Kathryn Moore, Overlooking the Visual: Demystifying the Art of
Design (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2010).
Reviewed by Gareth Doherty, Graduate School of Design, Harvard
University, Cambridge, Mass.
In this mesmerising book, Kathryn Moore turns traditional
assumptions about design, and design education, upside down and
inside out. Moore tells us that “a radical redefinition of the
relationship between the senses and intelligence is long overdue”
(1), and not just demolishes existing perceptions, but through
the 254-page book, offers a vision for the re-conceptualization,
and teaching, of design.
Moore tells us it all went wrong with the Enlightenment when an
overt rationalism became dominant, relegating the sensual,
including visual, knowledge to the sidelines (17). “The crux of
the problem,” says Moore, “is that an intractable rationalist
paradigm dominates our thinking to such a degree we no longer
give it much thought” (6). Materiality becomes separated from
intelligence but, Moore argues, to consciously adopt a
specifically sensual approach serves to acknowledge this
difference and reinforce the binary. Influenced by philosophers
such as Gilbert Ryle, Hilary Putnam, and Richard Rorty, Moore
suggests that in order to re-evaluate the way we think about
design, designers need to engage with ideas at all stages of the
design process and that artistic practice needs to engage with
“space, words, shadow, light and form” (9).
We cannot understand theory without practice and vice versa, and
this integration of the theoretical and practical is inherent
within the book itself where copious illustrations and design
projects are as every bit integral to the book’s argument than
the text itself. The sequence of images of a sublime sea remind
us that the sea has smell, color, and memories. Just like the
visual. Part of Moore’s argument is that the visual is not just
about what we see but is itself a political and emotional
construct. Through eight highly engaging chapters, with titles
such as “The sensory interface and other myths and legends,”
“Teaching the unknowable,” and “Objectivity without neutrality,”
Moore outlines a vision for landscape architectural education
with design at its core.
The book is dense and theoretical, but well written and lucid. It
fits within a growing literature on the anthropology of design,
and a movement in design away from the design of objects and
processes to the understanding of context and how and why we
design. Moore has a lot in common with artists like Olafur
Eliasson, who sees the political ramifications of the emotions,
and anthropologists like Albena Yavena, who recently published an
ethnography on the design process of the Office for Metropolitan
Architecture. Not alone does Moore outline the problems with
design education but proposes alternative models. This active
agency of the designer that comes through in the book is part of
the reason this book, or chapters thereof, should be essential
reading for design educators, and students, and indeed for anyone
interested in processes of design.
Kathryn Moore is a Professor at the Birmingham Institute of Art
and Design, Birmingham City University, UK. Moore is past
President of the Landscape Institute, the UK representative of
IFLA, and an experienced educator and practitioner.