Professor of Design John Wood argues that design must be redesigned and that designers should help provide more important and meaningful solutions.
That designers should seek a broader role, working alongside politicians and scientists helping to solve social and environmental problems and not just for profit driven companies.
“There can be no culture, no creative force for good if each of us believes only in ourselves; as if a million different cells operating apart from one another in a body could create anything but illness” – John Heers
Designers should be concerned with more than the usual commercially driven deliverables and apply a broader and more holistic design approach that John Wood calls Metadesign.
So how can the design process be reformed so that its not mostly driven by financial profit? One way is by developing a broader understanding of the environments into which our products will exist, from development, production, use and disposal.
Here are a few excerpts from John Wood’s chapter published on http://metadesigners.org.
Can we design transformation?
This chapter argues that suitably trained designers could help politicians address the problems of climate change and biodiversity losses. We live in a stridently humanistic world in which governments find it almost impossible to look beyond the short-term expediencies of politics. Their tools for change (e.g. legislation, taxation and the setting of targets) are too abstract or circuitous to be effective (Meadows, 1999). However, although design can influence behaviour with a more direct and appealing approach it may need some re-designing. After many attempts to make design greener, what we have learned is that piecemeal reforms are not enough. We have had a hundred years of eco-design and the world is getting worse.
The need for self-transformation
Surprisingly, after a hundred thousand years of reckless behaviour (Ponting, 1991), our species is still here. Perhaps this explains why we tend to see our bad habits as normal. Nonetheless, many scientists are concerned that our lifestyles will trigger irreversible climate change (Lovelock, 2006), and exacerbate the current rate of species extinctions (Leakey & Lewin, 1996; WWF, 2014). However, this scenario contrasts sharply with mainstream political rhetoric.
The big picture
Reforming design to assist in the political or social context requires new thinking. Instead of blaming individual factors, such as economics (Jackson, 2009) over-population (Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 1990 & 2013) or the destructive effects of technology (Giddens, 2002) we might want to see how the main parameters interconnect (Hutchins, 2014), then re-imagine them as subcomponents of a better system. Ideally, we should think outside the existing paradigm and re-envision our primary needs, such as food, energy, shelter, mobility, exchange systems and security.
Inviting designers to work in a more systemic, holistic way would require them to see the world as a joined-up, but poorly designed system. This is a big idea with even bigger political implications. Ultimately, it could lead to a reform of ballot-box politics and consumption-based economics. Until now, however, the growing awareness of the importance of design thinking (Brown, 2009) has yet to enhance the designer’s status or to upgrade her role and responsibilities. Rather, it has given some management experts the idea that they can apply ‘design thinking’. Historically, designers have tended to present themselves as freelance specialists, rather than as deep-thinking professionals. Unless they have secured senior managerial positions, designers seldom have much influence over business models. This is also because they are usually hired to augment existing production processes, rather than to work at a strategic level. The proliferation of many specialist design fields began in the 1880s, when society was becoming more industrial. Since then, a diversity of specialist practices emerged to support an increasingly narcissistic and profit-driven consumer economy (Forty, 1986). Corporate and governmental resistance to change is, to a significant extent, enshrined in a discourse that refuses to re-design itself in accordance with the living world. Envisioning more ecological paradigm is a vital step in making the ‘unthinkable’ possible (Wood, 2007:1). The next process of transformation might, simply, to design, then apply, appropriate ‘policy switches’ (Greyson, 2014).
If called upon to assist to catalyse a paradigm change, would designers be ready for the challenge? This is unlikely, as the task would include the daunting task of re-designing design itself. Because it resists simple explanation (Lawson, 1980), designing tends to be seen as a relatively humble discipline. Traditionally, it is a predictive process (c.f. Simon, 1969) that anticipates better situations, usually by mapping them out visually. The higher level of complexity in transformation design would challenge this ‘future-focused’ nature of design and introduce a strong co-design element that would entangle designers (c.f. Thackara, 2005), just like everyone else. Blurring the traditional boundaries between designers, clients, governments and stakeholders makes the idea of transformation design democratically rich because it involves everyone in succession of complex, multi-level changes that are largely unpredictable. In a sense, it would become a kind of ‘collective metamorphosis’.
For all of the above reasons I prefer to use the term metadesign, by which I mean a self-organizing framework for continuously co-designing and re-designing systemic change (Maturana, 1979; Giaccardi, 2005; Wood, in Walker & Giroud, 2013). Metadesign is qualitatively different from design because it is too complex to be predictive. Some authors have applied the metaphor of ‘seeding’ in this context (Ascott, in Giaccardi, 2005), which implies thatmetadesign can be more opportunistic and adaptive, rather like the cultivation processes in gardening.
Some Practical Steps for Metadesigners
(These serve to illustrate some of the principles behind metadesign.)
- Set up small synergistic team/s with complementary capabilities.
- Encourage all members to be creatively fearless and radically optimistic.
- Set up feedback pathways that make your team self-reflexively conscious.
- Frame opportunity-finding questions, rather than adopting a problem solving approach.
- Try to see the world as a set of paradigms that are self-sustaining
- Re-purpose and re-language the names, stories and assumptions underpinning harmful paradigms.
- Expect there to be ‘blind spots’ within your own belief system (see James Greyson’s blind spotting tool) (Greyson, 2014).
- Apply Donella Meadows’s levers for change principle. (Meadows, 1999)
- Apply Buckminster Fuller’s trim tab principle (Fuller, 1999).
- Seek auspicious combinations that will deliver benign synergies.
- Where possible, synergise synergies into a synergy-of-synergies.
- When designing systems, try to innovate in fours.
- If necessary, reflect upon the mathematical basis of working in cluster of four (c.f. Cowan, 2001).
- Use any of the above tools, then develop them and share them using our Creative Commons copyright.
Although some of the above examples are mechanistic, James Lovelock’s notion of ‘Gaia’ suggests that the distinction between animate and inanimate players in an ecosystem is functionally unimportant (Lovelock, 1979). A systemic approach is appropriate here, then, because it allows us to compare and integrate many things, whether or not they are biological. In describing how cultures sustain or perish, the word ‘paradigm‘ is useful, as it refers to their underlying structures rather than to their more superficial properties. This distinction is similar to that of grammar and vocabulary in linguistics. As an employee, the current designer’s role is not to re-design the paradigm, but to re-style a particular brand so that it will attract consumers and enable them to differentiate it from rival brands (Barthes, 1983). For example, the automobile paradigm can be defined as a system of mass production, tarmac roads and fossil fuels that sustain habits of private mobility (c.f. Kauffman, 1995). Unfortunately, designers cannot work at this level because they are paid to regard the car as a signifier of economic status and identity. In a sense, the systems of consumption and mobility are competing paradigms, each sustained by the many vested interests that play their separate parts in co-sustaining the status quo. However, although the car’s status within the consumer paradigm can survive when fossil fuels are abundant, it is suboptimal when seen in terms of its negative impact on communities, energy usage and time (Illich, 1974).
Steering the steering
It is the scale, complexity and stubbornness of paradigms that poses the greatest challenge for transformation designers. Usually, the larger and more established they are, the more muscle, ingenuity or perseverance, is needed to regulate or transform them.
This chapter has sought to outline an approach to transformation design that is systemic and compatible with the way designers think. Perhaps the main message is that this approach must learn from whole ecosystems (Yeang, 2013), rather than just copying mechanical parts of living creatures.
Stuart Kauffman’s comparison of the cultures of horse-powered and automobile-powered communities in a previous paragraph (Kauffman, 1995) offers an invaluable clue to how we might design for paradigm change.
The idea that relations between things have a higher value to that of virgin materials will probably sound far-fetched to many. Humans are so familiar with the logic of exploiting minerals from the ground that we may have a ‘blind spot’ (c.f. Greyson, 2014) about non-exploitative reasoning. Fossil fuels have been so extraordinarily plentiful and accessible that we have not seen the need for a philosophy that transcends extraction and consumption. Unfortunately, until our society can move beyond its narrow Smithsonian mindset, practices such as fracking for dwindling oil and gas reserves (c.f. Baker, 2014) will still seem like good business to many.
In moving towards a truly relational and ‘inclusional’ approach (Rayner, 2012:1,2) it is helpful to look at examples from the living world. For example, the biological process of sexual reproduction is a good example of ‘recombination’ in that it rearranges existing things, rather than starting from scratch. By recombining several enterprises in adjacency with one another (Wood, 2007:2) it is possible to achieve many unexpected results with opportunities for further recombination.