Neuroscientists have pointed out the connection between what they call “perceptual information and stored knowledge.” We determine what something means based on our “remembered history of interaction with that something.” For example, the brain makes sense of an image received on the retina of our eye by placing that image in the larger context of other images received and stored. Additionally, studies of learning in children have shown that knowledge of a topic is more important to comprehension than learning skills; background information is vital. Maybe all of that rote memorization that we endured in grammar school in the 1950s and 1960s served a valuable purpose after all.
Those of us involved in the field of design can find application of this maxim in two ways. First, in the recognition that design process is important and necessary, but it must ultimately result in something—whether product, space, building, or whatever—that possesses utility. How many people have looked at examples of modern art and architecture, or heard modern music, and wondered, “What’s the point?” While I personally enjoy some things that push the envelope, it’s a legitimate question. Does “performance art” actually yield any art? Does your process for programming and design lead to the creation of anything of value, anything worth storing in anyone’s memory?
Second, the forms themselves that a designer creates will be more impactful and effective if they draw upon information easily accessible in the deep crevices of our minds. Design that activates our senses in such a way as to shorten the leap from what is familiar to what is new will facilitate acceptance of advanced products. Adrian Bejan, in his book “Design in Nature,”highlights the similarities between river systems, the human cardio-vascular system, and electronic circuitry, among other things. The largely symmetrical patterns illustrated are recognizable and familiar. Learning curves are the bane of innovation.
Content is king, the old saw goes. Its corollary in design is that existing knowledge is an effective platform for launching innovation.