cultivating a design approach for our time
by Stuart Walker
The design disciplines have long been part of an industrialized mass-production system that, in countless ways, has had harmful social and environmental ramifications. At this time in our history, as the impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly severe and causing so much human tragedy, we must challenge the current design narrative and rethink our entire approach.
How should we respond to the dilemmas facing society today? How can we usefully reframe the design narrative so its outcomes better serve people while also being restorative of the natural world?
A beneficial way forward would be to think of creating things not as acts of manufacturing or craftsmanship, but as ways of thoughtfully and respectfully contributing to our human-made world. An important ingredient of this will involve changing how we think about the design process. A good starting point will be to stop seeing it as a finite activity with a beginning, middle and end; such a characterization inevitably leads to time-limited outcomes. Our created things become fixed at a particular moment, and consequently they cease to evolve and cease to ‘live’ in the present. With every passing day they become more outdated, less relevant and less wanted, and sooner or later they are discarded and replaced. We are effectively designing tomorrow’s landfill. In contrast, when we look at the natural world, we see creation everywhere – but there is no waste. Instead, we see a continual process of creating, a ceaseless unfolding in the never-ending present. It would seem helpful to think of the art of designing in the same way – as a process that is always occurring, with the products of design endlessly evolving, being adapted, and staying relevant in the here and now.
This understanding would begin to change our relationship with material things – we would no longer think of them as being rigidly set in time, and therefore susceptible to redundancy. Our created things would be intentionally contingent, designed to be continually renewed and modified to meet presents needs. Hence, it changes how and what we design. Our objective is no longer to arrive at a ‘definitive solution’. Rather, we aim to create thoughtful designs that are characterized by their mutability. At any point in time, we could be developing our created things into revitalized versions of themselves or else disassembling them into entirely new possibilities.
This approach to design is less burdened by thoughts of permanence and finality, and so the whole process becomes lighter. But, in some ways it also becomes more demanding because design’s purpose takes on a temporality that is less determinate. Some people will find this stimulating and inspiring – for them the approach will bring a welcome sense of liberation. For others, the lack of certainty and fixedness may be unsettling. But however it is regarded, the process becomes a continual journey of discovery, with new encounters and challenges arising along the way.
It also offers fresh opportunities to appreciate the efforts and ideas of those who came before us, to build on their contributions, on what we already have, and to learn, revise and improve. As a consequence, our designed things become valued and respected unions of endeavours past and present that accompany us into the future. Moreover, they are no longer ‘my’ designs, ‘your’ designs or ‘their’ designs – but are instead ‘our’ designs, which we are privileged to encounter and use at a particular phase of their event-present, ever-transforming dynamic. The lightness of this way of thinking about design arises from this dynamic – the fact that things are not permanent but can constantly change allows them to remain relevant.
We also see in this approach that there is a necessary relinquishment of ego. We become part of, and contributors to, an ongoing process, a design continuum, with no clear distinction of beginning, middle and end. Similarly, distinctions between subject and object, product and process disappear. With familiarity, incremental change occurs not so much through any intellectual procedure or formal method but rather through direct encounter and intuitive awareness.
How might this affect the nature of designing, so its outcomes actually do serve people better, while at the same time, being restorative of the natural world? How do we create designs that are not just beautiful but also good for people and planet? The ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu (6th cent. BCE) writes,
Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because
there is ugliness
All can know good as good only because there is evil
Despite so much emphasis being placed on design over the past century, when we look around the world today, and even in our own neighbourhoods, the is certainly no shortage of ugliness. It is everywhere, in the form of badly aging buildings, litter on our streets, and so many poorly considered interventions. Similarly, there is no shortage of corruption and violence, and our destruction of nature is relentless.
In accord with the new design narrative outlined above, Lao Tzu continues,
the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching
Creating, yet not possessing,
Working, yet not taking credit.
Work is done, then forgotten.
Therefore it lasts forever.
About the Author
Stuart Walker is Professor of Design for Sustainability at Lancaster University. His latest book entitled Design and Spirituality: a philosophy of material cultures, is published by Routledge, 2021. You can see more of his work at: stuartwalker.org.uk