Design is first and foremost a philosophy, a system of values
September 7, 2012 6:22 AM   Subscribe

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. ~ Designing Culture by Colin McSwiggen
posted by infini (22 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Hilariously, I thought to myself "this has to be either Jacobin or New Inquiry" and lo, it was!
posted by Frowner at 6:33 AM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

The historical lesson here is that the idea that designing something should be done independently from making it 

I would quibble with this as in my mind the very best designs advance or at least integrate the best in the making process. Great design and manufacture often work best together, not independently.
posted by caddis at 6:38 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I clicked on the article...looked at the website...realized my workday was receiving mortar fire...and quickly bookmarked and closed.

In other words, thank you.
posted by incandissonance at 6:40 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Without physical stuff to remind us of how we supposedly differ from one another, our hierarchies would be awfully ramshackle; stripped of our possessions, categories like “class” start to look like just a bunch of learned behaviors and confused ideas.

is that so bad....?
[I think I have basically dismissed this article as worthless at this point]
posted by caddis at 6:41 AM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

Am I the only one who read the article all the way through? The guy was specifically talking about design separated from production as a problem, as well as the upper classes using objects to stay upper class. Mentioning something does not amount to advocating it, especially when you're mentioning it specifically to bring to our attention how messed up it is!
posted by Mooseli at 6:54 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

is that so bad....?

I don't think it's passing a value judgement so much as identifying how crucial the "physical stuff" is to the way our social lives and standings are arranged, rather than the physical stuff being a lesser manifestation of stories, mannerisms, expectations and other non-physicals. But I only just started the article.
posted by postcommunism at 7:03 AM on September 7, 2012

Last third of the article is really great. Look around you.

And this doesn't just apply to "designers". If you're a software engineer or real engineer, the ideas in this article are just as important to mull over.
posted by polymodus at 7:05 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Interesting article. I agree that the last third is the richest part. I have two tangential thoughts.

One, the stuff about the maids and the beds-for-maids reminds me of how people talk about welfare and food stamps. The poor may be given sustenance, but they can never forget the fact that they are poor and that they are worth less and that they cannot enjoy anything defined as a luxury. This is why you wind up with bits on Fox News about how 99% of the "poor" own refrigerators, which apparently means that they're not "actually" poor, or with judgmental screeds about poor people having ice cream, cell phones, leather jackets, televisions, etc.

Two, it's interesting how the idea of design aping the upper-class can also swing back around. Look at how faux-folksiness and intentionally clunky design can be used to seem more genuine, sincere, reliable, etc. Remember all those articles about how the "ugly" design of eBay is actually of great benefit to eBay itself. Appearing too "slick" can be a detriment.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:23 AM on September 7, 2012 [6 favorites]

Also consider the difference between a Toyota Prius, which many would see as being associated with upper-middle class liberals, as compared with Scott Brown's pickup truck. Or how "new money" supposedly flaunts its wealth, whereas "old money" drives in a beat-up station wagon with fake wood panelling.

Hell, I remember how the dean of my law school, himself the son of a previous dean, drove a ten-year-old Saturn to work, whereas a young visiting adjunct, the son of another professor, drove a Teflon-slick sports car - I think an MG, but I'm not sure.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:27 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mooseli, you are right, and I am wrong. Thank you for so gently pointing that out to me. Note to self, don't skim an article while on a boring conference call and then go trumpeting your misreading of it on the internets.
posted by caddis at 7:47 AM on September 7, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am going into my habitus, and you can't make me come out.
posted by beelzbubba at 8:13 AM on September 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

On of the tricky things about material culture for me is that discussions about it really blur the lines between invention (which I read new function/capability) and design (which I read as the packaging or way of use). Maybe this is partly an outgrowth of design getting cut off from making, which he mentions with that horrific Josiah Wedgwood quote. Design is the thing you can copy/paste in CAD, no? The essence of a thing is what it does -- say, peel apples -- and the design is deciding the peeler should have a large, comfortable handle. I get that there's an implicit argument there -- apples should be peeled by hand, which requires someone's time and casts them as domestic -- but the idea of design by itself still feels reactive rather than active.

As far as the design being baked into hierarchy and class signalling, it seems like the design of the object would again be secondary or reactive; the actual shape of an object used for signalling is less important than its contextual value.

And then there's the word material itself. 'Material culture' may refer to, literally, the physical stuff of culture, but the design the essay talks about seems to live in materialism in the consumer meaning. Which makes sense; if you're designing something for household use but you're not making it with your hands, doesn't that assume a production line somewhere? And yeah, he acknowledges this, but the idea of the designer as a job isn't questioned at all, even though he says right up front that it came about only once individual, skilled factory workers could no longer be allowed to put together material goods with their own style and variations.

Basically, a lot of what's under discussion in material culture essays like this seems downstream from the causal issues. But I feel like I can only say that because he's already made a cogent argument and pointed things out that I might have missed.

Regardless, part of the pleasure of reading pieces like this, even if they don't entirely click, is the truth in this:
Once you realize that all designed objects carry this sort of encrypted information about the organization of society, something amazing happens: you suddenly stop feeling bored in home furnishings stores
posted by postcommunism at 8:27 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's a very, very blurry line between design and invention. Related: Design With Intent blog (formerly Architectures of Control in Design).
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:34 AM on September 7, 2012

Oh, man. So much failed thesis vertigo.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:20 AM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wasn't Architectures of Control his thesis/dissertation or some such? Interesting to see update.

And this article popped up just after I made the the FPP so I wasn't left wondering which to pick.


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.

Though technically, I'm going to navel gaze.
posted by infini at 9:37 AM on September 7, 2012

I love designed material objects and have far too many of them. I've bent a lot of thought toward understanding them and how they were made.

Yet I am all too aware, as I look around at my thousands of books, hundreds of tools, dozens of pots and hundreds of other cooking implements, and so forth, that we have disemboweled the world to give ourselves these things, and that there isn't all that much left.
posted by jamjam at 11:22 AM on September 7, 2012

This review of Graeber's debt tome on that website was well worth reading.
posted by bukvich at 12:28 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]


This makes me think of today's post on LiveJournal. User-centered design has, in a way, given us a world in which Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr have triumphed over the world of LiveJournal: pseudonymous, longform blogging has fallen by the wayside, whereas we have seen the rise of a terse, image-driven, 160-character-per-message panopticon where everything is traceable.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:25 PM on September 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

jamjam - you're making the scarcity argument, which in many respects is not valid. at least Buckminster Fuller talked about scarcity as a straw man - whenever limits are reached, new materials or new sources are found. the material world is limitless. the key is what we do with all the material.
posted by TMezz at 2:54 PM on September 7, 2012

the material world is limitless.


The material world is not only limited but is now seriously depleted in hundreds of critical ways. Oil, gas, almost all fish stocks, arable land, forest resources, potable fresh water, water for irrigation, critical minerals-- the list is huge and gets longer by the year-- and probably worst of all, we've used up the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb our wastes, which will in a couple of centuries at most, very probably reduce the carrying capacity of the planet far below our current numbers.

Human gullibility and ignorance, however, are limitless-- as we see.
posted by jamjam at 12:10 AM on September 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Mashing up what the article in the OP is saying with what John Wood wrote, and inspired by jamjam's comment:

What we have here 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.

/I can't decide if I made a huge error in sharing my previous comment or no, I am unable to assess if these two things are related or not

On the other hand, the premiums paid on greener products and an eco friendly home made hand made 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?
posted by infini at 1:58 AM on September 8, 2012

gyob indeed
posted by infini at 2:00 AM on September 8, 2012

« Older Synthetic propositions may break my bones but...   |   Deep fried mars bars! What do they tell us about... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments