The Art of the Luminous Detail / by David Sherwin


I listen to the nest of baby starlings outside my front window. In the midst of their morning song, I have picked out their attempts to recreate the sounds of car alarms, police sirens, foghorns from boats on Lake Union, cars accelerating, the cry of a toddler, doors shutting, and the calls of robins, crows, flickers, and a wide range of other birds that throng the trees and marshes near our home.

The song of the starling seems like a random melange of clicks, whistles, warbles, and otherwise incongruous chatter. But the starling does speak in a pattern—one that is barely perceptible to the human ear, but possible to decode. Philosophy professor and musician David Rothenberg wrote a lovely book called Why Birds Sing that delves into this very subject:

"Starlings eat everything, and they absorb all manner of peculiar sounds, choosing those that fit their own aesthetic... a full starling song, which takes about a minute to sing, is composed of four distinct kinds of phrases... [where] each [phrase] is repeated two or more times before the bird moves on to the next type... First, one or two descending whistles, out of a repertoire of two to twelve different kinds; then a quieter, continuous warbling, in which imitations of various birds living in the starling's territory are often inserted; the third part of the song is a series of rapid clicks, up to fifteen per second, a rattling or ratcheting with no clear breaks between; finally, the song concludes with loud, high-pitched squeals, repeated many times."

Mr. Rothenberg encourages us to listen to a starling after reading this description. "You'll immediately hear things you did not hear before," he says.

I did what he said, and he was right: The structure of the song was immediately perceptible. I could actually pick up the shifts between phases of the song.

But what still stood out for me through all the of the buzzing and clanking of this small poofy bird was his clattletrap accumulation of observed sounds. I often feel like my job as a designer is much like the starling's everyday song.

My daily task is to curate what I've observed—whether pictorial, linguistic, auditory, and so forth — and find opportunities to fold those details into my work. That work is composed of predetermined patterns made up of an ever-expanding repertoire of elements, blending the components of my client's brands with details that resonate with my personal aesthetic.

Often, we struggle against the patterns that underly what we create — but when you break these patterns with intent, the design you're crafting won't function properly. The meaning of the work veers into the realm of art and personal expression, instead of opening up more widely into public expression.

Or, another way to think about this: imagine a bird building a nest where, instead of resting their eggs on top of a finely woven bed of leaves and sticks, the eggs are resting under it. Not common bird behavior. The pattern of nest-making has been broken in a very unusual way, and the utility of the form has been intentionally lost. Some designers use this type of design behavior to great effect, but their work is not the norm — and their audience is intentionally narrowed by their choices.

I'm not saying this is a good or bad thing, as I love design work that has wit and intelligence, and there are many projects that require this approach. But the obverse is more often true: By trying to do something unique, the form of their design work is poorly asserted. Wit can't salvage miscommunication.

You've experienced this a million times. You look at a logo or an advertisement and you can't understand what you're looking at. Instead of a nest in front of you, it's a pile of leaves and sticks. Where do the eggs go?

The form within your design has to be perceivable in an intuitive manner — clearly visible only in the clarity of the message's expression. Other people don't look at designed artifacts like we do. It's like when mechanics drive cars. They hear a clanking under the hood, and start imagining which parts aren't functioning quite right. Everyone else, they just drive the car, listen to the radio, and drink their morning coffee while hoping that the express lanes aren't jammed up.

But there's a further, critical consideration here. For a design to be successful — and by that, I hope to imply great — there must be at least one detail within that design that is luminous. Much like the starling song being attractive and unusual to the human ear, when we hear the luminous detail of the baby crying amidst the clicks and whistles, we feel wonder.

It is a humble goal to design an artifact that contains even one little glimmer of wonder. So hard, and so rare to fulfill. Often I feel like it's a lifetime's work.

Yet there's a certain kind of satisfaction that comes from providing wonder that all can feel, however briefly, in one blinding flash. Amazing design, like great art, can cause you to rethink your life in a moment.

But as designers, we have to be prepared for the other side of that coin: that for design to function properly, its output dies and is eternally reborn. The idea of Keats's grecian urn — with its lovers lost in an unfulfilled embrace — will last forever. The iPod will be a footnote in history.

This is our Faustian bargain with human progress: It never ends, yet it is always dying.


When you see a starling and they aren't caught up in their usual arguments and conversations, they are acquiring sounds. Once my wife and I found this out, we began trying to teach the starlings to say a single word. Whenever we see them on the power lines outside our window, we coo that single word over and over to them: "Hello... Hello... Hello..."

The hope is that in a few days, we will hear our own voices back, translated and submerged in that strange mechanical language they employ.

What a strange gift, this thoughtless mimicry.