Category Archives: Philosophy

Design and Ethics

Some important questions come about when thinking about Design and Ethics. Are they two separate things? Would a Design ethic be different from the ethic between human interactions? Is Design inherently good? (As many designers are fast to claim that it is not, which brings up the interesting difference in perspective of what design is capable of doing from a practitioners point of view). First, I think it is important to understand what ethics really are in the contemporary age we live in. Modern ethics are less concerned with codified morals and more concerned with the immanent relationships, which are highly situational in our globalized world. Or according to Zigmunt Bauman, ethics are learning how to be uncertain; learning how to be in our complex world and learning how to act well. When considering ethics in this way, we must also consider sustainability and a revision of our economy to one based on ecology, as the utmost considerations to integrate into the way we are.

What is Design’s role in this? If Design wants to be valued the way our culture values for example, Knowledge, then according to Peter Miller it needs to step up to the plate. Design can be the translation or meditative force working between knowledge and its various outcomes, however, if it only does ‘design thinking’ it does not become a viable methodology for preferred situations. Design can play a didactic role in informing the way we are with one another and more importantly the way we treat the world we are creating, but it needs to change the conversations that are happening into reflexive ones. As Clive Dilnot suggests, an ethic can come out of this. Design, when it acts ethically makes its users critical through the objects they use. Not simply by being critical, but through the affirmation of the critical, which can facilitate a new kind of ethics, and which is imperative in leading sustainability. On the other side of this, an ethics for design might be about not just giving people ‘stuff’, but developing people’s capabilities with already existing ‘stuff’. Methods such as ‘retro-fitting’ or re-use of long lasting materials might teach us to be a more conservative people. How can designers maximize the capabilities of objects already in existence, as well as the capabilities of the human, becomes critical when thinking about the metabolic structure of our economy now. In order to push the sustainability project this might be even more important.

I think in order for Design to be a type of ethic in itself, we have to recognize the contextual nature of design, the larger systems it is a part of, and to think about it as a cultural construct, then I think its ethics will become more obvious. Crucial to this, will be reclaiming Design back into the social sphere and away from the dominating market sphere as it is in today. Several start-up companies have begun to do this be inverting the system, so that social values and relations dictate flows of capital rather than vice-versa. Some good examples are Snapgoods, Quirky, and crowd sourcing sites such as Kickstarter. Though we do not know where businesses like these might lead us, they do offer a proposition, which is a definite start. We will only achieve a change through the courage of this type of trial and error.


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What are Objects?

If we are to really understand Design culture, should we not spend some time thinking about what objects mean to us in our everyday life? Seemingly a simple question with a simple answer: we use objects, they are helpful, perhaps we derive pleasure from them, they can be gifts, and so on. But this is not all that they do, objects tell us much more about ourselves as humans than perhaps we do with one another. Even the earliest philosophy has dealt with objects, giving it a proper place within society. Plato in The Republic viewed objects as representations of knowledge. An object was a representation of what it actually was but never was the thing itself. As early as 375 BC when Plato presumably began writing The Republic, there is a distinction made between the world known through sensuous experience versus the ultimate reality of the world that is only known through enlightenment (the cave simile). Since Plato, philosophy has bracketed objects as representations. Though they may speak to being, serve as modes in knowing the real, or in their making tell us about the world, they are always reduced to representations as felt by our senses.

I would venture to say that in the twenty-first century as many critics have claimed, modern man’s most profound interactions are not between men but with objects (just think of the social meaning of the IPhone or Blackberry). As Elaine Scarry describes in The Body in Pain, creating objects first arises from the imagination, the human interior works on the object, then follows a projection of the live body into the matter, thus the object must be self-aware. Take this passage that it in itself is enough inspiration to call for a reconsideration of objects:

A lightbulb transforms the human being from a creature who would spend approximately¬†a third of each day groping in the dark, to one who sees simply by wanting to see: its impossibly fragile , upright-then-folding filament of wire is the materialization of neither retina, nor pupil, nor day-seeing, nor night-seeing; it is the materialization of a counterfactual perception about the dependence of human sight on the rhythm of the earth’s rotation; no wonder it is in its form so beautiful. (Scarry 1985).

Its design must anticipate how it will be used and be aware of what it is relieving. In this sense, objects are not just representations, but are much more exalted. They are in fact being. They are our own self-being mirrored back to us. So while the human creating includes the creating of the object, the object is also creating the human being. It may have been at one time that objects were easily understood as never crossing the line of representation, but when the individual begins to create narrative and define identity using the objects in the everyday environment, in some sense these objects are absorbed in the very meaning of what it is to be human. In a type of evolutionary unfolding, objects not only give us a human world but they indeed help shape us. They simultaneously recognize our sentient desires and intimate needs, while also projecting a concrete reality for our experience.

Still there is more clarification and criticism needed in how we live with objects. For considering all of the “junk” produced today, certainly not all objects are things as Martin Heidegger suggest in The Thing. There is as he suggests, a phenomenological aspect of perceiving objects from things, from the nearness which is a thing thinging. What does it mean for our being when indiscriminately objects are mass-produced and put out into the world? What happens when objects are disposable and no longer cherished? Of course to say that the human being equates his being from objects that are themselves not only projections of our interiority, but are things self-aware so therefore mirroring back to us being means that we must be more careful in what we produce and allow to dictate our everyday life. As a civilization that includes objects, if we don’t care about the objects essentially we are saying we don’t care about civilization. If we can ask an ethics for persons, Design can ask an ethics of its objects.

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Filed under Design Theory, Objects, Philosophy