"The dharma of fire is to burn, the dharma of water is to be wet."
Dharma is one of those words that has no definitive equivalent in other languages. It's conceptual origins lies with the Sages and Rishi's of the Vedic Culture in India, who detached themselves from worldly affairs to contemplate upon the deeper nature of reality around them.
The inquisitive mind looks for underlying patterns and influences in the world and constructs them into concepts that give insight and clarity to our place in the environment. For these Sages the distilling of reality around themselves revealed the concept of dharma and its application to create harmony in their place in the universe.
Dharma is considered inherent in the very nature of all things and all beings, the eternal law of the cosmos, the foundation of the substance of reality. Being an abstract concept, what is dharma and it's application is open to interpretation based on cultural perspectives and worldviews of various schools of thought.
Understanding dharma is to understand the underlying quintessential nature of the universe, while the object of design is to find, create and refine the most functional solution to a set of environmental variables that enhance our relationship with the environment and personalities around us.
In Andy Rutledge’s article of par excellence: The Design Lesson: 1 of 1, well deserving of its title, he explains the key understanding of being sucessful in creating visual design:
In graphic design, nothing is what it actually is. Everything other than content is representative of something else. Additionally, much of the content is also merely representative of something other than what it actually is. For the designer, a line is not a line. A box is not a box. A gradient is not a gradient. An arrow is not an arrow. A sharp or rounded corner is never simply that. And only in the most mundane and pedestrian circumstances is any color used in design actually representative of the color itself. In essence, nothing is what it would seem to be. If you actually believe that designing content means you should add a line or a box or a gradient for its own sake, you’re no longer designing—you’re cluttering.
He further elucidates the need to understand the elements you use in design in their most fundamental purpose.
A gradient is not a gradient. It is a directional mechanism, a dimensional metaphor, or an indication of some object or force not visible on the page.
This compendious ability of the designer is crucial reducing the friction that inhibits the functionality and purpose of what is being designed.
The well regarded Dieter Rams having had an extensive career as a designer, contemplated upon the process of design.
Back in the early 1980s, Dieter Rams was becoming increasingly concerned by the state of the world around him – “an impenetrable confusion of forms, colours and noises.” Aware that he was a contributor to that world, he asked himself an important question: is my design good design? As good design cannot be measured in a finite way he set about expressing the ten most important principles for what he considered was good design.
To paraphrase these Ten Principles of Good Design:
Good design is honest, unobtrusive, long-lasting, aesthetic, useful, innovative, understandable, and good design is as little design as possible
Contemplating the deeper essence of the meaning of each of these points, we can see correlations to the vedic sages idea’s of Dharma. Good design appears to be a process of revealing and not obstructing the inherent qualities of components of what is being designed. The outcome being a solution that is pure in it’s functionality and delight to use because of the frictionless quality of this quintessential substance.
There is a lot of dialogue about simplicity and minimalism as a global design atheistic takes shape. Simplicity in design, as in life is not without effort the is a mountain of rejection next to focal point of simplicity. The designers privilege is to hide this below the horizon line.
Simplicity is not created by placing the basic required elements of a design in a sparse arrangement, but is created by removing all unnecessary clutter elements until you get to a refined harmony that appears to be so obvious, natural that you can forget that it has been designed at all.
Take as an example the common t-shirt. Starting out as an undergarment and due to its simplicity, adaptability to unlimited body sizes, it is one of the most ambiguous pieces of clothing on the planet. There may be variations and gradual refinements over time but essentially the design is the same, two large pieces of fabric sewn up both sides with a hole cut in the top middle for the head and two loops of fabric for the arms. For the goal of dressing a human form it is a perfect design, so perfect is it forgettable and has become a blank canvas for ideas, style and aesthetics.
The design has found its essential nature, the Dharma of Design
The dharma of design is to condense the elements of design into their essential function, allowing the inherent qualities of the medium itself to express the purpose, feelings and ideas of a work. Some mediums and materials lend themselves to certain applications while others do not. The Dharma of Design will show this by understanding the role of the Designer. Good design will be so obvious and natural that the craft of the designer will become invisible.
Mining the Dharma of Design, the designer can then express their personality and taste through their work. Iteration after iteration, to refined perfection, like cutting a gemstone until it refracts the light of their being.