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The Shortening of Design Futures

an interpretation of Aristotle's belief in design as a 'final cause'


By John Wood

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What is design?

When you read this sentence, reach out and touch something near to you. It is almost certain that what you are touching is an outcome of design. In the 21st century the vast majority of us live by, with, and through the rhetoric and artificiality of design. But are we clear what design is? Ask ten designers to explain what they do and you will get ten definitions of design. At the end of the 1960s, the scientist, Herbert Simon and the designer Victor Papanek both said that everyone is a designer. Simon’s version is that we ‘design’ whenever we create a particular course of action that is likely to change an existing situation into a preferred one. More recently, the sociologist, Zigmunt Bauman pushed the idea further by claiming that designers do the same thing as managers. According to Bauman, the similarity between design and management has existed since the end of the 19th century. In the late 1880s, governments wanted to bring science and technology into everyday life, so design and management were seen as new ways to achieve what we want. Since then, while designers are playing an important role in reducing hunger and misery, they have also, unwittingly, helped to build a system of consumption that may soon consume us all. In a rising population of more than 7 billion, nations are increasingly aware that we are losing species at a rate that has not been seen for 63 million years. Moreover, although we know that we are damaging the environment, and are squandering material resources at a rate that cannot be sustained, we cannot think of a better way to share prosperity. In short, there is an embarrassing connection between our globalized, growth-centred, economic system and the serious damage that we are causing to the biosphere. Small adjustments will not be enough to address the problem. We need a paradigm shift that includes redefining the traditional idea of ‘design’.

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Are we architects or bees?

Of course, many designers may find fault with this over-simplified analysis of design. To be fair, it over-emphasises the instrumentalist aspects of design and fails to acknowledge the special creative skills that enable designers to shape the ‘look’, or ‘feel’ of a particular product, service or system. But, if we are to rethink the way design works we need to see it in a big context. Karl Marx once made a comparison between architects and bees. He said, “what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality”. In a world that is using more resources than it can keep on supplying, imagination – i.e. the ability to think, and to visualise possibilities before they have happened is one of our most precious commodities. In this respect, the specialist, disconnected nature of design practices may prove to be an impediment to its future success. Ironically, while designers have tremendous potential for acting as the much-needed architects of a paradigm change in the way we live, they have been constrained to working more like bees. Today, many methods used in design and in management are beginning to merge with one another. Where, for example, many business schools are trying to understand what Simon, others, have called ‘design thinking’, some co-designers and metadesigners are adapting certain management methods. But, to understand these changes better, it is useful to think about the essential nature of design. This means thinking about the concept of time, and how it affects our capabilities and potential as designers.

Aristotle's view of design

Several thousand years ago, when Aristotle reflected upon the nature of causality he concluded that design was a special type of ‘cause’. When one event affects another we ascribe agency to the one that does the affecting. Usually, these events occur at the same time, i.e. in the present. However, according to Aristotle, the reason why design is an unusual category of causation is that it does not come from the present, but from the future. Today, Aristotle’s idea does not sound so simple, perhaps because we live in a world of clocks and deadlines. In this context it suggests to me that there are at least two types of future. One of them is part of a simple, local and short-term future that is familiar to designers who work with the production cycle. In the days before automobiles, factories, and automation, every product was made at the pace of the craftsman’s hand. With the accelerating speed of business, rapid prototyping methods, online shopping, etc., the traditional craftsman’s idea of future has been getting nearer and nearer to the present. In my view, Aristotle’s theory also implies a more remote and distant future. Tuning into this longer timescale of ‘futures’ would encourage designers to take more responsibility for their actions. But this would require them to visualise all the possible ways that consumers might use, or misuse, their design – once it is ready for use. This sounds like an almost impossible expectation, because the future spirals away from us an unimaginable vortex of possibility. In Aristotle’s terms, the ‘cause’ of next week’s consumer product would be the vision of all the implications contained in one product. While it may seem unfair to expect designers to take full responsibility for all of these implications, somebody needs to. This means changing the way we understand time, and the way we train designers.

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Vanishing point on railway lines

The short-termism within consumption

For hundreds of years, industrialised man has been imagining time like a train that travels forward in a straight line. This is very different for many rural communities in which time is a cyclic process that follows the annual sequence of farming seasons. When designers are hired merely as specialists, and forced to work at the most superficial level, they may find themselves experiencing cycles of repetition in their work. When this happens, the ‘futures’ they invent may be too near to the present to be useful to all. Within the current economic system this is a common eventuality, especially when managers find it easier to make profits by ignoring long-term futures. At the end of the 1990s, Bill Gates outlined a vision that he called ‘business at the speed of thought’. In effect, it described a shortening of ‘futures’, facilitated by the technical ability to accelerate digital, networked transactions, everywhere. Gates could see how managers and designers were beginning to offer a consumer’s paradise in which shoppers would be able to order anything they desired and to expect its arrival, almost immediately. Our extravagant system of consumption is based on hierarchical management that keeps designers at a relatively low end of the decision-making system. The reasons for this are expedient, but they are not inevitable. Indeed, they are the result of a historical trajectory that can change, once we are willing to see what is possible. At the end of the 19th century, design emerged as a set of specialist disciplines that have remained, at the professional level, relatively disconnected from one another. Universities have been lamentably slow at challenging these traditional boundaries of design specialism that, for most institutions, have remained surprisingly intact throughout the twentieth century. This conservative tendency in re-designing design education ensured that, even today, most designers work as specialist contributors to a profit-driven business, rather than as holistic thinkers who work for society as a whole. This is not to say that design specialists are not needed, but that we should train them to view the big picture first, to give them a greater ethical, and ecological context for relatively subordinate adjustments in surface texture, form, or colour that will make the whole system function effectively, on many levels. Without acquiring the ability to view one’s own actions against the greater context, designers will remain relatively powerless in the economic system that drives us all towards extinction.

Changing the Paradigm

It is ironic that we educate designers to explore possible futures in a highly creative way, yet do not employ them at a high strategic level. This explains why we are stuck in a paradigm of bad habits that perpetuates confused thinking. Mathilda Tham, the trends forecaster, has noted that, ‘fashion thrives on innovation but resists change’. In other words, although fashion designers may be capable of re-thinking long-term business futures, they are trained to ignore these possibilities, and to focus onto next season’s style-futures. This is a serious obstacle for future generations and the ecosystem. According to John Thackara, the decisions we take at the design stage are the ‘cause’ of 80% of the environmental impact of the products. In Europe, for example, around 10% of its total waste is caused by the fashion industry. More optimistically, the fact that waste is bad business is good news. If more designers were specifically trained to envision long-term business futures, they would be able to deliver waste-free rewards for corporations. The ‘cradle-to-cradle’ movement is an excellent example of this approach. By creating an adaptive, circular economy, rather than one that looks for unlimited innovation and growth, it will be possible to design complex synergies of combination, rather than offering short-life products that cost additional money to dispose of. What is stopping the implementation of systems that will produce longer-term outcomes? To a great extent, the obstacles to change are caused by the poor economic thinking behind technological development. If designers are not allowed to look beyond their short-term cycle of design, production and re-design they will be unable to take full responsibility for what happens in the longer-term. This is why the idea of ‘design futures’ is so important.

Creativity and 'futures'?

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Of course, there are many interpretations of the term ‘design futures’. In the last few decades, my own research has interpreted the term to mean a re-design of design practice itself. Currently, our network of researchers have adopted Humberto Maturana’s 1997 term metadesign as the name for what we do. Some of us, however, have been reflecting on these issues since the early 1970s. My attempts to rethink the way we prepare design students for the future led to our highly ecological, ethical, entrepreneurial undergraduate design degree that we launched in 1988, at Goldsmiths, University of London. Because of its holistic nature it was first entitled ‘Total Design’. Today it is simply known as the BA(Hons) in Design. In 1995 I developed the approach and used it on the first MA (masters degree) in Design Futures. We recruited a range of different types of students from all over the world. They were all from different design specialisms and seemed to be dissatisfied with the way the design industry was working. Much of our work enabled us to help designers to inform the way designers take responsibility for their futures and, if required, to re-direct their practices by establishing new forms of commercial enterprise. This aspect of our work led to the development of the Writing-PAD Network, which now has members in many countries and institutions. It also has a strong culture of publication, largely through our Journal of Writing in Creative Practice, published by Intellect Books. The MA Design futures program offered them the chance to re-design the way that design might be perceived in the future. In other words, we not only invited them to re-think their own careers, their lives or their way of working, but we also challenged them to design the future identity of design, both as a profession, and as a methodology. Since we began our work at Goldsmiths, many of our students have achieved success in enlarging the role and potential of design, and we have seen many very positive developments that show some positive changes within society. We have seen, for example, a raising of consciousness concerning creativity, and its importance in helping us to adapt to our environment. Charles Landry’s vision of the ‘creative city’, and in Li Wuwei’s book on the importance of creativity China’s development give an indication of a growing awareness of the need for a more designerly approach. Richard Florida’s descriptions of the ‘creative economy’, have inspired businesses, economists and governments alike. These are positive signs that will eventually lead to a radical change in the way that society manages the relationship between business and the ecosystem.

Driving the desire for desire

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In trying to understand the role of our economic system and our technological capabilities it is also important to acknowledge the role of belief. We sustain paradigm because we are familiar with them, and because we believe in them. Each sustains the other. They also fit into our understanding of, and our belief in, a teleological reality. What Aristotle’s fundamental idea of design, and our growth-centred economies, have in common is that both are based on linear, rather than circular, temporalities. It is this destination-oriented sense of time that makes us live for a never-ending series of possible rewards. In this paradigm, the designer promises improved futures that materialise when consumers purchase improved products, services and systems. Unfortunately, this is a runaway process that will never deliver what is needed. When market activity slows down, designers are employed to stimulate the cycle of production and consumption by refreshing our desire for newer, and ever more exciting products. When markets reach saturation point, advertising designers are paid to re-kindle our desires. Ultimately, the desire for desire has become a characteristic of the modern way we perceive time. Unfortunately, focusing our collective efforts on raising GDP is a poor way to bring wellbeing to communities.

The invisibility of paradigms

Despite a growing recognition of design as a powerful catalyst to economic growth, when compared with established professions such as medicine, or law, it is a relatively young profession. This explains why many designers tend to see themselves merely as a commercial consultants, rather than elite professionals. Unfortunately, this means that they are more likely to be employed on a level that is relatively superficial, or even harmful to society, in the long term. If climate change and biodiversity depletion are as serious as many experts believe, our future looks very bleak. It is clear that the current design paradigm is fatally flawed, although this is, by no means, a straightforward issue. As with all paradigms, we tend not to see them because they consist of many factors that have sustained one another, over a long period of time. For this reason, they have come to seem normal and, therefore, invisible to us. For example, because of cheap fuels, and the way that industries evolved, we think it is ‘normal’ to transport people and goods at ridiculously high speeds. For similar reasons, we think it is ‘normal’ to build cities from energy-hungry materials that need fossil fuels to keep cool, or warm. We think it is ‘normal’ to turn complex ecosystems into agricultural factories that will eventually convert precious soils into storms of dust. All of these systems are funded by a banking system that has made it ‘normal’ to see economic growth as more important than ecological wellbeing. For us, the bad news is that designers have been complicit in upholding the status quo. The good news is that designers have enormous untapped potential for helping societies to adopt saner lifestyles. And, moreover, they can do so without resorting to draconian measures, such as physical force. And they can also do so without relying secondary methods, such as bureaucratic control, legislation, taxation. The feasibility of this approach is apparent, but not to everyone. However, it is slowly dawning on many people. The success of Apple computers has persuaded many people of the integrative power of design. The next task is to build upon some of these design principles in order to improve the way cities work, the way that resources are managed and, even, the way that countries are governed.

A new way to design design

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Our current research began in London, at the turn of the new millennium, with the launch of a design think-tank called ‘Attainable Utopias’. This promoted the idea that, if we need to mobilise change, optimism is better than pessimism. It argued that, as societal behaviour is highly sensitive to what we believe to be possible, it is important to present positive, as well as negative, scenarios. Design thinkers are helpful role models, because they are trained to act before they have a complete picture of how they will reach their destination. Much of the discussion and debate surrounding environmental issues has been too attached to the scientific questions that ask whether there is sound evidence for climate change, rather than a design approach, which is more likely to think how we should act, in case we are causing climate change. Fortunately, many other people have understood these issues in a similar ways, and have used them very creatively. Perhaps the best example is the ‘Transition Towns’ movement, which is a grass-roots network that is mobilising whole communities in changing lifestyles until we can attain a carbon-neutral, or carbon-negative status. Where many professionals are trained to look for a clear destination before beginning their journey, the Transition Towns movement focuses its attention on the journey and are determined to reach their destination, somehow. This notion of ‘futures’ is somewhat different from the short-term idea of ‘futures’ that industry still uses. While, in Aristotle’s sense, it is ‘caused’ by a long-term notion of purpose, it nevertheless offers greater emphasis on the shared pleasures of co-designing in the ‘now’. This will enable society to reform its assumptions about ‘sustainability’. Instead of seeing ‘sustainment’ in the temporal sense of maintaining the status quo into the future, it can think of it in the collective, co-creative sense. The idea of ‘design futures’ may, ultimately, give way to the notion of a ‘design presence’.


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