Design As Savior, Design As Slave

From the Whole Earth Review, 1991

As the implementers of technology, designers have a mandate to do better.

Technology doesn’t just happen, it reaches society as the deliberate work of people acting as designers. Every product and procedure had been intentionally or inadvertently designed to be the way it is. It is an awesome responsibility to place in the hands of persons who are so vulnerable to corruption.

Like politicians and realtors, designers are forced by “the system” to compromise their integrity in order to function. Clients may have very different concerns and ethics than the designers they command. Worse, the clients may not be the end users. School buses, for instance, are designed to please school board purchasing-committee members. They will never set foot in the things. The result is an ergonomically despicable affront of a ride, as some of you may remember. The hapless students and the hireling driver who must endure it daily have no vote. They are not part of the design process. But they should be.

Most of the egregious waste, pollution and environmental insult caused by technology occurs because nature is left out of the design process. Designers and their masters ignorantly assume that nature has no vote. But nature always votes anyway. As has become obvious, her vote is often NO. Much social exploitation and injustice occurs when the resource requirements and unfortunate consequences of a technology darken the lives of voteless, helpless recipients who never even get to enjoy the advantages. It’s called boycott or terrorism when they protest.

When the environment protests by exhibiting intolerable degradation, the principal malefactors customarily dodge responsibility. Their captive designers abdicate. The corporate system is set up (designed!) to shield designers and their masters from financial ruin if protest grows strong. Corporate clout influences politics. Things are arranged so somebody else–most often taxpayers and the poor– will foot the bill. This corruption also disrupts the apparatus of balance and redress. We and our Earth suffer. Technology is often blamed, which is perfectly logical–we are surrounded (some say engulfed) by the sorry results of many centuries of untamed technological excess. Corporations counter with the classic “guns-don’t-kill-people” waffle, but it won’t do any more.

Corruption also reduces incentive for the clear, comprehensive thinking necessary for good design. Look around you. Can you name even one building, out of the thousands being erected this very day, that is both delightful and energy and materials-efficient? Can you name a product that is well designed? The latter task is a bit easier, but your candidate still represents a minority. It’s probably a tool, toy, weapon, or object that would cause unacceptable functional problems if ineptly designed.

Like their designers, you probably haven’t considered all aspects of your favorites. What did making the object do to the environment and the workers who made it? What is its overall effect on individual users and on society as a whole? What will be its ultimate fate? Who will pay for the designed object? Who will pay the costs for ameliorating its societal side effects, and in what coin? Have these matters been considered under the designer’s mandate, or have they been left to chance? Do you consider such things when spending your money?

In this discussion, I am assuming “good” designs to be those that work well in all important ways. The rare good designs that succeed in the market often achieve “classic” status. Those that don’t are considered weird, and are used as textbook examples of why innovation, courage, and in particular, altruism are to be avoided. This mindless response occurs despite the fact that many studies have shown that poor sales are most often the result of faulty financial management, poor marketing technique, or bad timing.

It is more common (in all senses of the word) to consider the technology that sells to he best, whether its designed applications work well or not. Profitability is usually the single, insistent, essentially political, design criterion. It does not directly demand anything more than assured popularity from the designer. Venal as this may sound, it doesn’t necessarily predict inept and dangerous design. Why, then, is comprehensively good (not to mention elegant) design so rare?

This question is nothing new; things were no better in the nostalgically mounted past. Museums, history books and a few preserved or restored examples represent the best of their time. “Ninety percent of anything is mediocre” claimed mathematician Frederic Pohl, with some justification. We notice the bad effects more now because they’ve multiplied along with the population and its production and distribution capabilities.

Does the foregoing insist that technology is inherently and uncontrollably destructive? Must the undesirable side effects (which are integral–inadvertently designed-in) always outweigh the wonderful aspects, as many cr4itics have suggested? Is it even possible to do better, or is the problem an intractable example of what John Baryth called “basic human f**kedness”?

I think that it is possible to do a lot better, and that we’d best get at it soon. Hopeless, helpless abdication and acquiescence fuel irresponsibility as surely as do ignorance and malign intent. Most of us certainly feel frustrated and to some extent helpless as individuals–a state of affairs particularly maddening to young idealists anxious to put their environmental awareness to good use. The feeling of helplessness is unnecessary and inappropriate. It has three major roots, all inimical to effective individual action.

First is that virtually all of us, male and female, are brought up to be competitive, to win. While you might argue that team sports accent teamwork. what they mostly do is reward the unquestioning following of other people’s rules, often disguised as traditions and mores. A competitor strives for black-or-white resolution. Taken to its extreme, competition excuses violence, destruction and atrocity To view the world as friend or foe leads to paralyzing despair if the foe is seen as incomprehensible, implacable, and too diffuse to hit solidly.

The second force that engenders the feeling of individual impotence is the strongly encouraged focus on vocational specialty or ‘discipline.’ a term used to identify what’s required for acceptance, license, or admission to the club (team). But a Ph.D. all too often indicates a history of ritualized obedience rather than of exploration. A kind of intellectual “monocropping” — planting all your land to one crop — is thus encouraged. As in agriculture, this unnatural concentration reduces diversity and disrupts evolution. It is also vulnerable to disruption arriving from an unexpected quarter, a common failing of all technology.

“Unexpected” implies a lack our awareness, which in tarn indicates a lack of knowledge–the consequence of an incomplete education. A person trained in a discipline–an “expert”–is unlikely to have the wide view needed to integrate the expertise into) a larger system, especially the ultra-complexities of ecology amid environment. Training–a good word for a one-track mind–is only one aspect of a true education.

Specialization also invites oversimplification. You can he sure that a simple solution to any problem has left out something important. Beware (be-aware) whenever you hear a statement beginning with the phrase, “All we need to do is…. Note also that those proposers rarely include themselves as committed actors exposed to all aspects of the project.

Because the narrow-visioned thinking of specialists is well rewarded, particularly in academia, pernicious effects are invisible to those involved. The need for interdisciplinary effort is usually considered as a theoretical matter for future discussion, impractical, or as a turf-invasion to be repelled by bureaucratic maneuver. This situation is a veritable petri dish for culturing dishonesty and ineptitude.

The third force affecting an individuals effectiveness is the intuitively sensible urge to work for security. Security can he defined as ensuring the future will be to your personal advantage–another sort of “win.” Our society condones the accompanying implication of selfishness. “Good old New England individualism”–long considered a traditional American value–may be translated as “I’ve got mine, and you can go to hell.” This is not systemic thinking, It is not a useful mindset for a designer who needs to realize that true security is not to he had for anyone until all people live well, in a just and ecologically sustainable society.

Security-seeking also encourages activity that is safe (proven). or that gives a safe feeling or image. There is a terrible tendency to attain a physically and psychologically secure position of some sort, and then to expend most of your energy defending it. Conservative politics has its basis here. Security and its accompanying conservative stance is the exact opposite of innovation, yet innovation is clearly required if we are to extricate our society from the threatening situation now at hand.

All three phenomena explained above are rooted in the fear that there is tot enough–of anything–to go around, when in fact there is plenty of for all. The three working in concert (perhaps in a negative synergy) can cause otherwise intelligent people of benign intent to seek extreme positions. Frustrated people are easily deflected into zealotry, but most often they give up, viewing their world with what the Japanese call “dead fish eyes.”

But designers need not despair, at least not yet. They are in a better position than most to do better, even if temporarily trapped as indentured servants. There is a new breed coming into power. They are their own clients, getting on with the work that obviously must be done, as the old farts get in their last poots. The sharpest have already recognized that better security coin be hid by designing for a preferred future, rather than defending a structurally flawed status quo. Well-educated generalist-designers know that they always have nature is a co-client who ultimately requires a sustainable strategy.

They think systemically. They work from principle, designing with nature rather thin opposing her, taking special care not to induce subtle “repetitive injury syndrome.” They seek and take advantage of synergy–strategies in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. They insist upon maximum efficiency. Waste is always unprofitable, and is embarrassingly inelegant and stupid. Pollution is usually a good measure of inefficiency. It’s best stopped at the source, eliminating later, more expensive cleanup problems.

The new designers also realize that corporate mistreaters of people and environment need to be won over, not destroyed. Honestly now, would you rejoice if oil companies quit making fuel? Do you really want to live without steel–to use a stone axe? Designers must learn to employ education and negotiation skills and cooperative effort as an integral part of their practice. That’s often called leadership.

If you hunger for immediate results, try initiating or joining a proof-of-concept effort, a demonstration of better ways and, of course, your skill. (Be sure it’s real and not some damned simulation!) The people involved will probably include lots of students — in any case, you’ll all be learning fast. You must be prepared to live in and with your work. That’s a wonderful spur to clear thought, and the only way to experience the consequences of your decisions–to literally know what you are doing.*

The more patient can begin acting worldwide on what can be widely agreed upon right now, a start toward evolving Homo technus through the transition from the present cruel, wastel-effete stage into one that is in tune with the requirements of a sustainable civilization. That’s a big order, but people can and must take responsibility, at the very least for the hardware.

We’re actually talking a critical new profession here, one that Buckminster Fuller accurately name “Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Science.” It’s closer to applied technology. It’s a job for all of us.