Reflections on the Question, “What is Design?”

Uncategorized May 03, 2019

By Chauncey Bell

We live in a world full of intelligent, caring, inventive people. Nevertheless, people find it difficult to break old habits, resolve old wounds, make changes, and bring the kinds of conversations and inventions, new ways of being together and doing things together, of which all of us dream some of the time, and some of us dream for most of our lives.

For hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years, humankind has moved slowly from an interpretation that things don't change, through periods in which changes came and disproved our common sense, through the dark ages in which change was forbidden, and into the "modern" and "postmodern" eras, in which "change" is accelerating. At this moment, we are clear, some important things are changing: for the first time, we find ourselves connected to the rest of the world by incredible communications linkages.

We learn in our schools, the media, and in our homes, businesses, streets, and alleyways how the sources of our difficulties are our human nature, the character of our families and communities, our educational systems, the nature of capitalist structures, the nature of capitalism, the nature of religions. We are surrounded by institutions and structures that victimize us (or others), limit our future possibilities, and constrain our actions. Yet each of these is the invention of other human beings – those that came before us.

A last point: this historical moment is different. We have researched into what is really happening in the brain as people “think” and “act,” studies in philosophy and language, emotions and moods, technology, and also we have new global threats from human beings enmeshed in old struggles and disagreements about the nature of life, and technologies run amok. 

Design points to our concern for participating in the construction of our future. The commonsense notion of design is not strong. People talking about design are usually referring to the arrangement and adornment of things; not about the arrangement of structures and practices in which we observe the world, make interpretations, discover possibilities, and along the way invent meaning and opportunities in our lives. 

Leonardo da Vinci was a designer, and his work is interpreted as that of an artist, an inventor of war machines, and a crank. Why do I think that happened? One important part of it is that long before his time and up to the present, design has been interpreted as a transitive verb referring to an object, a thing. We design the phone, the airplane, the computer, the garden, the building, the curriculum. The notions I work with – designing the spaces in which humans interpret and invent themselves – generally are taken as fanciful or flakey. Now I think, as well, that without certain recent discoveries and inventions about language, moods and emotions, cognition, and biology, that was not altogether a silly assessment.

Steve Jobs, a designer in my terminology, invented the Apple computer. The things that he said about inventing human possibilities and the way that computers could change human beings were taken as PR and marketing word-smithing. Einstein is remembered for his physics, and his concerns about how human beings think about themselves were treated as the rant of an old man. A Cartesian reality holds us in thrall, in an interpretation of the world as collections of things.

Perhaps the notion of design fell into disrepute in our modern era, in our atomization of everything. Perhaps the notion never found full flower in the past. In any event, in the way I think about design, we have the opportunity to construct for ourselves an extraordinary, fundamentally new set of concerns and competencies for building our futures together. 

So, design for me is constructing the distinctions, spaces, social relationships, conversations, projects, and artifacts (including systems, for example), in which human beings recover their responsibility and capacity to invent worthwhile futures together. Along the way, we listen to each other's concerns, to the future already embodied in our present, learn to confront and heal the wounds of the past so we have the possibility of changing, detect mistrust and repair it, and so forth. 

As a political aside, a friend speaks of how we can't talk about designing human beings unless in a particular context; it is like cloning. Talking about designing human beings is taboo not because we don't know what humans are, but because we have an interpretation of being human in which such a notion should be taboo. If you own your soul, and you maintain it in trust in a relationship with God, then for someone else to muck around with your way of being is a kind of heresy. God designs humans. In order to talk about designing humans, first, we need to have a new conversation about what humans are, undertaken in a philosophical context in which everyone has the space to have their own spiritual conversation.

The turning point in my interpretation came a long time ago when I realized that to design software is, in effect, (crudely put) to design the humans who use the software. The software designer designs what the people using the software pay attention to and don't pay attention to, what they can ignore, what they are going to be concerned about and not, the assessments they are going to make in the middle of their work, the actions they are going to have ready to hand, and the moods they will work in. For these matters, we have trivial ways of talking with each other: e.g. it is or is not user friendly. We find it pretty and comfortable, or ugly and uncomfortable: words that have to do with our interpretation of ourselves and our worlds as things and psychological-emotional reactions. 


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