Our eyes followed the whoosh as it traveled from one end of the room to the other, provoking whoas of admiration. That sound bounced off the floral wallpaper, around ceramic pineapple soap dispensers, and reverberated into the four corners of a space where it was not supposed to be.
We had covered the bathroom mirror in an invisible graffiti of hairspray. Now with contraband cigarette lighter in hand, my buddy Adam and I took turns setting sticky lines ablaze. Flaming cat face after flickering obscenity, each drawing was a purple-orange burst for only a moment. The mirror emerged unscathed each time, as if some kind of exculpatory miracle had just occurred. But on the other side of the looking glass, our minds had forever changed. We were now officially skeevy teenagers, here to break the rules.
By violating the code of domestic conduct, we transformed a suburban bathroom scene into a lightshow of flaming danger. Herein lies the design flaw of all rules: they reward the breaker, not the follower, with an addictive sense of expanded possibilities. Surrounding any prohibition is a beckoning vacuum—a space within which almost anything can feel novel and thrilling. And so we found ourselves basking in our radical change of scenery without ever leaving the room. Which was a good thing because I was grounded. For like ever.
It won’t come as a surprise that I was stuck in my room for most of adolescence. The same blue, lumpy paint coated the walls before and after I had watched Kubrick, read Marx, heard Nirvana. I lacked the power to actually modify my physical surroundings. But I could flip the table with panache, if only for a surreal moment. From there, the sweet taste of one broken boundary tended to spread.
I’d like to think I’m less skeevy as an adult now, but I still struggle with rules. Breaking them is an impulse when engaging with anything, even if I find myself gluing the shards back together in the end.
When I landed in the Tokyo airport last year, I was confronted with a confoundingly different approach to rules. At odds with the silent march of roller-bag walkers, I darted across the low-pile carpet to peer into shop windows. There I found that every little object had been reinvented: 50 different ways to construct a notebook, 20 different variations on the nail clipper.
And yet, everyone walks single file. Everyone stops for “don’t walk” signs. I paused, How could this be? How could such prolific experimentation be nurtured in a place where rule following is a national pastime?
As part of a cultural exchange for designers, I continued my travel out to Takaoka, and then Kanazawa. I visited several design, art, and robotics studios around the country. Wherever I went, I saw wildly unorthodox versions of everyday things and therefore persisted with my inappropriate line of questioning.
I met a designer who had discovered that an additional bend could transform the metal paperclip into a much superior clip-and-carabiner combo. When asked why no one had realized this before, he simply guessed that no one ever looks closely at something as simple as a line.
“We take lines for granted,” he said. A line is too fundamental a thing to attract the focus of intentional innovation: innovation has to come from the line itself.
Similarly, I met a metalworker who had deviated from a traditional casting technique to establish his own metalwork genre. He described the departure this way: “I accidentally dropped one of the rods. I thought it looked incredible floating in the molten metal, and so, I kept it.”
The common sentiment was that it was the subject’s role to free itself from the complacency of the human imagination. It wasn’t, as I had assumed, the designer’s impulse to challenge established morphologies. Materials have a slow way of revealing their more radical properties on their own terms, as you spend time with them.
Common wisdom tells us that having more choices is always better. The strategy is to keep as many options open for as long as possible. But what if the opposite were true? In the scientific method, for example, one can only gain understanding by narrowing possibilities. Scientific experimentation requires that commitments be made, that everything be strictly controlled except for the lone variable under investigation.
I know now that in truly experimental spaces, something more akin to scientific observation transpires. When everything else is fixed, ordered, and controlled, rules can function like a microscope, attuning our senses to things we couldn’t perceive otherwise. This focus subdivides our gaze into prisms of greater and greater subtleties. The boundary between black and white is then split into a hundred interstitial tones, so that the rules we thought were there are revealed to be the illusion they truly are.