The greatest design challenge of all time

Doing good design isn't enough anymore. We need to look at the bigger picture if we aim to redesign the world.

18 September 2020

This post is part of a series. If you’re new to the series, visit the first post “Redesign the World. A designer’s guide to the next decade” for the full table of contents and bibliography.

Images in this post: superimposing Buckminster Fuller’s Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981) on contemporary photos.

As long as there is no algorithm that will tell us how to bring divergent possibilities into a convergent reality or analytical detail into a synthetic whole, this talent will guarantee that accomplished design thinkers have a place in the world.

(Tim Brown, 2019)

In the previous chapters we’ve outlined an overview of obsolescent technical abilities and imagined new professional fields for the designers of the ‘20s. But it’s not just hard skills that will distinguish good design from bad design. The most important factors will remain the attitude and ethos that we choose to adopt in our work.

Over time, the design community has developed methods, models, tools, and good practices, which have allowed the consolidation of a peculiar design attitude. Oversimplifying, we can identify four key principles that characterize the work of the greatest designers of all time.

  • Curiosity: the desire for knowledge combined with an open-mind in the phases of research and inspiration; a genuine interest in how things work, and why.
  • Empathy: the willingness to listen to everyone’s opinion, even if extreme or controversial; the ability to step into other people’s shoes, and to always keep their needs in focus.
  • Creativity: the skill to overcome the common perspective and keep the mind flexible, suspending judgment while generating wild ideas — and finally converging on new solutions that are more effective than the existing ones.
  • Experimentation: the humility of regularly testing one’s assumptions with tests and prototypes; the tangible experience of “thinking by doing” while defining and realizing an idea.

As we have already seen, this mindset has proved to be extremely replicable and adaptable, allowing designers to operate in ever wider professional fields. There is no reason to doubt that, even in the next decade, these principles will remain a valid compass for designers, whether the work in the field of embodied interaction, sim programming or cybernetic direction.

In addition, this design attitude has shown excellent results in terms of innovation, which is the ability to generate new ideas and implement them. The greatest innovations in the history of design — those that changed the world, from the Gutenberg press to the iPhone — were born by applying these four principles with passion and steadiness. The same problem-solving skills spawned the boom of design thinking and are driving designers towards the button rooms of 21st century society. But great honors come with great burdens.

Superimposing Buckminster Fuller's Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981) on contemporary photos.

Can we repair the world? Do we even want to?

Our children and grandchildren will look back in horror, and will see the era in which we live as a time of such waste and dissoluteness, which could put the planet out of use for a thousand years.

(Lasn, 2004)

So far we have addressed technical and methodological issues related to the evolution of individual designers and their professional category. To conclude the discussion, we need to broaden the perspective and face the thorniest topic: the responsibilities that designers have towards society on a global scale and in the long term.

The challenges that designers faced in the 20th century are not the same ones we are facing in the 21st, the “massive change” era as defined by Bruce Mau (Brown, 2009, p.43). In the past, most designers — at the service of industry — could peacefully limit their work to designing chairs, logos, cars and consumer items. However, in today’s interconnected world, design choices affect the functioning of much larger and more complex systems.

“Most of the time, we live our lives within these invisible systems, blissfully unaware of the artificial life, the intensely designed infrastructures that support them.

Accidents, disasters, crises. When systems fail we become temporarily conscious of the extraordinary force and power of design, and the effects that it generates. Every accident provides a brief moment of awareness of real life, what is actually happening, and our dependence on the underlying systems of design.”

(Mau, 2004)

The global crises — economic, social, technological, environmental and political — that we are experiencing are these system failures. They cannot be overcome, except with a drastic rethinking and sudden change by everyone. Designers also need to do their part. We must contribute to repairing planet Earth, using the tools we already manage to help tackle the wicked problems of our times.

Superimposing Buckminster Fuller's Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981) on contemporary photos.

Who are designers working for?

First, designers must stop considering themselves problem solvers at the service of industry. Historically, most of the innovative potential of design has been harnessed to ensure prosperity for a dysfunctional system.

We are seeing with our own eyes how innovation can be harmful when the economic logic of profit is not balanced with the social and environmental ones. The drive for rapacious profit-driven innovation — with its capitalist incarnation dominating the planet — is among the main causes of the most significant ecological (geological?) disaster in human history. The absurd imperative of infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is creaking fearfully, and designers can no longer keep their eyes closed in the face of collapse.

In this context, even the attention to people’s needs promoted by human-centered design is nothing more than a red herring. People’s desires are too often interpreted partially and superficially, while being manipulated in the service of profit. This is why skilled designers use their talents “selling sugar water and smoke and mirrors to the vulnerable child within every one of us” instead of “helping to repair the world” (Berman, 2009, p.156).

Twentieth century’s mass media — sustained by multinational corporations’ money — has determined the hegemonic spread of the consumerist gospel: everything has a price tag and our own value is measured not on what we are, but on what we possess. Most critics point to a devastating array of side effects: on a psychological level, depression, cynicism, introversion; on a social level, ferocious competition, short-sighted exploitation and waste of common resources (Fisher, 2018).

Barricaded behind such a deep-rooted and pervasive system of habits and practices, we no longer know how to imagine anything other than this. As a famous adage goes, “it is now easier for us to imagine the end of the world than an alternative to capitalism” (Dunne & Raby, 2013, p.2). Yet, even consumer capitalism is only a phase of human history, perhaps already on its declining stage.

Superimposing Buckminster Fuller's Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981) on contemporary photos.

Don’t fight the system. Redesign it!

Together, it is up to us to decide what role design will play.

[…] I know that if we fulfill the gifts of our professional skills by recognizing our power and the stewardship responsibility that accompanies that power, we can make a real difference. And since we can, we must.

(Berman, 2009, pp.156-7)

The increasing ranks of young people who choose to become designers today — together with those who already design — should aspire to fulfill far more important (albeit arduous) tasks than adding a captivating aesthetic patina to toxic products, or serving a sick economic system.

If we really want to try and improve the world through design, we must critically look at the state of our profession, recognizing its historical distortions and revealing its untapped potential. In this way we will be able to find a more balanced approach to the “innovation operating system” (Weaver, 2008).

In short, now it’s the time for every designer to become aware of their responsibilities, stop ignoring the bigger picture and begin to act “considering every problem — from illiteracy to global warming — as a design problem” (Brown, 2019, p.44). To address these wicked problems, a broadening of perspective is inevitable, both on a spatial and temporal scale.

Superimposing Buckminster Fuller's Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981) on contemporary photos.

Look at the big picture: design for the planet and the future

It is hard to say what today’s dreams are; it seems they have been downgraded to hopes—hope that we will not allow ourselves to become extinct, hope that we can feed the starving, hope that there will be room for us all on this tiny planet. There are no more visions. We don’t know how to fix the planet and ensure our survival. We are just hopeful.

[…] We need to dream new dreams for the twenty-first century as those of the twentieth century rapidly fade. But what role can design play?

(Dunne & Raby, 2013, pp.1-2)

As noted by the group of designers and artists Formafantasma in their project Ore streams (2019), the concept of waste is new to humanity: until a few decades ago there were no disposable products and every scrap was put back circulating for other uses. Today, however, each human in the world produces on average 0.74 kg of waste per day, more than 270kg per year (Kaza et al., 2018, p.3).

If it’s true that we do not inherit the world from our ancestors, but borrow it from our children, the consequences of our actions also affect those who will inhabit this world after us. A founding principle of the Nation of Plants — the fictional assembly of all the vegetable life forms of the planet described by Stefano Mancuso — explicitly forbids “the consumption of any resource which is not renewable for future living generations” (Mancuso, 2019, art.6).

It seems a clear statement: “limited resources cannot sustain unlimited growth”, yet all the signs today tell us that the human colossus (Urban, 2017) is not yet changing its consumption habits even in the face of the evidence. At the moment it does not appear that posterity will judge us as good ancestors (Krznaric, 2020).

Earth Overshoot Day is “the day of the year when humanity, having consumed the entire production of resources that terrestrial ecosystems were able to regenerate for that same year, start consuming resources that won’t be renewed” (Mancuso, 2019, p.99). From that day on we erode the planet bit by bit, in the forms of meat, metal, fuel, water.

In 2020 EOD fell on August 22. It’s an improvement compared to EOD 2019 (July 29), mainly due to the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on our daily habits. But, as stated on the EOD website, “true sustainability that allows all to thrive on Earth can only be achieved by design, not disaster” (Earth Overshoot Day, 2020).

Some designers have already experienced an epiphany. For the team at IDEO who had contributed to the ideation, development and launch of the new Oral-B toothbrushes for children, that moment of truth came six months after the conclusion of the project, when they saw one of their toothbrushes appear, among the waves of a Mexican beach. No longer a shining product on supermarket shelves, but filthy waste in the sea for centuries to come (Brown, 2019, p.200). In designing new products and services, we can no longer afford either to ignore their entire lifecycle, or to mask the real cost associated with their long-term footprint.

Each of us should therefore reflect more on the profound and wide-ranging consequences of our work, adopting for ourselves — and stimulating thanks to our projects — sustainable, circular, just and inclusive behaviors and lifestyles, for the well-being of the whole living community.

Superimposing Buckminster Fuller's Inventions: Twelve Around One (1981) on contemporary photos.

Conclusion: a call to arms

So, planners, architects, and engineers take the initiative. Go to work, and above all cooperate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us. They are not man-made laws. They are the infinitely accommodative laws of the intellectual integrity governing universe.

(Buckminster Fuller, 1968)

In 1968 Buckminster Fuller published ‌Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, confronting us with “the enormous educational task which must be successfully accomplished right now in a hurry in order to convert man’s spin-dive toward oblivion into an intellectually mastered power pullout into safe and level flight of physical and metaphysical success”.

More than 50 years later, this task has not yet been accomplished.

We are still falling, far from the answers to the great challenges of humanity, those that will mark the decade which has just begun and the whole century with their outcomes: the climate and demographic emergencies, the automation of work, the exploration of space, the development of a benevolent AI, the global economic inequalities…

But I have no doubt. These are the noblest and most stimulating challenges on which we — the designers of the ‘20s — should direct our attention and our talents, starting today. Let’s get to work!

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