Home, To Have or To Be?, Essay, 2020

If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I. Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living.
― Erich Fromm, To Have or To Be?, 1974.

In 1976, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm from Germany proposed the idea that as a society we live between two modes of existing, the “having” mode and the “being” mode. The “having” mode relies on materialism, power and control while the “being” world relies on the acceptance of love, sharing and regard for humanity. His thesis examines the idea that as humans we are in a constant unconscious conversation between these two worlds, every millisecond of our existence. He quotes that “Modern consumers may identify themselves by the formula: I am = what I have and what I consume.” 1 This is even more relevant in western society where greed for money, fame and power have devoured our lives. Fromm continues that notion and declares that we cannot exist purely in one of these modes all the time, but that balance is what makes us unique. As graphic designers, we are building and enhancing points of consumption to a given product, space or activity. We are the ones that are encouraging the “having” mode purely based off of the work that we do. It’s also unavoidable, graphic design was inherently founded as an act to push and persuade captialistic agendas. So how as a graphic designer can we lean more into the “being” mode? What is design’s role between these two worlds?

Most, if not all, designers get a sinking feeling in their gut about a new project. They want to know the outcome and what this thing will look like based on prior knowledge or what they think might be right for this particular opportunity (I like to think designers don’t actually solve for problems, but rather solve for opportunities). In this case, designers are working in the “having” mode, we are forcing something to be in the world. We don’t want to give up our sense of “identity” as graphic designers and do so by making everyone aware that we are the visual facilitators. We are trying to control the project and provide some type of framework that we are comfortable with and go on to place something in the world that we may think is right, rather than really understanding the opportunity in front of us. What would happen if we were in the being mode, that mode would provide us with an unexpectedness to embrace the process rather than force a solution. Fromm writes that “In the being mode, remembering is actively recalling words, ideas, sights, paintings, music; that is connecting the single datum to be remembered and the many other data that it connects with.” 2 It’s alive and connected, not stale and nostalgic. Being part of the project process, questioning the work in the moment and shifting as new things come along rather than forcing a designers perspective into the process. Understanding and embracing that prior visual metaphor may have not been right for the project nor should it possibly even still exist in the world we live in. It might lead to unexpected solutions, potential territories and new connections we wouldn't have explored if we embraced the “having” mode.

The role of the designer is changing now more than ever as we engage in remote environments, political injustice, a health crisis, enhanced racism and educational inequalities. We need to be consciously aware of the work we are making and how that work affects the “having” mode of our society. Who would have thought our primary mode of communication would be through various messaging softwares and critiques would be held through tiny rectangles. I’m calling for designers to try to embrace the being world. Embrace the unexpectedness of our work in this ever-changing world and question the work we are doing with a critical eye at every point along the way. Graphic design can’t change the world, but we can reframe, reposition and influence the work we are doing to challenge the “having” mode of existing. How might we embrace this change to let it influence the work and lead to unexpected solutions. Maybe an identity wasn't meant to be the way you originally intended when it was sent out into the world from the click of a mouse into your clients inbox. Maybe that odd bug on your website actually gives your website personality. Why don't we embrace the constant flux of our environment and let our work react to those given spaces rather than us trying to force something that maybe wasn't right all along, it might give it a new life to our work in a way we never expected.

Fromm, Erich. To Have or to Be? / Erich Fromm. 1979.

“When you build a thing you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it, and within it, so that the larger world at that one place becomes more coherent, and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.“ — Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language, 1977.

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Last updated: April 26, 2022

© Anthony Zukofsky 2012–2022.