The Shadow of Design and Creative Work

Light and Shadow

Designers seek to put their best forward in their creations, but sometimes it is the dark rather than the light that provides an impetus for good design. Carl Jung’s look into our darker nature might provide a means of understanding the lighter side of what we produce. 

My work and related inquiry into design has led me to Carl Jung’s doorstep on many occasions, and this week his concept of shadow was brought into focus through a series of conversations and reflections. In interviewing designers the past few weeks for the Design Thinking Foundations project an initial point of interest that has emerged from the data is the importance of the designer’s connection to the designed product, something I wrote about earlier.

If one is to consider design, the act of making something with intent, as something of an act of personal expression it follows that it be subjected to the same moral and ethical scrutiny that other such acts are put to. This becomes particularly important when one considers the potential impact that our designed creations can have on the world around us. The manner by which we, as designers, shape this artificial environment of human-made objects has profound implications and thus, the factors that shape the designers are important.

Jung’s shadow of the psyche mirrors the qualities of the darkness created by objects standing in the light. It is that part of a person that is often unrecognized, unspoken, or unconscious that reflects aspects of a person that may be perceived to be less desirable to others or to the person themselves.

As Jung states:

There can be no doubt that man (sic) is, on the whole, less good than he imagines himself or wants to be. Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. If an inferiority is conscious, one always has a chance to correct it. Furthermore, it is constantly in contact with other interests, so that it is continually subjected to modifications. But if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. Jung, C.G. (1938). Psychology and Religion”. In Psychology and Religion: West and East. P.131

Jung believed that shadow requires confrontation, or at the least acknowledgement. For the designer, this means being self-aware to ensure that their motives are clear when they approach a project and the people connected to it.

This is not just an issue for personal development or the protection of others, it is about doing the best work. For design, this often means doing work with others. For the designer, it means doing the work on themselves, which includes an obligation to learn, develop and grow.

There is a deep gulf between what a man is and what he represents, between what he is as an individual and what he is as a collective being. His function is developed at the expense of the individuality. Should he excel, he is merely identical with his collective function; but should he not, then, though he may be highly esteemed as a function in society, his individuality is wholly on the level of his inferior, undeveloped functions, and he is simply a barbarian, while in the former case he has happily deceived himself as to his actual barbarism. Jung, C.G. (1921) Psychological Types, P.III

Psychologists and Social Workers might be used to integrating deep self-work into their professional roles, but designers typically are not. Creation on its own is a scary subject that terrifies artists and designers alike. It takes courage to put one’s work “out there” for people to see, critique and explore. It exposes our potential weaknesses, our vulnerabilities and our aspirations in ways that few encounters can. When design is done with passion and integrity, not just intent, it means putting a piece of ourselves into the product.

What we might not be aware of is that the self that is reflected in our work might include both the light and the shadow. As a designer, the fear of being under the gaze of others is amplified by the fear that such inquiry will reveal parts of our shadow.  To reveal one’s shadow, is to expose one’s truest self in its entirety, not just part of it.

To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light. Once one has experienced a few times what it is like to stand judgingly between the opposites, one begins to understand what is meant by the self. Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle. Jung, C.G. (1959) Good and Evil in Analytical Psychology”In CW Civilization in Transition. P.872

The shadow introduces what Jung calls “a moral problem” to the enterprise of design. The products of design are intimately tied to the designer. It is perhaps for this reason that the field is often known for having practitioners with large egos and star-like status. But if one is to consider the manner in which the shadow is — or can be — expressed through design, the possibility for a design process that is overwhelmingly ego-driven is lowered.

It also presents the opportunity for a more authentic, if risky, form of design.

The shadow is a moral problem that challenges the whole ego-personality, for no one can become conscious of the shadow without considerable moral effort. To become conscious of it involves recognizing the dark aspects of the personality as present and real. This act is the essential condition for any kind of self-knowledge. Jung, C.G. Aion (1951). CW 9, Part II: P.14

And isn’t design about taking risks? Perhaps to create the very best work in the light, we need to embrace the shadow’s that it helps create.

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