A Series of Situations
As our first assignment in Theory, we were tasked with formulating a stance on ethics and responsibilities of design in society, as we understood it from the readings of five authors (Papanek, Bernays, Dewey, Vitta, and Postman). Through my own interpretation and class discussions, I tried to make sense of the positions each author made in their writings, and then bring that interpretation to life through a graphical diagram.
Before jumping into the diagram, I feel I need to frame the assignment as I understood it. The brief began with “the readings discussed different ways of ethically positioning design in society.” So first, I needed to understand how I was going to use the term design as a control point. Design is both a noun and a verb, giving it little sense of place in the context of an assignment. Because each author did not directly speak to design in the noun sense, that of creating physical forms and blueprints, I chose to use it in the sense of a verb.
verb: design; 3rd person present: designs; past tense: designed; past participle: designed; gerund or present participle: designing
- decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object), by making a detailed drawing of it.
“a number of architectural students were designing a factory”
- do or plan (something) with a specific purpose or intention in mind.
Using the second definition of design in verb form, I felt I could connect with each author in a meaningful way because each spoke distinctly of acting with intention.
To better make sense of how I was interpreting their positions on design, I made up a fictitious quote for each author as I imagined they would feel. I think these would actually be really good pickup lines to try at a bar sometime.
As you notice from my graphic, I felt each author held the ethics of design in high regard. I battled with this conclusion mostly with Bernays, who I believe was more economical in his writing than the others. Although after consideration, I believe he was talking about design as well when considering that all public relations campaigns used to sway public opinions were thought out and planned with intention, and that he too felt that design was critical to our social fabric in this regard.
Without more readings and context, I found it hard to marginalize the difference between the value each author put on design. To say Papanek is slightly higher on the scale than Vitta seemed trivial, and because the scale was so abstract to begin with in makes sense to align them all at the same point.
This notion of all the authors having a similarly high regard for the use of design in society, and designers in general, is better illustrated when we think about how their views work together.
The series of situations is a recurring cycle that we can jump into at any point. The idea of a series of situations was noted by Dewey in the context of interactions happening between people and their environment, and that an experience can not be separated from either the people or places in context, without altering the experience altogether.
If we hop into the cycle at the top, and believe that having a positive experience will encourage the growth of any individual, but in this case a designer, we can assume that the designers will evolve into a better version of themselves. This was the perspective of Dewey. The experience knocks down barriers we may have setup for ourselves, and allows us to imagine more freely and thus be more creative. The positive experience encourages multiple new experiences, creating diversity of knowledge and culture enabling us to think with empathy. The idea of various experiences giving more perspective was brought up by Papenek. Having empathy, as said by Postman, is what differs us from machines, and guides us to search for problems worth solving.
When the well-informed designer begins problem solving, they have more tools in their tool-belt for how to tackle foreign situations. They think in new ways and are not afraid of failure. The idea of trying to fail and not being chastised for failure are ideas brought up by both Papanek and Dewey. Failure at trying to solve a worthwhile problem is better than succeeding at creating a useless solution. The designer also has more tools than ever before and new technology that can be creatively put to use in ways we had not previously imagined. Postman harps on how technology has been applied without a positive impact on society, but applied to a meaningful product he would agree in the value of information. The unorthodox thinking and availability of technology allow us to create a better, more purposeful products, which are addressing problems worth solving. This is a sentiment shared by both Postman and Papanek.
I believe Vitta thinks that we interact with designers on a daily basis, because everything around us has been designed, and it gives an heir of influence to the designers. The designer, who now has great responsibility, also has the power of persuasion. Persuasion is a specialty of Bernays. By persuading the public to invest in the purposeful product, and because the product was well designed and well informed, the public has a positive experience when they interact. The positive experience this time is of the public, but it propels the cycle to start again. This positive experience is one of the key teachings of Dewey. As other designers begin to see the value of empathy, problem solving, and using technology for the advancement of society, we have changed their perception by exposing the cliche that bad designers are bad for society. We can thank Bernays for that tactic.
There is a catch to all of this, one that I believe was abundant in Postman’s reading. What if we do make a new, purposeful product, with great intention and positive experience? How can we know for sure what the ultimate consequences will be? It’s impossible to predict how 7.5 billion unique people will react to a new situation, because they all have prior baggage which is affecting their perspective. How do we know someone won’t take the technology we designed for good, and use it for greed and profit, or worse for harm? We don’t, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do the right thing.