Designers are liars all design is a lie


Thanks to @juspar who flagged this post on Sean Sturm’s blog which features the essay About the Word Design (Flusser, 1991) published in Eine Kleine Philosophie des Design (1993) a reference to either Coldcut or Mozart. Anyway… In it Flusser analyses the origins of the word ‘design’ and suggests that trickery and deception were bound up in this term from the start…

As a noun, it means — among other things “intention,” “plan,” “intent,” “aim,” “scheme,” “plot,” “motif,” “basic structure,” all these (and other meanings) being connected with “cunning” and “deception.” As a verb (“to design”), meanings include “to concoct something,” “to simulate“… (Flusser, 1991)

He goes on to describe how for Plato the arts and technology were a deception because they ‘betray’ and ‘distort’ ideas when they transfer them to the material world… Shifting forward to the end of 19th century he states that design held a unique position in that it brought together the previously opposed domains of art and technology. This design culture that emerged was aware, “of the fact that it was deceptive [i.e. designed]”

Begs the question — who is being deceived? — Using the example of a lever he establishes design as an enabler of super human feats i.e. to lift weight beyond the limits of our natural capabilities. So, it is nature who is the victim, being deceived by the act of design… In fact “Being a human being is a design against nature.” (Flusser, 1991)

Today he argues that this word ‘design’ has become the focus of much discourse and general chit chat with the question of ‘design’ possibly replacing that of the ‘idea’. Using the example of plastic pens he asks where the value resides in these objects, when the production labour is largely automated, the materials are worth very little…only the design is of value as it represent a coming together of great ideas that ensure its function. And yet this is a design we don’t notice and the ideas behind it are ignored along with the labour and production. How can we explain this devaluation of all values? he asks?

Once the barrier between art and technology had been broken down, a new perspective opened up within which one could create more and more perfect designs, escape one’s circumstances more and more, live more and more artistically (beautifully). But [-] the price we pay for this is the loss of truth and authenticity. (Flusser, 1991)

He points out that if everything becomes perfectly designed artefacts there is no truth and authenticity and everything becomes disposable. The same is true of us we do ultimately just die. He claims the word design remains key in discourse because we are “beginning to lose faith in art and technology as sources of value. Because we are starting to wise up to the design behind them.” (Flusser, 1991)

For me as someone interested in lying (or design) this raises pressing questions. How do we find meaning and value in this activity? Should we just down tools and shuffle off this mortal coil? We can point to many things designed today show contempt for labour, ecology and ideas but what does the opposite look like? Design that respects ecology, design that dignifies the lives of those that make and use them? Design that embodies ideas respectfully rather than exploiting them? Starting to sound like the values espoused by Victor Papaneck.  To be cont…

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