I was describing the theory behind Plato’s Cave to someone the other night and how it changed my perspective on other’s perspective and innovation. It just really made me think all over again on how we go about designing. That’s a pretty broad statement, let me explain. But first, a quick recap of the story required for understanding.
Image from here
Allegory of the Cave
Socrates describes to Glaucon a cave in which some people live and do things. The first group of people are chained, back against a wall, starting at birth. They are forced to stair at the adjacent wall in front of them. Behind them is a raised walkway with a fire in the middle. Between them and the fire are another group of people walking and doing various activities, casting shadows on the wall in front of them. In short, the people chained to the wall have no recognition of people other than the shadows they view on the wall, created by the group above and behind them.
One day, a prisoner is set free and asked to look around and describe what it sees. Because of their previous perceptions on what is real, anything that is not a shadow looks fake. Their eyes are overwhelmed by the detail and variety of the world outside of this cave. The prisoner is returned to the cave. The rest of the prisoners are terrified by what this once freed prisoner has been through, has seen and therefore are afraid of anything they don’t already know.
Let’s say that you, as a designer, could remember being chained against the wall in Plato’s cave. You also remember being let go, exiting the cave, and in leaving, saw what life actually looked like. You saw what made that shadow that is all you know to this point. How would this one experience change you as a designer? I believe it would be sub conscious. Because we see things we don’t recognize all the time, just to a different degree. In leaving the cave for the first time, you may be stuck on the new visuals in front of you long after you have moved on from the moment of exit. Maybe even a year or two, but sub consciously, this experience would always be with you. No one except you would have ever experienced seeing something with no past exposure to anything like it ever in the history of the world. Would your fear of the unknown, limit your designs? Again, how would this change how you innovate?
The irony lies in that we are still afraid of what we don’t know. And that what we do know, already limits how we think and innovate. We don’t need fear to effectively influence our designs. The designs of tomorrow are based on what we know today.
I first had this thought when the guy I was telling about Plato’s cave said something kind of interesting. He says, “you can never un-see what you’ve seen.” The fact is that every designer kind of wishes they could un-see so many things, thus releasing them from the limitations of what they already know.
Image from here