andform.They areresponsesto meaningsattachedto con-
figurationsof color andform.
The extent to which a visual stimulus helps create order in
consciousnessdoes not dependon inherentobjectivecharacteris-
tics of the object to trigger a programmedresponse from the
brain.Whathappensinsteadis thatsomepeoplein a givenculture
agreethatstraightlines(or curvedlines)arethe bestway to repre-
sent universal order. If they are convincing enough, everybody
will feel a greatersense of harmony when they see straight lines.
Visual values are created by social consensus, not by perceptu-
al stimulation. Thus art criticism is essential for creating meaning,
especially in periods of transition when the majority of people
are confused about how they should be affected by visual stimuli.
Art critics believe that they are discovering criteria by which they
can reveal natural esthetic values. In reality they are constructing
criteria of value which then become attached to visual elements.
When Vitruvius attacked the fanciful pictorial compositions
ornamenting the walls of Roman palaces, he based his critique on
the realistic premise that "such things neither are, nor can be, nor
have been." Vitruvius and his modern followers believed that
natural representation is intrinsically valid and any departure
from it inevitably brings disorder or chaos. Order or disorder
were seen as being inherent in the representation itself. In actual-
ity, it was the theories and arguments of Vitruvius that linked
order with realistic design, and disorder with surrealistic decora-
tion. Romans who were unaware of Vitruvius's critique could
have looked at the fanciest Pompeian fresco without a stirring of
unease; while those who had heard of the new symbolic code
might think: "This is degenerate art, full of falsehood that will
destroy our civilization."
Without the consensus-building efforts of the art theorist or
critic, each person would evaluate objects in terms of his or her
private experiences. In each culture, however, public taste devel-
ops as visual qualities are eventually linked with values. The visu-
al taste of an epoch is a subset of its world-view, related to the
norms and values that regulate the rest of life. Like other values,
visual values can be unanimous or contested, elite or popular,
strong or vulnerable, depending on the integration of the culture.
The relativity of esthetic values does not mean that there can-
not be "good" design. Good design is a visual statement that
maximizes the life goals of the people in a given culture (or, more
realistically, the goals of a certain sub-set of people in the culture)
that draws on a shared symbolic expression for the ordering of

Design Issues: Vol. VIII, Number 1 Fall 1991 33

such goals. If the system of symbols is relativelyuniversal,then
the designwill also be judgedgood acrosstime andcultures.
Public works of art gain symbolic power because they are
admiredby an elite.The averagepersonmeetsthe recognizedart
objectwith the respectduesomethingawesomeandexpensive,but
usuallythe experienceleavesno permanenttracein consciousness.
On the otherhand,an old chinacup, a houseplant,a ring,or a
familyphotographhas symbolicpower if it producesa sense of
order in the mind. This happenswhen the owner, in seeing the
object, feels that: his or her desires are in harmony;his or her
goals might be reached;the past and the future are relatedin a
sensibleway;thatthe peoplewho areclose to themareworthy of
love and love them in return.Without such feelings, life is not
worth living. The objects we surroundourselves with are the
concrete symbols that convey these messages.The meaningof
our privatelives is builtwith thesehouseholdobjects.
The varyingstyles of visualexpression,thatwhich artistsand
criticsdebateendlessly,is part of the public imageeach culture
fashionsfor itself. It providesabstract,generalstatementsabout
the problemsof a particularhistoricalperiod.Therefore,the high
artshelp createorderin the thoughtsand feelingsa givensociety
has aboutitself.But theseareoften the thoughtsandfeelingsof a
smallminoritystrugglingto formulateits experiencein termsof
a public symbolicvocabulary.Most people createtheirown pri-
vate set of references,singlingout objectsthat will give orderto
what they haveexperienced.
The creationof privatemeaningis no less miraculousthanthe
accomplishmentsof Rembrandtor Michelangelo.It is true that a
greatmasteris able to condense,in a given momentof historical
time, the expressivestriving of a great number of people. The
artist'swork bringstogetherwhat many people want to say yet
can'texpress.The creationof meaningin everydaylife often uses
trite symbols-kitsch ratherthan originality.Yet our lives are
heldtogetherby the strandsof meaningthesewornformsconvey.