Design and the I Function

I was re-reading an essay I wrote about The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function several years ago. Currently, I’m in the process of becoming a designer and part of that process entails thinking about everything — or at least trying to think about everything — in a designerly way. In this case, it meant thinking about the key concepts in Lacan’s essay as they pertain to design and to being a designer and developing design thinking skills.

I can’t profess expert knowledge of the I function, but I can boil it down with confidence. Lacan explains it with a narrative: an infant perceives itself in a mirror and notes a discord between its felt imperfection and the perfection of the specular image looking back at it. Thus the infant starts on a lifelong quest to attain wholeness and satisfaction through the “I” function.

This story doesn’t just play out for infants in front of a mirror, though. We’re confronted with imagos throughout life. We see models in magazines, actors and actresses on TV, passersby, neighbors, and others who just seem to be that much closer to perfect than we feel. And we want to feel that way (even though, ironically, we can’t really know what “that” is since we’ve never felt it…). Wonderful, isn’t it? We’ll strive throughout life to attain something we never can. There’s something poetic about that.

As a design thinker, I approach this differently. I approach it as a potential design problem. I ask myself (1) why do people perceive such disparity between themselves and ‘others’, (2) would it be better or worse to perceive a “reflection” that looks as imperfect/incomplete as they feel, (3) what benefits exist in such  a manner of perception (i.e., is it ever good to look at others and perceive completeness/wholeness relative to one’s own inadequacy, and (4) is it good to quest after something unattainable?

As a design thinker, I think it important to point out the inherent complexity of perceiving many different imagos throughout the course of one’s life; that to perceive multiple sources of completeness suggests that completeness is not a single attainable thing but a complex mixture of many things (a mixture which is necessarily incomplete in everyone). That just because something is unattainable doesn’t mean it isn’t worth chasing. That sometimes that means we should chase it all the more. BUT that we should temper the chase with rationality. We should establish and adhere to limitations in order to counteract potentially destructive behaviors that may result from such a quest (e.g., spending more money than one has in order to feel wholeness/completeness, spiraling into depression when one repeatedly fails to attain the unattainable). How does one maintain high spirits when questing after something they won’t get? Is it possible to remain motivated in a race with no finish line?

These are wicked problems that I want to tackle.  I guess I need to start with some design guidelines. But before I do that…user research!

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