Metadesign and designing culture

By | September 9, 2012

Two extremely thought provoking pieces of writing found their way to me recently. The first was Designing Culture by Colin McSwiggen, where he writes about the role that material artefacts play in society and culture’s embedded messaging:

This is a big deal because one of the main ways that people are socialized is through using, observing and contemplating material objects. The idea that people learn their places in society by engaging with the physical stuff around them has a long history in anthropology, but it was finally cemented into the theoretical mainstream in 1972 when Pierre Bourdieu published his Outline of a Theory of Practice. Bourdieu makes the case that we come to internalize the expectations of our particular social group by analogy with categories, orders and relations of things. Spatial arrangements of objects in the home, for example, or the use of different farming tools at different times of year, come to stand for intangible relationships between genders, social strata and the like, thereby anchoring abstract ideas about social organization to the physical world.

and the other article was by Prof John Wood, titled “Why User Centered Design is not Enough” where he writes:

What is remarkable about smart people today is how pliable and impressionable we become when the system puts us at the centre of our emotional universe. This is an aspect of ‘humanism’ that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks and the early Christians. However, while it has many admirable qualities, humanism is an incomplete way to understand how things work. If we could see humanism as a picture, people and money might be shown in bright colours, whereas Nature, the universe and God would probably be in faint grey. It has made us confident about ourselves, but, in combination with consumer-driven technologies, it has turned us into babbling infants who are never satisfied. This is paradoxical. In the 21st century, never have so many people have had so much access to so much information. Yet, by manipulating and dumbing-down our perceptions of what is happening, our species has, increasingly, become disconnected from the complex ecosystem that nourishes and sustains it. What should worry designers, in particular, is that they played a major part in creating this artificial, user-centred world.

What we have here, by taking together two seemingly unconnected articles, is an interesting phenomena. Asking design to indulge in teh navel gazing they are so fond of, but this time from a macro systems level overview of the impact of their own design work. Design for social impact is so popular now, but tends to be focused on the needs of the poor and downtrodden, whereas if indeed we are defined by our choice of material good, is it not the case then that designers are defining the material standing of the poor?

And resource scarcity is one condition which defines the operating environment of this lower income demographic.

On the other hand, the premiums paid on greener products and an eco friendly, homemade, handmade lifestyle seem to imply the way sustainability issues have been co-opted into consumption driven design initiatives after all.

Is there a way out or is it a vicious cycle?

Are we saying “Ok, stop designing” or are we saying “Wait a minute, lets look at what we’re enabling (consumption) even as we apply our energies to create products that the poor will want to consume”

And if so, is the solution as simple as leaving them to their kerosene and candles and wood burning stoves, or then, is the moral imperative of environmental protection require substitution with better products?

There is as much of tension inherent in good design but from which context and on the continuum of consumption, as there is in the business models continuum of profit maximisation alone through to triple bottomline.

What will changing design itself, as Wood wants to do, solve?

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