The Ontological Argument on Design

By Published on .

Tali Krakowsky, WET Design.
Tali Krakowsky, WET Design.
Almost a thousand years ago, Anselm of Canterbury proved the existence of God in a seemingly stunning exercise of logic:

1. God, at least in concept, is a being that than which nothing greater can be conceived.

2. Even the fool who said in his heart that there is no God, understands the concept of God. And whatever is understood exists in the understanding.

3. And assuredly, that than which nothing greater can be conceived cannot exist in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality, which is greater.

4. Therefore, if god is greater than that which can be conceived, he must exist in reality.

Anselm explains his logic:

"For when a painter first conceives of what he will afterwards perform, he has it in his understanding, he does not yet understand it to be, because he has not yet performed it. But after he has made the painting, he both has it in his understanding and he understands that it exists, because he has made it."

In other words, a completed painting in reality is greater than one which exists in the mind.

A thousand years later – this weekend, to be precise – the conversation continued in a strange kind of way.

The event was the Society of Environmental Graphic Design Annual Conference in San Diego. (SEGD is a fabulous global community for people who work at the intersection of communication design and the built environment. Focused on promoting public awareness, education, design excellence and collaboration across multiple design disciplines, SEGD is dedicated to environmental design and place-making. To find out more, visit the website.)

The fabulous creative director and founder of communication and branding firm COLLINS, Brian Collins was moderating a debate about and between so-called "thinkers" and "doers" in design.

I hear this topic come up a lot. There are constant status battles between conceptual thinkers and designers/builders/makers/programmers.

Depending on your industry, you probably have a strong opinion on who is more important and what the overarching hierarchy might look like. Some companies I know put all the emphasis and importance on the creatives that execute concepts. Some on the ideas alone.

I want to propose that it might be time to end that conversation.

The answer, I think, lies in the disproof of Anselm's argument - that which is in the world is neither more nor less valuable than that which exists in the mind.

McKinsey, IDEO, Superstudio and the stock exchange would all have not existed or mattered otherwise.

It's not that concept and execution are exactly the same. There are plenty of examples where brilliant concepts are compromised with poor execution or vice versa.

Artist Q. S. Serafijn and architects NOX's D-Tower (above, left) is a rather ugly manifestation of a most magnificent idea. Serving as a kind of a mood ring in the town square, it captures the emotions of the inhabitants of Doetinchem by measuring HAPPINESS, LOVE, FEAR and HATE daily from a website and translates them into a glow of color.

And Jason Bruges Studio's Memory Wall(above) is an example to a simple and slightly gimmicky idea, rendered most beautifully.

Ideally, I think the solution lies in a collaborative rather than a hierarchical relationship.

Our virtual world – which is neither "real" nor purely conceptual – provides perfect proof of how inseparable concept is from its design execution. Proof that even a fool can't deny.


Tali Krakowsky, Director of Experience Design, heads a think tank at WET. Working closely with design, research and production, she focuses on developing new ideas, technologies and business opportunities for the short- and long-term future of the firm.
Most Popular
In this article: