Rebuilding Our World
Reimagining the Design Process
I was interacting with a colleague regarding the process of capturing snippets of life through microblogging on Tumblr, and it made me think of r/place on Reddit.
- Redditors Collaborate to Create the Iconic Picture of Our Time
- /r/place Timelapse — 54 hours
It makes me wonder what might happen if we were to coordinate an effort to collectively redesign our world to make it a better place: to know truth, to make beauty and to do good.
I just came across these articles last week:
Priests of Modern Culture
Designers hold the office of priests in our culture. In the days of the pharaohs and kings, the priests had the magical ability to read and write. Literacy was a closely guarded secret of the intelligentsia and the elites in the courts of the ancient monarchs. The tools of the trade have improved over the years: tablets, hieroglyphics, papyrus, alphabets, paper, printing presses, books, newspapers, radios, televisions, computers, and smart phones. Now, we have come full circle, back to tablets again.
The Evolution of Design
I am starting to recognize a growing movement among designers to reinterpret the role of the designer. In the UX world, we talk about changing our mindset from designing pages to designing systems. The conversation is migrating away from the artifact and more toward the process of design thinking applied to systemic problems.
- Give Half
- A New Economy
- Circular Design
- The Human Scale
- Public Life Data Protocol
- The Living Building Challenge
- International Living Future Institute
- Humane Tech
- Social Capital
- Intentional Movement
I think we need to adopt a new term for this sort of thinking: social architecture. So, as I think about the long term, I am considering the arc of history and the curve that describes the exponential growth of our species as a social arc.
The New Bauhaus
Judd Morgenstern referred to IIT’s Institute of Design as the Reincarnation of the Bauhaus.
The Bauhaus had a revolutionary agenda: to create a new aesthetic appropriate for a modern industrial society. The school would use technology to improve our quality of life.
Moholy-Nagy designed the curriculum of The New Bauhaus on the Bauhaus model from foundation to specialization.
Now, as we celebrate 100 years of Bauhaus, we are beginning to reconsider the modernist project in light of how humanity and technology have scaled. We now realize that the current model of modern industrial and economic growth is unsustainable.
We may need to reconsider the role of artists, designers and architects in building our world of concrete, steel and glass and our virtual world, a network of digital devices made out of silicon, aluminum and glass. We have been concerned with form and function, with intellectual aesthetic. In the process, we have neglected the body and the spirit. The focus on building our digital infrastructure has inadvertently resulted in an economically stratified, geographically dispersed, socially fragmented, psychologically disconnected, politically divided, and ecologically devastated world, raising questions about the unintended consequences of design.
At the same time, the democratization of knowledge, technologies and skills have exposed people to a world of ideas, and empowered them and given them a voice.
What Will We Build?
The question now is, “What will we build?” If we hope to make a better world, is it possible to build a community that can contribute to the quality of life of all living things on the earth?
I will be turning 50 while the Bauhaus turns 100. Thirty years ago, I started working as a designer. Since then, I have been trying to build my skills as a designer, from print to brand to web to user experience. Still, the goal has always been to build relationships and to build community. Meanwhile, I have been wondering how it might be possible to gather artists, creatives and innovators to build a new society. Bau is a Chinese name. It means “abalone.” In German, bau means “to build.” For 30 years, I have been drawing inspiration from the Bauhaus as the progenitors of the modern design movement. I have been considering the process of the work of a designer.
- imagine: creativity and innovation at the intersection of art and science
- design: influenced by the past, shaping the future
- build: building resilience, relationships and community
It has taken me a long time to bring my ideas to market, because I have been trying to conceptualize the big idea, to articulate a compelling vision, and to gather the right group of people to help build the community that I have been envisioning. But I finally came to the realization that this was not a project that I could pull off on my own. In fact, it is not something that any particular group of people could accomplish on their own. The builders collective is a collaborative effort that involves all of humanity. It can’t be branded. It can’t be marketed. It can’t be controlled.
Humanity is out of control. But perhaps it can be directed. If we can harness the desire of humanity for meaning, purpose and belonging, we might be able to direct our abundance of time, energy and resources to move mountains. The first goal would be to fulfill our most basic human needs: food, clothing and shelter.
Then, we can reach for the transcendent: art, music, culture. It demands our entire will — mind, heart and body — to reach the pinnacle of human experience: faith, hope and love.
Experience as a Design Process
Pardon me while I draw from my spiritual upbringing. I promise that this is relevant as a metaphor for the process. At least, that is my take, as a designer, on the narrative of the Bible.
If Krista Tippett were to ask me, “What was the religious or spiritual background of your childhood?,” I might answer:
I was raised by parents who were part of the Jesus movement in Vancouver, Canada. That upbringing continues to influence me to this day. But my ideas about faith, hope and love are very different from what I inherited. I have been grappling with the meaning of these terms through my own lived experience. I have not arrived at the destination of certainty. Instead, I have been on a journey to discover ever more questions that ignite my wonder in truth, beauty and goodness, which I can only comprehend in juxtaposition with their opposites.
In design, white space is one of the most important means of guiding the attention of the observer to that which is most important. It is the shapes of the spaces surrounding the letters that help us to comprehend their meaning. The structure and the rhythm of the negative and positive shapes form the foundation of our understanding.
We work with symbol systems to communicate in the abstract about the concrete. What we discover in the process is that the concrete is merely an abstraction of a much deeper reality that transcends the physical and connects each one of us to a process that leads all the way back to the origins of time, space and matter. In the beginning was the word, the logos. The idea not only transcends reality, but is the creative force that brings something out of nothing.
As a designer, I learn from past experience to extrapolate possibilities into the future. The adjacent possible is what we call our present reality, at the intersection of past experimentation and future technologies. We shape our tools to shape ourselves.
From this basic understanding comes the core questions of human experience: who are we and who do we want to be?
Reality as an Iterative Design Process
My observations of the first chapter of the Bible reveals the increasing complexity that arises out of an iterative design process. The first three days set the stage for the emergence of vegetative life. The second three days set the stage for the emergence of human consciousness. This initial chapter becomes the metaphor for the subsequent narrative about the design process in regard to the evolution of social systems from agrarian societies, cities, monarchies and empires.
At the climax of the narrative is the ultimate revolution of the human heart.
Humans have been building for a long time. According to some of our ancient myths, we have built arks, tabernacles, temples, and towers. We have built houses, cities, walls, and empires.
The sacred texts that tell these stories also make reference to these warnings:
Unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain.
If we build towers and empires, they will fall. However,
Love never fails.
We fight over land, cities and sacred sites. We miss the point. These design artifacts have never mattered. We have turned created things into status symbols. Brands and corporations, borders and governments are technological inventions that we have elevated to divine status, defining our tribal identities. As any designer knows, the work we do is ephemeral. It is irrelevant as soon as it is created. A design is obsolete as soon as another technology replaces it.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Google’s mission is to
“Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
However, it ignores the ancient wisdom:
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
What have I learned after working as a designer for 30 years? My work has become commodified. I am replaceable. The latest model of designer has replaced me. I can no longer compete with the new generation of designers. But, that has always been our role as human beings, to pass on what we have learned, our DNA, to the next generation.
What, then, survives after all is said and done?
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
As it has been written long ago,
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
Interestingly, Stephen’s last words are a quotation from God about building.
Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
What kind of house will you build for me?
says the Lord.
Or where will my resting place be?
Has not my hand made all these things?
According to the Bible, a building project has been in process this whole time:
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.
Cyrus the Great, king of Persia gave Nehemiah all the resources he needed to go back to his homeland and rebuild the temple of his God.
As humans, we have the abundance of the world’s resources at our disposal, but we are actually turning it into fuel to burn and garbage to throw away. I don’t think that we have really thought through the amazing opportunity that we have to build a better world. In some ways, we have built hell on earth. If we are so intent on developing the technology of artificial intelligence, have we thought about why we are doing this and how this makes life better for people and for the planet? The 20th century is a horrific account of what can go terribly wrong when technology is used as a means of assuming economic control and political power, of waging industrialized wars, and intentionally and unintentionally destroying life on the earth.
I became a designer because I recognized a potential to help spread good ideas, to help motivate people to act, and to help people to collaborate to build a better world.
However, there is a tendency to become so specialized in our roles as designers as to completely lose sight of the systems that we are supporting by our work.
Are we able to stand back and look at our world and say that our contributions have helped to make the world a better place?
At this moment in time, we are faced with an opportunity to continue on in our current trajectory or to change course. If we need to change course, we need the freedom to question our previous assumptions. If they do not align with reality or pose a serious threat to life on earth, we must have the courage not only to change our minds, but our habits and actions as well, whether they arise from automatic responses or deliberate intentions. This has been referred to as a deconstruction process:
The innovations of the Bauhaus arose out of the destruction of the architecture and institutions of the past. The Great War had proven the foundational social values and hierarchical structures to be false. To rebuild society would require the collective effort of a new generation of builders. So, a school was formed to gather artists, designers and architects to imagine, design and build a new way of life.
One hundred years later, we face a different design challenge. We had been so focused on the physical artifact, on form and function. We neglected the human heart, mind and body.
What our times have revealed are the economic, political and social systems upon which our society has been built. The façade of the society has fallen away to reveal a crumbling structure built on divisions of religion, income, class, race, and sex. Notably, the marketing and advertising industries base their research on these same divisions to segment the market and target consumers with individualized campaigns.
Why are we okay with this? Because we know that this is how the system works.
In the lean startup world, there is the concept of the pivot. In agile development, there is the idea of refactoring. In construction, there is the tear down. Out with the old, in with the new.
- tear down
In a social system, we call this a revolution. The process need not be violent. It can also be the result of peaceful, non-violent protest, as with the American civil rights movement. It can be a process of truth and reconciliation, as in South Africa. It can be a process of decolonization and indigenization as in Canada.
The Bauhaus movement has continued into the present, transforming our tools, our cities, and our way of life. However, we recognize a new challenge to change our focus from creating artifacts to creating systems that work in harmony with the living systems that surround us, recognizing that both individually and collectively we are living systems.
Now we are thinking in terms of designing for engagement, considering what it means to be human:
- perception (senses: stimuli)
- cognition (mind: thoughts)
- emotion (heart: feelings)
- action (body: behaviour)
Our design challenge is the human experience.
For such a challenge, we need a new type of designer, a social architect, bringing together multiple disciplines to consider the unity of humanity from a diversity of perspectives.
No single individual will be able to fill such a role. We will need teams of artists, creatives and innovators. We will need new incentives. We will need new organizations. The old models of corporations and governments no longer fit the requirements of the design challenge. Corporations and nations are by definition self-serving. Even the United Nations cannot serve a united humanity, as the representatives do not necessarily represent the desires of all people and all living things on the earth. The vision is far too small for the challenges our world faces. The limited mindset of the politician cannot be expected to fill the role required to lead a revolution.
What is needed is the empowerment of the next generation to lead the movement. What is needed is a revolution in education. We have the means and the tools. We need the will to change and to invest our time, energy and resources to the task of building a new world.
They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.”
So they began this good work.