Ancient Human Needs: Five Thinkers on Design

In the sixty-two years between 1928 and 1990, there was no shortage of public intellectuals who argued about what humans should achieve or how we should reach those ends. Our first assignment for Design, Society, and the Public Sector involved reading works by five different figures, all influential in either public relations, education, or design.

The image below describes the usefulness of these author’s theses to myself, a novice designer operating in a social-impact space in 2018. One of the difficulties in our assignment was deciding the criteria by which we would judge “importance” of each author’s work. I decided to change “importance” to “useful,” in part because I want these works to inspire my own design philosophy, and in part because “more useful” to me means “more actionable.”

Let us start from the least useful. Edward Bernays was a grandson of Sigmund Freud and is credited with developing public relations, propaganda, and the advertising industry in America. Yet just because we’ve been living in a world Bernays helped shape does not mean his theory is useful in 2018.

Maurizio Vitta seeks to form a theory of design, and comments effectively on how mass production weakens the designer and the objects created by designers. But Vitta’s dense theory ends up only commenting, instead of recommending how designers can adjust their practice for better ends.

John Dewey was a master educator who laid the groundwork for alternative or experiential learning throughout the early 21st century. His thesis speaks loudly to those who wish to create transformative experiences for students. I see part of AC4D’s curriculum and practice within Dewey’s ideas. His thesis is important, useful, yet specific to education.

Our final two thinkers, Neil Postman and Victor Papanek, speak to designing, inventing, and creating for deep, ancient, human needs. They are less concerned with the new, the flashy, the gadget or information delivery device, and instead write to the weaknesses, stigmas, and intellectual conformity that leads many designers to solve for false problems. Instead, they argue, we must form a clearer concept of ourselves, and design for the needs of the Earth and humanity itself. These thinkers both form the basis of a personal design thesis, and give me inspiration to act for the greater good.

Influential Thinkers Rated by Usefulness to an Ethically-Minded Designer