Ethical Design Education: Confessions of a Sixties Idealist

From the newly published book Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, edited by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne.“Sustainability is not my issue,” protests one senior, a student in Parsons’ product design department. She’s presenting her term paper on a designer and maker of lamps. Two others in the class, also product majors, are appalled by […]

From the newly published book Citizen Designer: Perspectives on Design Responsibility, edited by Steven Heller and Véronique Vienne.

“Sustainability is not my issue,” protests one senior, a student in Parsons’ product design department. She’s presenting her term paper on a designer and maker of lamps. Two others in the class, also product majors, are appalled by this statement; so am I. We’ve just spent a semester returning, again and again, to discussions of our degrading natural environment and the need for everyone to figure out how to use this knowledge to design more sensitively.

We’re a group of twenty-eight fledgling professionals, pursuing courses of study in architecture; interior, product, and graphic design; fashion; and photography; I’m number twenty-nine, their teacher and a design magazine editor. Having observed every kind of designer at work for several decades, I know that the creative professions make a huge difference in the ways we live. I see designers as active participants in the decisions businesses make about the land they occupy and the resources they use, the technologies they rely on, and the ideas they communicate.

More from Metropolis

Every Tuesday afternoon we gather in a windowless room in a hulking New School building on Fifth Avenue (New York)-the kind of soulless, mechanically aired space we’ve all grown to tolerate-and discuss the Ethics of Design. I have been teaching this senior seminar, part of Parson’s liberal arts offering, since 1997, when the school first asked me to develop it. The course is all about responsibility: to the planet, to the regions we live in, to the community, to the profession, to the client, and to the self. I interpret ethics to mean that we have a moral duty, an obligation to our fellow humans and to other living creatures. And that obligation calls on us to be prudent stewards of the natural environment that supports and sustains our lives. Sustaining the environment, in turn, is our highest priority as thinking, verbal, tool-using creatures blessed with free will; yes, we have a choice. In my view, it’s ethical to choose fresh water, clean air, nutritious food-the bounties our home planet provides for us-and safeguard these for future generations.

We begin each September by watching Mindwalk, a 1991 film that argues for abandoning the Cartesian, mechanistic, linear thinking that lit up the road to industrialization and made the modern world possible. Now, if we are to survive, we need to switch to an ecological-systems thinking which considers interconnectedness and relationships. This is the crux of the 110-minute conversation between a politician, a poet, and a physicist-a brilliant script based on the thinking of physicist Fritjof Capra. There’s no sex, no drugs, no rock and roll, nothing but talk about life, all kinds of life, and glorious views of Mont-Saint-Michel, a tiny island built up during the Middle Ages in France’s Gulf of St. Malo, photographed to the music of Philip Glass.

As they watch the video monitor, the students see a gigantic metal mechanism in an ancient tower and hear the physicist say that the microchip has taken the place of the clockwork. This is a dramatic visual and verbal reminder of how invisible technology is replacing much of the bulkily visible. What’s called for, says the scientist, is a drastic change in the way we see the world: no longer as a machine with replaceable parts, but as a system of relationships modeled on nature’s own systems.

And so we build on this thought throughout our four months together, probing how designers can become active participants in the great system of living organisms that dwell on our fragile, blue-green planet. We try, as the physicist urges us to, to figure out how we might live and work inside a “web of relationships” and connect to the “web of life.”

The first to resist ecological thinking this semester are the fashion students. They’re skeptical, even cynical. Their lament: The big companies are in control. There’s nothing any one designer can do. We’re all slaves of seasonal trends and fickle consumers; we’re creatures of a throw-away culture. Why should we care about being sensitive to the environment when nobody wants us to be? The world is a polluted, mean, ugly place ruled by greed and ego. To be part of the fashion industry, to make a living in it, we need to figure out how to make money, how to become stars.

I, the sixties idealist who wholeheartedly believes we can turn that ugly world into something more beautiful, try to keep my cool, though I hear my voice turn shrill. I bring up examples from Paul Hawken’s 1993 book, The Ecology of Commerce. (I’ve stopped assigning it this year. Experience tells me that only a few students would actually read any part of it, so why waste all that paper?) I call their attention to large, multinational businesses like Ikea that are making changes in the way they procure and use materials and distribute their furniture, all to reflect their own, and presumably their customers’, growing interest in the environment. I mention post-consumer materials now on the market, like the luxurious fleece we wear as parkas and use as blankets, made from recycled soda bottles. Yes, but look at us, we’re slaves to mindless acquisition. You’re dreaming a naïve dream, Susan, argue the students.

We press on and read William Morris on the “morality of materials,” on the importance of craft and the human touch in an industrialized world, on the social responsibility of designers. We learn about his interest in and advocacy of such varied but related areas of aesthetic expression as historic restoration, furniture and furnishings, wallpapers and textiles, polemical writings, and book publishing. Through this eccentric nineteenth-century genius we are introduced to the designer as an advocate, a revolutionary who looks back to medieval times to reclaim human creativity. His life and work teach us that a strong and brave designer can take on the powerful socio-economic forces, like Morris took on the Industrial Revolution, and have influence far beyond his own times.

We read Walter Gropius on his struggles to establish the Bauhaus, a breakthrough art school in a provincial town in war-ravaged Germany. We learn about the dire economic conditions that plagued the early years of his school and how Gropius overcame these limitations by sheer will and conviction while collaborating with like-minded people. Though his ideas helped bring our world into modern times, we also learn that initially the Bauhaus was shaped by Morris’s thinking: a deep understanding of craft materials and methods. We discuss how a great hardship, like the post-World War I collapse of social and economic values, can propel creative thinking and awaken social responsibility among form-givers. We talk about the need for material invention in such times. And we realize that design, as Gropius saw it (as Morris did before him), has a significant contribution to make in the reshaping of institutions as well as our lives. The word “responsibility” runs through our discussions.

We watch A Story of Healing, a short film that follows American surgeons and nurses in Vietnam doing reconstructive facial surgery on children. Working under primitive conditions, these highly skilled professionals bring all their technical knowledge and love of humanity to the task. It’s a heartbreaking and an exhilarating thirty-three minutes that leads to two hours of spirited conversation on professional behavior: It’s important, at times, to step out of our comfort zone. For the medical team, that mean leaving behind the fancy, well-run, high-tech hospitals they worked in every day. What does it mean for designers? We wonder.

The nurses and surgeons set up shop in a small, provincial hospital, some spending their vacations working there. The talk, between the many procedures they perform, about finding satisfaction in the work. No one mentions money or wealth or prestige. Their faces beam as they come to realize, one after another, “this is why I went into medicine in the first place.” They all talk about the joys and surprises of helping those in need, being part of a dynamic team, testing their skills and imaginations at every turn, and learning that even though people’s circumstances and cultures are different, they value the same things. They teach us that acting on our obligation to our human family can result in rewards far beyond our expectations.

Then, sometime around midterm, a fashion student mentions that an instructor gleefully showed off a forbidden cache of monkey fur in class. The room blows up. The kids are outraged. The architects, interior designers, and the product and graphic designers face the fashion designers, arguing the immorality and illegality of hunting monkeys for their fur. The thought of killing primates purely for their coats so some fashionista can parade around in them offends all of us, including the fashion designers.

One architecture student starts talking about hearts of palm. Apparently, she says, whole groves of a kind of palm tree are cult down and wasted so that some gourmand can buy a precious little snack in a can. Monkey fur and hearts of palm. Everyone agrees, eventually, that we can do without these ill-gotten luxuries. What else can we do without, I ask.

But the bigger question now, for everyone in the room, is how to think about the materials we use and what designers must teach themselves about these materials. One industrial design student explains that we have to look at the full life-cycle costs of materials, from resource harvesting to processing to manufacturing to distribution to use and recycling or, better yet, working to engineer materials for nontoxic degradation. It took monkey fur and hearts of palm to grasp the complex system lurking behind every material choice designers make, from the paper we print on, to the clothing we wear, to the furniture we sit on, to the buildings we live and work in, to the appliances we use.

Last year, our second class of the fall season happened to have been scheduled for 9/11, and so, of course, did not happen. The semester was foreshortened by the attacks on the World Trade Center. For a while the New School buildings served as staging areas for some emergency services. Several students came closer to the carnage than anyone should. Our academic world became more real as we talked about America’s arrogant and profligate energy use, which was dramatically embedded in the twin towers, now turned to one big toxic pile of dust. The rubble was burning not far from where we sat. those who will give forms to our physical environment-my twenty-eight hopes for the future of a new design ethic-had a hard time ignoring this fact of their lives. The collapse shows, among other things, that our current American lifestyle is unsustainable.

But what can we do? Ask the students. Henry Dreyfuss provides a helping hand from beyond the grave. He got involved. We discuss Dreyfuss’s dogged concerns about how people use things, what we need to lead useful and happy lives, how we see the world around us, how our unique body measurements and movements determine our relationship to tools and rooms and other things. He reminds us that there is considerate, sympathetic thought behind every great object.

Dreyfuss learned to type before he designed a typewriter, he drove a tractor before he designed one, he hung around department stores before he would design a shop. It’s inspiring to talk about this “man in the brown suit,” as the conservatively suited, Depression-era industrial designer came to be known. He connected with humanity. That’s what a responsible designer does. This gift for making connections becomes the glue that holds us together after our world is torn apart on that sunny September day.

Also providing inspiration are Charles and Ray Eames. We read about their irrepressible, all-American, mid-century-vintage enthusiasm for both the designed and natural environment. What would they do with the information we now have about the life cycles of materials, we wonder. They would use it to great effect, we surmise. This was, after all, the couple who explored interconnectivity in a most memorable way. In their now classic film, Powers of Ten, the Eameses showed the many scales that make up our knowledge and experience of the world, zooming from the molecular to the cosmic and points in between. How about re-examining these scales of existence to help us think about our resources and ourselves, I ask, and prod the students to imagine how they would see the world with the Eameses adventurous, educated, and playful eyes.

Standing on the shoulders of these design giants, who have laid the foundations for responsible behavior, we get ready to explore the ethics of today’s designers. To that end, students have each chosen a practitioner who they’ll interview, preferably in person. This exchange becomes the subject of their presentations and final papers. Incidentally, the fashion designers end up choosing small shop owners, independent shoemakers, up-and-coming dress makers-more in line with William Morris’s thinking than Ralph Lauren’s-creative and principled peopled struggling to find their own way.

What of the student who professed to be untouched by sustainability? Though her presentation shows a shocking insensitivity to the subject, her paper does not. As I read it, I’m gratified to learn that the lamp maker she interviewed uses recycled materials and searches out nontoxic processes. Perhaps her disclaimer was a moment of youthful rebellion or an honest confusion about the meaning of a difficult word; sustainability, after all, is hard to wrap your brain around. Perhaps when we understand that good design is responsible design, we will no longer need to rely on clumsy, descriptive words. We’ll just call it design-a noble and necessary human activity.

Recent Projects