Physical and Intellectual Depth (And the last paragraph of the somewhat reworked Abundant and Refined Depth section)

Editing mostly today, though I did finally force myself to sit down and write something, even if it isn't particularly well written or long. Anyway, for the rabid design theory fans, here it is...

Designers often focus primarily on one of either abundant or refined depth. You will often see discussions of “textural richness” of one designer versus the “sparse elegance” of another. Movements such as the early architectural functionalists have gone so far as to ban abundant depth, while the Arts and Crafts movement embraced it totally.

Physical and Intellectual Depth
We have outlined above how the perception of abundant and refined forms of depth affect the user. In doing so, we were somewhat too harsh in our treatment of abundant depth in describing it as textural, for while abundant depth may be textural, it might just as easily be a cascading, ever-changing pattern that has no over-arching pattern it fills in. Abundant depth as we normally see it, and as in the examples described above, is perceived as an applique upon the surface of some other thing because without doing so we would be unable to deal with the environment, but that does not imply that the depth itself is without meaning or patterns of its own.

It is obviously easy to create an environment which is physically “complex” in the sense of having lots of textural depth. Throw as many things as possible into a room and you will have a physically complex environment. In design, it is quite easy to produce a similar effect by applying mechanistic processes to an environment and simply judging the result based on compositional criteria. We can wallpaper every surface with gold-leaf filligree and toss in a riot of broken parti-coloured statuary. We will create an environment that has a physical depth, and humans exploring the environment may find patterns in the environment because they want and need there to be patterns. Humans will find within their environment patterns that allow them to understand the environment, but an unstructured or poorly-structured environment may very well be understood as merely unstructured, effectively meaningless.

By comparison, the work of Baroque or Rococo architects,1 while often a “riot” of sensual stimulation, could hardly be thought of as lacking structure or order. Similarly, the fanciful work of Antonio Gaudi is often immensely complex physically, but there is an underlying order continually hinted at by the structures and forms chosen.
Similarly, we readily see a difference between a pictorial stained-glass window and a randomised collection of shards of coloured glass. Though to be fair, were the shards of coloured glass bound into something that looked like a window we might very well start picking out patterns within it.

The connection that arises between physical depth (refined or abundant) and intellectual depth is one of perceived intentionality. Users over time are exposed to many complex environments, and they will prioritise their exploration of an environment according to whether there is likely to be a payout in terms of understanding of the universe. When there is a “trace of a hand” in an environment that suggests there may have been meaning explicitly encoded, it is often far more attractive to explore the environment than if there is no such trace, but this does not mean no meaning will be found.

Physical depth describes complexity in the things that we perceive, while intellectual depth describes the complexity of ideas and thoughts that the work triggers. The two are related, and interact via our associations and experiences, but there is no one-to-one relationship between them.


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