Who holds the power?
Role of design in society. What is it? Who has the authority to say? How many correct answers are there?
After zooming in and out and in again on the five different texts with which we began our design theory adventure, and after much page flipping and self scrutiny, I eventually managed to piece together a few ideas that felt like they were worth shaping into a coherent takeaway that others could understand. For my presentation I decided to run with the one that felt grandiose and perhaps a bit dismal. But it is genuinely the way I found myself reading these texts, and what I found myself taking from them.
Idea: Design can be used as a powerful tool that will either empower everyone to become better thinkers and problem solvers or will be misused by a few as a weapon that disarms the masses unwittingly.
All of these readings were about the role of design in society as being a crucial tool in shaping our futures, but some see it in as an accessible tool for all, and others as a tool able to be utilized in an impactful way by only a few.
My scale of importance is based on the theorist’s insight into the ways that we, as the general populace audience, are empowered to utilize their insights for change, or left powerless by them.
I will break this down by position starting with the theorist who I find to be the least impactful to me in this framework.
Vitta is intent on pointing out the metaphorical death of the designer in society. He sees the mass consumption of objects as cheapening the role of design, and sees a movement towards the cheapening of the power of objects themselves as they become more diminished to mere fetishized merchandise. This is all fine and well, but when I read Vitta I don’t see where I fall in this. The objects I posses tell a story about me, even if some are just shallow signifiers, and I am not offended by this role objects play in my life. Why should I care about the death of Vitta’s designer? And what am I supposed to do about it? Quite frankly, I don’t see this as being the most powerful way we can consider the role of design in our complex society.
Oh, Postman. I love your fatalist perspective on innovation. I think it is enchanting and dramatic and dystopian, and I have come to some of the same conclusions as I interact with my society filled with ‘fake news’ and exhalation of progress towards a “smarter” civilization of technology. Postman heeds a warning to a roomful of powerful and influential makers in society, urging them to think hard about all sides of the die when creating something new in this growing field of technology. He urges them to consider the consequences fully and to understand the weight of that responsibility. He describes us as being lost in a shuffled deck of cards, drowning in an ocean of information that keeps on growing in the name of problem-solving, and with no tools or guide to sort through it, no life raft to keep our heads above water. If this is true, and I often feel that it is, then that hopelessness that I get when I know I am drowning is not only justified, but isn’t in my power to fix or sort through. It is in the hands of others. My unexamined life is not worth living. I, an average good samaritan, have no way of arming myself against the chaos of “progress”.
Bernays discusses human beings in a very impersonal way. While he directly calls out that it now “the privilege of attempting to sway public opinion is everyone’s” he then goes on to describe all the ways that it is really only in the power of the elite, the special, the beautiful, and the remarkably ambitious to do so. He throws the general public a bone here and there rather disingenuously, claiming that if we learn to express ourselves, then we can do it too. But ultimately, he mostly discusses how susceptible people are to change their opinion and behavior if presented with the right set of well designed circumstances. As a reader, I do not get the sense that I am among those that how this power to influence, and I am rather scared of it and feel the need to look over my shoulder and wonder who put my opinions in my own head.
Papanek begins to steer the ship out of the storm for the common folk. While he does begin his paper with a very dramatic and heavy claim that industrial design potentially the (second) most harmful profession in existence, what he is really doing is setting the stage to position the role of design in society as being extremely powerful and important. He wants the reader to take it very seriously. He claims that with proper use it “can and must be a way in which young people can participate in changing society.” Unlike Vitta and Postman, his words feel more to me like a call to action for all human beings. Through vivid examples, he places all humans as having a tendency to conform in a society that encourages same-ness. He also describes the cultural, associational and emotional blocks we have. However, he explains that they are not inherited, but learned and, thus, able to be overcome. He even provides a few small tools we can try to change how we go about tackling problems (like the Eskimo dot test and the Arcturus IV experiment). With a diversity of experience and by intentionally taking on problems outside our familiar experiences, we can grow. These sound like attainable actions to me.
Finally, there is Dewey. Dewey lays out a theory of experiential continuum, meaning that all experience are impactful and that they will lead the experiencer to a subsequent direction that will lead him to another, compounding experience. He piece is also a call to action from everyone who participates in a system where they interact with others (so…everyone). He asks us all to be thoughtful and cognizant of our actions, because we “live from birth to death in a world of persons and things which in large measure is what it is because of what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities”. This theory lifts every action we make to be a meaningful one, and that attitudes are the essence of the soul. I think that this piece is most useful because it frames design’s role in society in a way that allows you to find your place as a designer of experiences wherever you might stand. It humbles you to realize that if you are successful and are lucky enough to have general good fortune, this is a result of compounded experiences that others created for you. If you find yourself in a less than desirable position, that’s okay, but your actions still mean something in the continuum of the collective human experience. We can change our systems.
I do not argue that my interpretation of the value of these positions applies to everyone, as everyone has different perspectives and life experiences. Someone who was born into unfortunate circumstances which have only led to more unfortunate circumstances might say that Dewey’s theory sounds like a curse. But while perhaps this interpretation is specific to my personality type, life experiences and personal morals, regardless, all of these theorists give clues to your personal power to change society through design process.