By J. Smyk (MDes 2020)
Design has always sought to engage society’s messiest problems. Designers believe that they are uniquely positioned to bring people and practices together in new ways, and that, doing so, they can make an extraordinary impact. This has been the case for at least 100 years — since the Bauhaus was founded in Weimar Germany with the ambitious intent of rebuilding Western civilization.
It continues today, with human-centered designers clamoring to help solve society’s most pressing issues: wealth inequality, global warming, and the yet-undetermined consequences of developing artificial intelligence. However, if we examine the original ethical principles of both the Bauhaus and human-centered design, we can see unintended consequences that lead us to question those principles.
Perhaps now is a time for design to reevaluate its own moral compass?
Legacy of the Bauhaus
Walter Gropius founded the Bauhaus to, as Jeff Mau, adjunct professor at IIT Institute of Design (ID) puts it, “rebuild their world by embracing machines and the new economic reality.” By embracing methods of mass production, Gropius and his collaborators wanted to create a new economy that made luxury craft goods accessible to the common worker. They wanted a system that served humanity ethically. That could be done, they believed, by equipping artists with the skills needed to work with rapidly advancing technology.
From its inception, the Bauhaus sought to push their newly-founded design ethics. They believed in universal design truths, and that right and wrong design decisions could drastically impact society. They pushed forward with experimentation to define those truths, and then carried them forward without compromise: form must follow function, materials must reflect the true nature of the object or building designed, and clean lines, geometric shapes, and appropriate colors must be chosen.
“In their minds, the worst thing they could do was be compromising,” says ID studio instructor Zach Pino. Governments and legacy art schools were invested in the status quo, and thus did not want the Bauhaus to succeed.
The Bauhaus felt this outside pressure and influence from the beginning. “They felt that if they gave up even an inch of their vision, it would leave them vulnerable to questioning,” Mau adds.
By relentlessly pushing forward with their vision of what design should look like, members of the Bauhaus made a legacy for themselves, especially in the field of architecture and the International Style it spawned.
Today we are left to consider a conflicted legacy of the Bauhaus, where many of its lofty goals were not achieved. Pino thinks this is a legacy that results from a desire to provoke rather than engage the end user and evolve the design process. “Their ethic was bound in their design identity, but it was inherently limited,” he says.
It was limited because it failed to consult with the common working class it was designing for. Because of this, many of the Bauhaus’s designed objects proved unsuitable for the working class. For instance, Wilhelm Wagenfeld’s Table Lamp (or Bauhaus lamp, as it’s better known) never made it into scores of working class homes as intended. The problem was that it was never optimized for industrial manufacturing, nor use in the average home. Ironically, a modern version retails for around $1,000.
Enter: Human-Centered Design
The idea of human-centered design is simple: A designer must engage and consult the users of the product throughout the design process, and constantly iterate on the design by considering user feedback. While this appears to be a matter of common sense, human-centered design has proven to be a revolutionary idea. If you consider the scale at which it has been adopted, this approach has become arguably the most significant and influential design movement of the last 30 years.
The popularity of human-centered design has grown slowly over time. Its foundations began as early as the mid-20th century. Back then, designers like Victor Papanek were highly critical of design’s infatuation with aesthetics over usability. Papanek stands as an example of one of the voices that was instrumental in modernizing design by weaving anthropology into the practice. He once said, “Design must be an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures.”
On its surface, human-centered design is inherently ethical, and a better approach than what the Bauhaus had offered to the world. If Wagenfeld had engaged potential users of his lamp, we can assume his research would have informed him that its cost and design didn’t meet the criteria of viability, feasibility, and desirability.
Still, there is evidence of critical shortcomings in the ethics of human-centered design, mainly in the products and services coming out of the tech sector. “Designers must bear some of the blame for what is happening in tech,” says Mau. “We have to advocate for the data of users. They trust us to be their voice.”
As an example, consider how, in February 2019, TechCrunch caught Facebook paying teenagers for access to almost any and all information found on their iPhones. The Facebook Research app was designed explicitly to access things like personal shared messages, videos, and photos, and sought out teens as young as 13 to use the app, paying them $20 per month. Surely the users did not understand the full ramifications of their decisions, and were delighted with the new stream of income. Dubbed “Project Atlas” internally, Facebook’s UX design team surely played a role in the app’s development.
Perhaps the reason design has failed to maintain proper ethics is because it has always been held captive by business and industry. Ever since Gropius founded the Bauhaus, designers have been partnering with industry to create objects that, above all else, sell and make money. However, in that partnership, human-centered design methods have been much more successful than the Bauhaus methods, which never saw their products distributed on a wide scale.
Thousands of products have been launched by companies employing human-centered design methods, and millions of people purchase them. And because of this success, the design community continues to push for “a seat at the table” within the C-Suite of large corporations.
But how can we be sure that design will suddenly bring better ethics into these situations? The track record is not strong.
How Design Can Move Forward
What design may need to do first is stop engaging the bad actors who are deliberately unethical. As Pino puts it, “We are entering a broken world, and we should not hesitate to reject servicing those pushing an agenda to maintain its brokenness.”
Designers have the power to drive change by staying true to their ethics and trying to drive change in service of the user from within those companies. We have seen that this is tough for a designer to achieve, but the world needs people willing to push back, especially in the large organizations that have the biggest impact on our society.
One hundred years after the Bauhaus, design’s ethical dilemma still is not resolved. Design still seeks to solve the major problems and questions plaguing society. But if design hopes to play a role in addressing global warming and the deployment of AI, it must rethink how it engages the world and seek ways to free itself from the captivity of industry. Designers should be skeptical, embrace uncertainty, and not be afraid to turn the microscope on themselves. If the Bauhaus has taught us anything, it’s that we have to continuously evolve to remain effective in what we do.
In 2019, we at Illinois Tech celebrate the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, together with institutions worldwide. In the spirit of this celebration and IIT Institute of Design’s (ID’s) heritage as the New Bauhaus, student group mediaID produced a Bauhaus newsletter. A collection written, photographed, designed, and curated by students at ID and Illinois Tech, in the newsletter students reflect on the influence of the Bauhaus, examining its relevance and impact today while also looking toward the future.
This project was sponsored by Chicago’s Goethe-Institut. ID students also collaborated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where students created a companion newsletter.