design is philosophy in action

My seven personal principles of design, and where five thinkers fall. **Edit: Updated with the color version.
My seven personal principles of design, and where five thinkers fall. **Edit: Updated with the color version.

In high school, I had a professor who taught a class he’d made up, apparently just because he wanted to. He called it “Junior Seminar.” This was an invite-only class, to high achieving kids who consistently got As.

On our first day he told us that we already had an A in the class. (Much to our disappointment—overachievers are obsessed with delayed gratification.) Instead, we talked about the books we would read that year, and how we could quit reading the ones we hated, and where to find more of the ones we loved; about what we saw about the world, and ourselves; what we wanted to do about it. Our one assignment for the entire semester was a single paper: How should I live my life? 

It was awful. It was hard to do, and listening to each other read portions out loud at the end of the semester, each paper an exercise in hubris and fear and hormones and insecurity, was even worse. But many of us couldn’t stop thinking about it. And by the time I graduated, I had a very different, and much clearer, answer to that question. It’s still one I regularly come back to.

These five thinkers are tapping around a similar question, of our work, and its responsibility to the world. If philosophy is the underlying value grounding our posture as designers, design is the work of putting those values into action. Whether it’s Dewey’s solutions-minded call to delight; or Postman’s cautionary siren; or Bernays’ yes-man corporate spin, all five voices are in some way familiar voices to us, from society or from within ourselves.

As these five voices are acting as practical philosophers, this diagram sets up a theory of “good” design, as a series of debates. Resolved: That good design is design that fulfills a clear function. Resolved: The good design is design that prioritizes human value. Each designer is named next to their core thesis. The dots on the grid correspond to the color of the box holding the designer’s name.

Some interesting pairings result. Bernays and Dewey, for example, share a belief in the need for a design that delights the senses. Yet they could not disagree more about the priority of individual human value.

As we head into this year, we will be grappling with a similar question to the one my high school teacher posed: How should I design? May the process be as illuminating. (And preferably less humiliating…but I’m not holding my breath.)