(first published January 2018; updated periodically)
I am on a mission to raise design consciousness. Let me explain. Perhaps you can help.
Historically, design has been viewed as a decorative art, a way of making things visually attractive. Yet designers have understood our purpose more expansively – as conceiving of and making things that are in service to human needs in adapting to a rapidly changing world.
In the nineteenth century architecture and design broke loose of their pre-industrial confines to become the professions they are today. Academically and institutionally they became distinct from art, technology and science. Design discipline was initially applied exclusively to physical objects and structures. With the passage of time it has come to be recognized that anything can be an object of design: digital experiences, brands, services, organizations, social institutions and even the contours of an individual’s life journey. We have learned that there is a method to designing well, just as there is a method to doing good science. Design thinking is the moniker most typically applied to this broader way of understanding design practice. It is gaining traction in industry and is becoming intrinsic to the academy.
After a 40 year career observing and often participating in these changes, I have set out on a project to tell a different story about design that is aligned with this broader context. This is to include design and design thinking in the story of our humanity, and our understanding of what makes us human. It looks deeply at where our impulse to design comes from in order to discern where we might take it next so that we more fully express the adaptive intelligence that is at its core.
Through an inquiry that is taking me into diverse fields – anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary science, neuroscience, history of science and technology – I have learned that our impulse to design springs from so much more than a desire to decorate. Starting with the first tools made of sticks, stones and bones, adaptive design emerged from our instinct to create a world that is better suited to us, better adapted. Design is how we ensure that whatever we create, our technologies, tools and shelters are shaped to fit our evolving selves in body, mind and spirit.
Not all that we make is adaptively successful. Computers at first were ill-adapted to the way that we think and we have made them better over time. An economy built on carbon fuels threatens our wellbeing by causing irreparable harm to the ecology that sustains us. We are in the midst of an acceleration of technology driven change and an escalation in the impact of our creative decisions – from nuclear power to artificial intelligence, genetic engineering to nano-technologies – that challenges us to adapt faster and bigger. We have diminishing room for the errors of unintended consequences if we are not to destroy ourselves even as we chase the prospect of a better life.
We are waking up to the fact that we live in a world that is of our own design. Buildings, cities, companies, surgical procedures, gardens, parks, busses, bicycles, dresses, shoes, computers, websites, telephones, chairs, vases, toys and confectionaries are all designed artifacts that in totality make up the world we live in. It is entirely up to us whether we design poorly, or well.
Design consciousness is this awareness: we can, by now, take full responsibility for creating the world we live in. There is no god that is going to make it right for us, no hidden hand of the market, no technological inevitabilities or forces of nature that we can’t identify and work with. We cannot leave this monumental task in the hands of a few design specialists. Everyone needs to participate – engineers, scientists, doctors, politicians and entrepreneurs, and anyone else who contributes to the creation of things that matter to the enterprise of life. Design is social action, and must be turned into a full participation creative process embedded deep in culture. It requires inputs from every corner of society through practices, mechanisms and institutions that we have yet to imagine.
My mission is to raise design consciousness and work to weave it into the social fabric so that humanity is better able to take on the awesome challenge and responsibility of designing the best possible world for us to live in.
I am reaching out to researchers and designers, innovators and entrepreneurs, educators and students who might have something to add to this story and will be willing to enter dialog with me. I am looking for collaborators to develop projects to further the goal of raising and extending design consciousness.
This is a challenge that no one can take on alone. Join me.
I am seeking opportunities to present my work in provocative and engaging illustrated talks about Design Consciousness that can be tailored to your interests or those of your institution. Read a description HERE.
Complete the form to the right (or below) and I will contact you via the method that you prefer.