Reflection on Practice

Edited by Emma Felton, Oksana Zelenko, and Suzi Vaughan
New York: Routledge, 2012


Before I even picked up my copy of Design and Ethics: Reflection on Practice, edited by Emma Felton, Oksana Zelenko, and Suzi Vaughan, I asked two of the most intriguing directors of schools of design in the United States what they thought were the critically important ethical issues and conundrums facing the field and practitioners today.

Their answers informed my reading of the fifteen engaging articles in this slim volume, and their astonishing responses opened me up to the unexpected. The book was even more surprising.

Cameron Tonkenwise, the Director of Design Studies at the School of Design at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), quickly replied to my email inquiry with several paragraphs of provocative prose. Cameron is facilitating the ambitious project of creating a new Design Studies sequence of courses that will better prepare students for a wider scope of work and the more interdisciplinary challenges of twenty-first-century societies. He is both charismatic and charmingly outspoken in his web presence, which is the only place I have "met" him.

Cameron identified three ethical issues. First was the grossly unequal distribution of wealth in the world about which he bluntly comments: "I suspect there is nothing in the book about the role of design in dealing with the vast and increasing income disparity in the world." (He will be gratified to be wrong about this suspicion.) He also raised the issue of re-localizing design and particularizing products in an era of mass production, or as he asks, "How to navigate the ethics of designing for the non-scalable solution?" And finally, he included the funky and curious ethical issue of the use of design as a moral supplement to make us "better" human beings. He describes it better than I can: "The obvious ethics conundrum is this way of becoming more human(e), involves becoming more monstrous (hybridized with technology). Are we less moral when less autonomous (because more technologically assisted) about being more moral? Or are we at last giving up an erroneous Enlightenment privileging of 'autonomy'?"

Cameron's primary area of research is sustainable design, but he also has a background in philosophy, and wrote his dissertation on Martin Heidegger. Several of the articles in the book are philosophically oriented and explicitly or implicitly share a commitment to ontological design—the insistence that design is profoundly part of what it means to be human and part of what it means to exist in this world. This includes the opening essay by Stephen Loo, "Design-ing Ethics: The Good, the Bad and the Performative" (that also shares Cameron's stylistic commitment to Heideggerian notation), and a noteworthy essay by Paula Dunlop, who writes on fashion design and most clearly offers a challenge to the idea of a distinct separation between designer and world. She elegantly describes it this way: "By formulating design as an ongoing interaction with a negotiation of our physical and conceptual location in the world, we begin to sense the shortcomings of models that position design as teleological driven activity determined by an autonomous creator" (194). Ethics, from this standpoint, arise out of practice and cannot be determined by a set of precepts that we simply apply to the profession. This belief underscores the importance of process and performative ethics where we design the world, but are also, in turn, designed back by the world. In other words, Chuck Klosterman, the ethicist of the New York Times Magazine who can shrewdly help solve questions around mistresses at funerals (Jan. 17, 2014) or cat custody in a divorce (Dec. 14, 2012), would not be helpful in this book's expansive understanding of the relationship between design and ethics.

Another significant essay that tackles, albeit indirectly, Cameron's questions about inequity is Karen Fiss' piece, "Hybridity, Hegemony and Design in a Globalized Economy." Fiss is a professor at California College of the Arts, whose research examines the history of "nation branding" in the production of visual culture. Taking the vociferous online debate during the summer of 2010 between Bruce Nussbaum and Emily Pillotin as a launching point, Fiss asks if critical academic practices and concepts that are intended to be transgressive are instrumentalized by the field of design to suit its own market purposes. Nussbaum started a firestorm when he asked, "Is humanitarian design the new imperialism?" Citing high-profile projects like One Laptop Per Child and what he sees as a privileged and presumptuous "West-designing-for-the-rest" trend in everything from Acumen Fund to IDEO to Emily Pilloton's Project H Design, Nussbaum is anxious that well-intentioned design might be "perceived through post-colonial eyes as colonialism." Fiss provides a more dialectic approach, and presents a range of projects, such as: Danish art and design collective Superflex's collaboration with a group of farmers from Maués in the Brazilian Amazon to produce a soft drink called Guaraná Power, Diller and Scofidio's installation at the Ataturk Airport for the 1997 Istanbul Biennial, and Din Q. Le's set of visual posters that provide an unflinchingly honest critique of the expanded global tourist industry in Vietnam with a series of startling images overlaid with phrases like "So sorry to hear that you are still not over us. Come back to Vietnam for closure." Many of her artfully curated examples represent design tactics as modes of resistance against neo-colonial practices and the rapid advance of transnational corporations and the large wake they leave, especially for indigenous people and local development. The discourse of this essay, with references to hybridity, Homi Bhabha, and subversive third spaces, is clearly academic. I do not use this word pejoratively at all, but merely to foreground the book's intended audience.

The other person I approached to help guide my reading was my friend and colleague Marcia Lausen, the Director of the School of Design at the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Marcia had a completely different and emphatic stance to my question. Many will remember her irrepressible and impassioned efforts, shortly after the 2000 election debacle, when Marcia helped launch an initiative called Design for Democracy, which seeks nothing less than to redesign the entire voting experience, from voter education to poll-worker training. In addition to being the uniquely talented principal of Studio/lab, Marcia has also been re-designing the design school at an urban research university with a program that includes an affiliation with the Basel School of Design, and she is pragmatically committed to developing an ethics of practice in what she reminded me was a "very young profession."

Marcia succinctly outlined the problems in a field where design is considered a service, rather than a research-based and knowledge-producing field. From her experience, she raised the issue of well-meaning "clients" who think the initial phase of design work is superficial (research not needed) and free (make something and if I like it, I'll pay for it). And she gives a striking example by comparing this to other fields, like medicine and the law, where it would be unthinkable and laughable to expect only to pay when one approves of the treatment. While she understood the value and importance of students working on so-called "real-world" projects, Marcia also decried organizations that seek free design work from students or professional designers, thinking that they are doing students a favor by providing them with a project, or doing designers a favor by giving them an opportunity to work on what the client believes to be an incredible opportunity for the designer. She also objects to the questionable practice of crowd-sourcing and design competitions, which dismiss the need for education and expertise, and saves her biggest ethical pet peeve for the biggest offenders: designers who participate in any of the above and intentionally, or not, undermine the advancement of the profession. (I am barely even rewording her responses because they were so succinct and unequivocal.)

So many books on the topic of ethics rely on exposing moral laziness and shaming us with it. This book happily avoids these affective tactics by providing compelling examples, such as a case study on a project in the Gulf of Carpentia and Normonton, two of the most remote towns in Queensland. However, none of Marcia's interesting concerns are actually addressed in this book, which to be fair, is more revealing of Marcia's interests than a failure of the book. But it does reveal the editors' emphasis on this book not being solely intended for professional designers, nor for those who work in the allied industries of communication design, architecture and built environment, and fashion, which is how the chapters are actually clustered. Instead, the editors frame the book as a cross-disciplinary approach with a plurality of opinions that foster "critical ethics"—defined as the process of opening established value systems to questioning and renegotiation.

This plurality of voices and discourses is the book's greatest strength and/or its biggest weakness. The passionate epilogue contributed by Tony Fry entitled "Looking Back, Forward and Elsewhere," interestingly enough, offers the most pressing criticism of this aspect of the book by pointing out the radical difference between pluralism and plurality. Fry explains: "I take an unequivocal position towards sustainment that is antagonistic towards those voices of pluralism that argue that sustainment is just one imperative among many. At the same time, I recognize that sustainment is plural—it cannot be reduced to one form of acting or being. As such, it can accommodate many biophysical, social, economic, cultural and psychological imperatives" (216). I realized, as I read his piece, that what I was longing for in this volume was exactly what he provided—a fiery, rousing call to awareness and action in a world that is imperiled by a plurality of actions and destructive ideologies. And, in the end, perhaps this is what the editors intended in their curation of these works.

Before I approached Cameron and Marcia, I naively supposed that their answers and the book would be only about the failures of an industry to step up and provide services, well-designed environments, or products that could instigate meaningful social change to disadvantaged groups either in the United States or around the globe. However, the immensely compelling and thoughtful answers to my questions and the articles in this book, contributed by a provocative global network of designers, lead me on an intellectual journey, instilled a desire to not only know more, but to do something and create, which is precisely the emancipatory potential of ethics and design.

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