Is good design still good for us?
And was it ever?

nomad
the-nomad-magazine
Published in
4 min readJan 21, 2021

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Essay by Mara Recklies

Mara Recklies
Photos by Matthias Ziegler

Design revolves around solutions; philosophy around causes. Given this, design asks the core question of how, while philosophy examines why. Design is all about how problems can be solved, how items can take shape, how designers can contribute their skills to best effect. This makes design pretty hands-on and full of drive. I find that exciting, perhaps because of my background in philosophy, where common practice is rather different.

Philosophy has a different manner of addressing the world. Instead of eliminating existing problems as fast as possible by devising solutions for them, it first seeks to present all problems in depth, to give appropriate consideration to their complexity. As Hegel once noted, phil­osophy seeks to be its own time comprehended in thoughts. Hence, perhaps, why is such a fundamental philosophical question. Why is the present age the way it is and not different? Why do we live the way we do, and how did we get here? Why do we allow ourselves to be swayed by specific values, why are we, as humanity, creating a disaster as monstrous and terrifying as climate change?

Given the current situation of our planet, we need both. We need to relearn how to exist without allowing its ecosystem to be destroyed by our way of existence and the spurious progress of humanity. We need to find out how to prevent our design culture and our commodity production from plundering resources and mounding up waste that cannot be returned to the production cycle. But a priority of at least equal importance is our need to address the question of why this is so urgent. We need to reflect on why design has not previously been sustainable, and on what exactly we are doing. Why has humanity found itself in its present situation?

The horror of the Covid-19 pandemic provides ample food for thought on this subject and reveals the consequences of our actions. By advancing into old-growth forests and rainforests, people are destroying the habitats of many flora and fauna, but also of bacteria and viruses, wiping them out or forcing them to leave their indigenous habitats and find new ones. We destroy ecosystems and cut down the number of potential hosts for viruses, driving them to infect other organisms in order to survive. The process is described by philosopher Tony Fry in his recently published book, Climate Conflict Design. Often enough the new hosts are human beings themselves, as the current pandemic reminds us to terrifying effect. Suddenly we are confronted with ­decisions about which people to protect from risk, and which to expose. People are turned away from the borders of the EU and exposed to an incalculable risk of infection in order to protect EU citizens. Or they are herded into overcrowded camps with infrastructure that is utterly unsuited for such crowds and where the virus can run rampant. As I write the last sentences of this essay, Moria–the biggest European refugee reception camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos–is virtually burning to the ground after the discovery of its first Covid-19 cases. The camp was never designed to envisage the events currently playing out, never designed for what was to come.

Mara Recklies
Mara Recklies is a philosopher whose research focuses on criticism and epistemology of design and practices of resistance. She is interested in the political dimensions of design, to which she applies decolonial and intersectional-feminist perspectives. Recklies is completing a doctorate on design criticism, has been a research fellow at HFBK Hamburg (Hamburg University of Fine Arts) and teaches design theory at HTW Berlin (Berlin University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics) and philosophical thought and disobedient design at HfK Bremen (University of the Arts).

All too often, any design step has been hailed as a step forward

Given the situation, there is a call for designers that can design a world in which we can continue living— and perhaps even better than before. But understandable as this desire for design to be our saviour is, it is equally fraught with problems. In the past, much harm has been caused by unconditional faith in design as a messianic discipline. All too often, virtually any design step has been hailed as a step forward, as progress. As a result, design as a discipline has repeatedly succumbed to euphoric action for the sake of action. It has celebrated the utopian belief that design is engaged in creating a better world, or — virtually single-handed — will find a way out of the current mess, or perhaps even come up with solutions to the climate disaster.

Notions like these are successful, and that’s understandable. After all, they sound great, and they certainly flatter all those involved, in the broadest sense, in the world of design. However, in the past they have often proved to be divorced from reality. Design also has a fairly unsavoury past when it comes to disimproving the world with the best intentions. Steps can also lead in the wrong direction.

In an essay written for the magazine Design Report, published by the German Design Council, Czech philosopher Vilém Flusser describes design as obstacle for / to the removal of obstacles. Going further, phil­osopher Anne-Marie Willis noted in her editorial introduction to the recent Design Philosophy Reader series that humanity is only mired in its current crisis because its designs and inventions have been so successful (…) that we have ruined the very things we need to sustain us and other forms of life. She concludes that professional designers, as compliant service providers, bear some responsibility for this.

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