On ‘Good Design’ by Tony Fry
Introduction to Unsettled:Inkahoots
What is good design? This question has been asked ever since design became a subject of intellectual inquiry, and certainly by the late 19th century statements claiming to be definitive answers were being made. The Arts and Craft movement, for example, asserted ‘good design’ was ‘fitness for purpose’. Organisations like the Deutsche Werkbund and the British Design Council, and institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, were all established, in part, to answer the question authoritatively. Yet, defining what good design is, ever remains elusive, relative, contextual, political and therefore provisional. No matter what is said, who says it, where or when, someone, sometime will again ask – ‘what is good design?’ While an answer must always be given, it equally must always be critically framed by what is actually critical.
To begin with, a couple of well known characterisations of good design. The first is a social perspective, epitomised by the words of Anthony Bertram, once well known as a writer on design:-
Good design is not a matter of wealth, much less of the chic, the latest thing. It is not a matter of novelty, but of the production of cities and houses and goods which will best satisfy the needs of the people; the need of practical, honest, cheap lasting and beautiful things to use and see in their everyday lives.
While the language is dated, it’s the kind of sentiment that could have been expressed last week. It was actually made 70 years ago in a BBC broadcast.
Characterisation two is based on the notion that good design is a quality of the thing itself.
Such a characterisation turned on Platonic notions of ‘the good’ – an aesthetically ideal form which through its realisation becomes absolute truth (thereby acquiring a transcendental value uniting the thing with the cosmos). While this process of idealisation is ancient, it lives on, as does Greek thought in general. (Specifically, Greek thought is in fact inscribed in the western mind – we all think, in part, like the Greeks.) Certainly we find Platonism resident in many influential modern thinkers and designers – Le Corbusier is a good example.
Le Corbusier’s most influential book Towards a New Architecture (first published in France in 1923) extols the machine – specifically, the ocean liner, the aeroplane, the automobile – as the ideal form of his age. This is the book in which he famously characterises the house as a machine for living. However, echoing the Greeks, and just prior to coming to this conclusion, he spent forty pages celebrating the Parthenon as the ‘pure creation of mind’ and as a measure of ‘the good’. For Le Corbusier ’the good’ was an exemplary object – one ruptured from time to serve as a universal measure.
His ambition was to transpose the essence of the ‘eternally good’ onto what was new, rational and functional. His ideal mass-produced house fused with the classical, as the ‘type-form’ for future housing. Thereafter, this housing could be regarded as the agency for the mass replication of the good. Such thinking of idealised form - a form disengaged from any material or social environment – extended well beyond Le Corbusier and architecture. It influenced the entire modern movement in all spheres of design practice.
The ambitious and perhaps iconoclastic position I am going to put forward is defined against two reference points.
Point one is that in order to go forward we constantly need to step back. In so doing we discover that ethics and moral philosophy have been preoccupied with ‘the good’ for millennia. In one direction they considered happiness as a condition of well-being and so the way to the good - this is the philosophy of the Epicureans. In the other direction it is to be found via perfectionism (which takes us back to Plato).
These directions not only cross each other, but again illustrate that ancient ideas are alive and well in the present, be it in degenerate forms (vis-à-vis the Rolex watch, the BMW car, Armani suits, Frank Gehry architecture and masses of other things that travel with the promise of perfection bringing happiness - at least to the privileged).
Conversely, there is the notion of happiness realised via common good - this underpinned August Comte’s proto-socialism and the young Karl Marx’s view of communism. It was also central to J.S. Mill’s and Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism with its dictum: ‘for the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ (which now sounds more like a slogan for the entertainment industry).
Socialism and Utilitarianism, delivered by ideal forms, deeply infused the modern movement in architecture and design. Members of the movement saw themselves as bringers of a new world. This spirit of idealism was largely extinguished by the horrors of WW2 and replaced by the weak perfectionism (expressed in formalist design principles) of late modernism and the brutalism of ‘truth to materials’. In the past few decades, whatever residual trace of ’the common good’ remains, has mostly been erased by the eclecticism and cynicism of ‘aesthetic postmodernism’ or has been reduced to ‘user centredness’ – the notional user of course is not ‘the common’ (i.e., society at large), but the functional subject.
Yet, as we shall see, the common good has to return. Before going further, something else needs to be said on design.
While ‘the good’ is tricky to pin down, so is design. Notwithstanding this, the nature of design can be identified. Five short points are offered to support this claim.
1. Design as characteristic of human anthropology - we are in part human because we have the ability to prefigure our actions – we imagine before we make. Writ large, this tells us that everybody, at a fundamental level, is a designer. Most significantly, we have created our world by design (be it both good and bad).
2. Design is a diverse professional practice in which what is designed and how, and by what means, are in constant flux.
3. The material or immaterial objects that the practice of design brings into being far exceeds what is named as design – this is to say that most of what is designed is un-named and anonymous.
4. Crucially - all that is designed has an onward designing. Effectively, we are the designed as well as designers – our appearance, the way we live, our taste, how we drive, our work, a great deal of what we think – as they have been designed, design us. The omnipotence of design as such escapes us.
5. Mostly unknowingly, we create or destroy futures by design.
Now with these qualifications let me headline what I believe good design to be: it is design for the common good, which at its most basic, is design for sustainment. This somewhat tame statement has a radical bite as will be demonstrated.
Design and the Sustainment
The Sustainment is the ground and evaluative frame of good design.
Although the terms sound very similar, ’the sustainment’ hasn’t got much in common with sustainability, at least as it is currently advocated in the mainstream (which so often comes down to sustaining the unsustainable). Rather what ’the sustainment’ names is the opening of a new epoch of human history defined against an essential overcoming of unsustainability. Humanity, as we understand it, has no future without this overcoming.
Unsustainability is not reducible to symptomatic ‘environmental impact’ type problems – like global warming, deforestation and desertification – with which we are now more or less familiar. More so, unsustainability is a loss of memory and a sense of time; it is equally a loss of justice and responsibility. It is a forgetting of the past and the sacrifice of the future to the present.
Unsustainability, the longstanding myopia of humanity, is amplified by the growing numbers of the human population, which is still being deemed to peak at 9.5 billion.
In contrast, the moment of Sustainment is a non-utopian futural time, an age of new knowledge, practice and cultural re-direction. It is a necessity rather than a dream. It cannot be, without global equity achieved via global redistributive social justice, and based on an economy of quality and moderation (wasted waste, excess and poverty are all equally destructive). And of course it cannot be without an ethos of environmental care. For this to happen there has to be an enormous amount of innovation, with a great deal of momentum, loaded with massive economic and cultural potential.
To illustrate, here are some of the elements that would constitute this moment:-
/ Relearning – to make the world another way, to be another way, we have to unlearn so as to learn anew how to act within the relational interconnectedness of all ecologies. The linear mind is under erasure.
/ Recoding – if we give the existing things of the world new meanings, we effectively change the world and our actions in it. To totally transform the material world is unrealistic, but recoding, a futural redirective practice, is not.
/ Retrofitting – our cities, homes, means of transport and many techno-products. They all have to be remade, not least to cope with a changing climate and the associated, environmentally failing, fossil fuel based economy.
/ Elimination – the unsustainable in mind and matter has
to be designed away. Elimination is a redirective design practice, as such, it is another service of tomorrow.
/ Technological trans-innovation – sustainment has to be the principle that guides choices about which technologies will be created, developed and given investment support.
/ Environments of equity – for humanity to have a future, the notion of a new world order predicated on just exchange between inter-dependent communities, rather than bankrupt ideologies and sentimentalised humanism, has to come to be.
/ New institutions: all the actions so far noted require new redirective educational, professional, financial and political institutions and services that can drive immaterial and rematerialised change.
/ New ’low impact’ products and structures – a good deal of sustainable design is directed to this area. It’s important, but dealing with what’s already here, is more important.
Besides transforming the agenda of all design education and practice, the kind of activity signalled by the above points, demands a massive exercise in changing public culture, morality and aspirations. An important part of this, is the creation of a community of designers able to develop forms of visual communication that devalue people’s investment in systems, products, services and lifestyles that defuture, while at the same time, generating new ambitions and material desires bonded to life-affirming futures.
As said, recoding is a way to give ‘existing things of the world new meanings’ – it is a crucial low impact means to ‘change the world and our actions in it’ by the transformation of perceptions. To date, so much of the thinking associated with environmental design and technology has failed to grasp that to fundamentally change the world of human habitation does not require massive material change. Certainly, not all industrial processes and manufactured things need to be redesigned and remade. While there are things, like the way energy is generated and used, that do have to change, there are an enormous number of positive transformations that can come from recoding how things are given value, seen, used, occupied, cared for and disposed of.
Recoding should not, however, be viewed as merely directed at individual perceptions and conduct. Rather, it needs to be understood as a method of reframing the habitus (the imagined sense of the world occupied and lived) of a culture.
To take a simple, obvious example: that of recoding plastic - which after concrete and steel, is the most prolific material of the artificial environment of human construction.
In so many ways plastic has been projected and employed as a cheap and disposable material. Yet environmentally, plastic is regarded as a problem because, in most of its forms, it is a long-life substance. Now, in the face of this situation there are two appropriate actions: for those products that have designed short life-spans further development of biodegradable plant based plastics is the answer. But for many other products, plastic requires recoding (as it is mostly encountered as embodied in a product) to either become the material of a thing to cherish and value because it will last for an eternity, or, at worst, as able to be recycled at a future date at an identified facility without being down-cycled. More ambitiously, the essence of plastic, its plasticity, its formlessness, invites being over-determined by an inscribed code - a signifier of sustainment.
Unquestionably, and as suggested, the redirection of visual communication towards the task of recoding, elevates designers in this field into an extraordinarily important role as ‘change agents’. Although finding a way to meet and rise to this challenge is counter to the dominant culture of the profession, as well as being creatively and economically demanding, it offers enormous potential for the development of the practice. In the face of this prospect, the critical question for designers in the field is ‘am I going to be active or passive?’ Of course, historically, many designers have assumed that social, economic and political leadership will come from elsewhere, while they remain in their familiar role as service providers. Some have worked to redefine this service relation; a few have set out to become independent of service provision though self-initiated projects and by becoming designer-producers.
The kind of redirective activity does not imply an instant abandonment of the economy currently depended upon. It does though suggest that a platform of research, development and change be built into every commercial practice that recognises the imperative of Sustainment. This, in turn, suggests that design-led leadership is an agenda inviting exploration and advancement. Is this easy to do? Clearly it’s not, but it is vital!
While the challenge of Sustainment is mind-boggling, does humanity have another choice?
Sustainment means no longer educating people in error (people do not become unsustainable accidentally; they learn to be that way via their socialisation and the content of their formal education). In turn, this implies the creation of new cultures in which values and rituals of sustainment are developed.
Sustainment means moving the capitalist economy away from the quantitative paradigm to a qualitative one – in this respect good design as the perfect folds into good design as the common good. Sustainment, the qualitative economy, demands good design so defined.
Good design, design for Sustainment, has to be for all humanity.
Good design is futuring.
Good design is ethics embodied in things material and immaterial as they design our being-in-the-world as world-caring and beings cared for.
Human beings are creators and destroyers, an unavoidable fact of our life which we fail to grasp. Currently, to make our world, we sacrifice the natural; in contrast, good design draws the line of ethical demarcation between what we destroy and what we create.
Is all this impossible? No matter how you feel and think about what has been said here, the answer has to be no. Quite simply, we have nothing without Sustainment.
We should remember that humanity has a history of constantly attaining the impossible (in fact the impossible turns out to be as much perspectival limitation as empirical fact).
Good design is thus not a matter of taste, choice or acclaim. It’s a matter of necessity; a matter of freedom gained by constraining the unsustainable. Good design is (a matter of) Sustainment.
So, in the epoch of Sustainment, which is an epoch that has to come, one can be certain of one question that will be asked – what is good design?
This essay was developed from a paper given at The Brisbane Ideas Festival in March 2006.