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  • Makoto Shibuya

Design As a Language

A Pecha-Kucha-style talk I gave at ZGF Architects in 2017. The slides were on a timer, so my timing is off, but the story is intact.

I have never been that good with words, but I have always had a convenient excuse—I grew up bilingual. So when I bomb this talk today, guess what? English is my "second language."

I grew up with a Japanese father and an American mother. I attended an international school rich in culture with kids from more than 30 countries speaking many different languages. When you grow up around different languages, you quickly realize that some things don’t translate very well, and frankly, some things don’t translate at all. Humor, for example, is one of those things that doesn’t always translate, and I'm willing to bet you are going to learn that the hard way.

Growing up, it seemed natural that my friends and I would use language interchangeably because some things were easier to describe in the other language. We would flow between different languages, and this practice was so familiar to me that I never really gave it much thought. It became subconscious, it was just part of who I was, and as a result, my curiosity and fascination with language eventually left me for a while.

Then, in my first year of architecture studio, I found myself back in a familiar place. I had no idea how to talk about anything. Composition, for example, was something I understood inherently, but I didn't know there was a word for it. So in my first year of school, I flashed back to that kid that had to rely on 2 different languages to communicate what he was thinking. Because I had ideas that I didn't always have words for.

At that point, I figured I had two choices: I could set out to try and learn almost 6000 languages around the world, and then maybe I could have enough words at my disposal. Great idea, until I realized I would have no one to talk to. Or, I could try to learn one language—a language that was ductile enough. One that I could push and pull—sometimes even squeeze. A language that I could manipulate to communicate the things I wanted to. That's when I started to think of design as a language. See, to me, design is having the patience to communicate what you see with your mind and what you feel with your senses.

Sometimes I rely on Japanese to communicate something I can’t quite find the right words for...

Sometimes I rely on the camera to talk about an atmosphere you have to be there to understand...

Sometimes I rely on food and cooking to share a flavor that you have to taste to appreciate…

Sometimes I rely on products to demonstrate problems that I set out to solve...

And sometimes, I rely on architecture to convey an experience that I think I can feel...

When thinking about design as a language, I can trade verbs and adjectives for solid and void, light and texture. Once I discovered the ability to communicate through design, I also recognized it is universal. There is no need for 6000 languages because design transcends all ages and demographics, much like the small international school I attended did—it didn't matter where you were from or how old you were; we always found a way to talk to each other. Through design, someone I’ve never met has the ability to speak to me. And as an architect and designer, I like to think that I have the same opportunity to speak to others.

So when I think about design as a language, my ideas aren’t restricted to my words.

If we think about design as a language, I would argue that we are all bilingual.

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