Some blips on your radar merit watching more than others, and AIGA Medalist Jessica Helfand is definitely among the more interesting dots roving in graphic design’s ambit. Her multi-hyphenate career merges activity as designer, author, teacher, and the best kind of public intellectual (high on intelligence, low on snobbery). I first met Helfand in 2009, when I interviewed her (with her late husband William Drenttel and Julie Lasky) about an expansion of the now-preeminent design community she and Drenttel founded, Design Observer. Her rigorous skepticism, ample reservoirs of design knowledge, and canny eye are a bracing combination. And her newest book The Invention of Desire (Yale University Press) is a deeply necessary read.

To me the first test of any book’s quality is how well it holds up to re-reading. While I enjoyed my first pass through Helfand’s book, round two was considerably more rewarding: slower (for me, because less harried by my looming deadline), more ruminative, more appreciative of the imaginative visual examples and adroit turns of argument. In fact, you could say the act of re-reading The Invention of Desire resembles the book’s own aims: to reconsider design thoughtfully as a form of communication between humans, a practice whose value should be less ruled by abstractions of style, economics, or technique, and more properly rooted in emotional, ethical, and humanistic concerns.

“Design matters because people matter,” writes Helfand in the introduction. “The purpose of this book is to examine precisely this proposition: to consider the conscience-driven rules of human engagement within which design must operate. This is a book about design as it relates to human beings. Because that is what matters most of all.”

I’ll confess this manifesto didn’t wow me at first. Its obviousness seemed almost tautological. I felt a twinge at her question, “If everyone’s a designer, why hire a designer?” It’s akin to the slippery status of writers like myself in a world gone blog-mad. (What defines a “professional” writer or designer anymore? “Getting paid for it” is the crass, grossly inadequate reply.) I feared wading into a collection of humanistic generalities, or an unfocussed paean to emotive design.

Yet Helfand’s argument became both clearer and more compelling as the book developed. Each of the book’s 13 chapters opens with a thick impasto of paint bearing the chapter’s title, followed by a painting by Helfand of a bodily organ chosen to illuminate that chapter’s theme: the pituitary or “master” gland opening the chapter on authority; the dark core of bone marrow introducing a chapter on identity, and so on. “We all have the same inner life,” reads the book’s epigraph by painter Agnes Martin. In a literal sense: blood, cells, nerves. “The difference lies in the recognition.”

Design aims for a gut reaction, the limbic rush of feeling universal to everyone with our biology, but it should engage our highest-order faculties as humans, too.

Painting of bone marrow by Jessica Helfand. Photo by George Baier IV.
Painting of bone marrow by Jessica Helfand. Photo by George Baier IV.

An early chapter, Authority, establishes important themes interwoven into the rest of the book, specifically about the responsibility to create beautiful images whose power can be wielded for good or ill.

“To the extent that pictures speak louder than words, a simple image can elevate (or torpedo) the authority of almost anything,” writes Helfand.

We recognize instinctively that beautiful things are automatically valued more highly, and things that look “more expensive” seem automatically more important. The dangers this reductive logic courts are obvious. In a deft argument that recurs throughout the book, Helfand observes that social media, with its speed, automaticity, and self-referencing bent, undermines our sense of the authoritative or real. It’s this supposedly larky, accelerated pace, she argues, that distances us from one another, diminishes other people into atomized abstractions, and alienates creatives from design’s true work: watching, thinking, and making for actual people. “We thus place exalted value on precisely that which we cannot personally produce,” Helfand writes, “because in spite of grooming ourselves to be autodidacts and publishers and proselytizers, in spite of our capacity to pimp and promote and spin, we still crave proof: proof of ownership and authorship and citizenship.”

She continues to stoke this argument, first evoking TIME’s 2006 pronouncement that the “Person of the Year” was YOU. “TIME, as it turned out, got it all wrong. It wasn’t really ever about ‘you’ at all: it was about me,” Helmand writes. In using social media, she continues, “We’re all obliged to share the same visual grammar: the posts and hashtags, the lengths of our tweets, the limitations of our Vine videos, and so forth.” At times her complaint against social media felt a bit unrelieved: bitching about Instagram as yet another millennial gripe. But it’s only a shade too strong. Overall her points are forcefully reasoned, following the implications of the selfie-era to a larger cultural condition that infiltrates the practice of design for both makers and receivers. Have we become thoughtless, insulated, abstracted loudmouths to a potentially frightening degree?

Painting of heart ventricle by Jessica Helfand. Photo by George Baier IV.
Painting of heart ventricle by Jessica Helfand. Photo by George Baier IV.

Helfand is unbeatable at grounding her investigations in specific visuals. One of the book’s pleasures is tracking down her less familiar referents. She evokes Ladislav Sutnar’s design mechanicals as a marvelously concrete form of play in the Fantasy chapter. The Consequence chapter moves from the “love locks” crushing a Parisian bridge with their weight, to the hoarding Collyer brothers, to an abhorrent student project appropriating the visual style of terrorist videos. The chapter on compassion invokes a book by historian Serge Klarsfeld compiling portraits and biographical details of every French child who fell victim in the Holocaust: an example of how visuals channel their maximum power when used obliquely. The chapter on solitude is replete with fantastic details. Contrasting the mediocrity that rules co-created design with truly open-ended collaboration, Helfand describes collages by Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann and several experimental films by Stan Brakhage with his wife Jane.

The chapters on melancholy, humility, and memory form the book’s dark heart, reflecting on her husband’s death in 2013 and what an inviolable asymptote death represents. Design can’t change death’s finality and would be foolish to imagine otherwise. Perhaps the most pungent idea conveyed in the chapter on desire is plainly stated: “We cannot talk about want without understanding loss.” Design’s ever-improving ethos, its bent towards progress, meet its humbling limit in death.

Speaking of desire, I expected the Desire chapter to carry the greatest weight, resonating as it does with the book’s title. Strangely, it feels elusive and less-than-satisfying: lots of juicy rhetorical questions which all go unanswered. Then again, maybe Helfand correctly treats desire as an unknowable verb, the object of which is surprisingly unimportant. “The thing about desire is that it breeds more desire,” she writes. It’s a churning, empty cipher. Or as psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan asserts: Le désir, c’est le désir de l’autre. Desire is always the desire of the other; you only want something because you see someone else wanting it. Put more plainly, you never want the thing; you merely want the other wanter.

If The Invention of Change includes an envoi, it’s this: design is still about making and seeing, but it should equally be about feeling, watching, thinking, and deciding. In the final chapter on Change, Helfand cites George Clooney’s non-profit The Satellite Sentinel Project as an exemplar of the right ethos.

“No, they’re not designers. But their platform is stunningly visual: it’s about looking, watching, seeing—and taking action… Their own brilliant tagline— ‘The world is watching because you are watching’—makes all of us agents of change, reminding us that to be human is to be vigilant, a word that comes from the Latin, vigilantia, ‘to keep awake.’”

So much goodness spills out of this book. It rumples you up at times, but it also braces you for the valuable work ahead. Helfand is doing her bit for vigilancy in design; reading this book might be part of yours.