The unfolding of design discipline since the 19th century has been a tussle over what objects can be given the “good design” stamp of approval.
Through the lens of creative consciousness – the instinct that compels us to continuously adapt our world to suit our selves – we can see clearly where we have missed the mark in a world of our own design – pollution, degrading poverty, environmental destruction, alienation and anxiety on a massive scale. But I resist imposing a judgment of “good” or “bad” on any particular object.
On a recent wintery Berkeley night with rain streaking past the streetlamp outside my window, I was settling into Steven Heller and Veronique Vienne’s 2003 collection of essays, Citizen Designer. It offers 70 or so designer’s takes on what it takes to do “socially conscious design”. In the introduction to the introductory essay, Heller poses the question “What is good design?” Struggling with the presumptuousness of this question, I found myself writing the following note in the “margin” of my iPad:
“Good” resides in the things we create that reflects the best of the human spirit. It is those things that, in some small way, make the world more like the world that we would love to live in.
To be sure, this leaves room for interpretation (which I’m working on, keep coming back as my project unfolds). There is the small matter of coming to agreement about what the best of the human spirit is. There’s also the little challenge of coming to agreement about what kind of world people with divergent interests would love to live in. Wars have been fought over what these dimensions might be. Manifestos have been written and movements set in motion to realize ideals on which not everyone can agree. Humanity is struggling to find common purpose and expression, locally and globally. In every forum of human discourse, be it business, labor, religion or civic life, people are at odds, challenged to find common purpose and agreement on forms.
Yet, I believe that design is the most powerful tool we have for arriving at common vision. In my review of 3 million years of human invention, I have come to believe that Homo designer is moving towards grace, a convergence of aspiration about the qualities of a better world that we’d like to create, and the conceptual and technical tools we need to give them form. Wisdom traditions from every corner of the world have delved into the dimensions of the human soul and consciousness from which such a vision may be extracted. Philosophers have grappled with ways for us to think more precisely about what it might be. Most recently, we have developed a creative technology that we call design to transform our intentions into the forms that collectively make up the world we live in.
Over hundreds of thousands of years that we’ve been making our world by design, we’ve learned a few things. We’ve learned how to create forms of beauty and utility that are universally recognized. We’ve learned to shape the objects of our creation to fit intimately with our bodies, minds, culture and economy. The frontier we are navigating today is learning how to ensure that each object of design fits with our spirit. Every design brief must be built on a requirement, a specification, that the ultimate form that is produced be the best expression of the human spirit that is possible at this time. It must, with whatever limitations exist in its context, move us closer to the world we would love to live in.
This brief is made more challenging by the fact that we may have accelerated the rate of change, of innovation, beyond the speed that we’re able to keep up with. Our imaginations may well be outpacing our psyches and designing well may require us to slow down.
The world we know hasn’t come about by the design of any one thing click this. It is the accretion of millions of creative efforts, generation upon generation. If we are to impose a judgment of “goodness”, we need to look at the whole within which that part fits. We must decide if this is a place where the human spirit might reside, whether this object moves us closer to a world we would love to live in.