Design in Dystopia

by Nicholas Foo

There was a time not too long ago when I accepted uncritically the notion that innovative technical solutions were necessary (and even sometimes sufficient) for the mitigation or resolution of many of the world’s major problems. Hence the need for good design, engineering and technology, and in a slightly self-congratulatory way – the necessity of my work as a design engineer. And why would I have thought otherwise? The engineering and design thinking modules and projects I completed as part of my undergraduate coursework invariably characterised problems and solutions as technical ones.

Traffic congestion? Let’s invent flying cars, launch drone delivery services or develop personal electric vehicles. Plastic waste? Here’s some biodegradable plastic or plastic-eating bacteria. Rising sea levels as a result of anthropogenic climate change? Have a floating city or an underwater one. Homelessness due to skyrocketing housing prices and gentrification? There’s a robot that can 3D print small buildings. Poverty? Let’s create yet another app that enables people to more easily rent themselves.

The inverse implication of this view, however, would be that global issues result from and persist primarily due to a lack of creativity, ingenuity and technology, which – if you think about it for two seconds – is absolute nonsense.

Many developed countries have many times more empty houses than homeless people, even as the urban housing crisis is exacerbated by gentrification, property speculation and stagnant wages. Enough food is produced to feed 12 billion people, yet the better part of a billion people suffer from chronic undernourishment. The technology to solve climate change already exists, and yet we are now only 12 years away from irreversible damage to Earth’s climate and then the mass extinction of many species, ours included. Despite giant technological advances in automation, mass production, AI and digital networks, the transition from a 40-hour work week to a 15-hour week envisioned by John Maynard Keynes in 1930 as a result of productivity improvements is still far from a reality despite substantial productivity gains – for which there have also not been proportional wage increases since the 1970s.

None of these problems stem from an acute deficiency in technology or creativity.

What then, is left for the design engineer who applies creativity in developing technical solutions?

***

The patchwork analytical superstructure provided by my preliminary engagement with the works of Marx, Harvey, Chomsky, Graeber and Mason has nevertheless instantiated a fundamental inquiry into where and how I fit into the dehumanising, soulless machine that is globalised, imperialist, neoliberal capitalism. Over the last year or so, I have registered an increasing unease with my role and work as a design engineer employed in capitalist enterprise. This essay is written as part introspection, part catharsis, part documentation.

***

The idealised, sanitised job description is something as such: designing and engineering novel, functional, aesthetic products with a competitive advantage that can be produced and sold for maximum profit. Ultimately though, the foundational simplification, the essential reduction of the function of a design engineer remains: for profit.

Every facet of the job scope is regulated by, disciplined for, directed towards the profit motive. Creative expression, engineering excellence, actual interest in the work performed, Gattungswesen, ethical conduct are all subordinated to the immutable imperative of profit maximisation. While it is certainly not the case that the imperative suppresses these aspects always and unconditionally – in fact it often does extract value from their application – its domineering primacy is usually uncovered upon the slightest conflict.

The process of generating, developing, producing good design for profit cannot therefore be neutral. Corporate marketing directives dictate the target demographic, aesthetic requirements, required features/functions/specifications in order to exploit a niche, seize market share, and meet sales volume targets. The enclosure of technical innovations or design as pure information in the form of intellectual property rights is enforced to maintain a competitive advantage with which the mass of profit generated can be maximised or for the purposes of extracting rent. Within the framework of a capitalist mode of production, the ultimate measure of a design is not therefore its functionality or aesthetic quality, but rather its capacity for commodification. And so the design process has to be disciplined as such.

Here’s a relevant Philosophy Tube video:

Before an exploration of possible contradictions between design and profit can be attempted, we must first acquire a working understanding of the fundamental objectives and purposes of design in order to identify how and why divergence from profitability goals may occur. Legendary industrial designer Dieter Rams proposed a fairly comprehensive list of “Ten principles of good design”, which may not apply in every situation, but nevertheless serve as a useful starting point.

1. Good design is innovative

The possibilities for innovation are not, by any means, exhausted. Technological development is always offering new opportunities for innovative design. But innovative design always develops in tandem with innovative technology, and can never be an end in itself.

2. Good design makes a product useful

A product is bought to be used. It has to satisfy certain criteria, not only functional, but also psychological and aesthetic. Good design emphasises the usefulness of a product whilst disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

3. Good design is aesthetic

The aesthetic quality of a product is integral to its usefulness because products we use every day affect our person and our well-being. But only well-executed objects can be beautiful.

4. Good design makes a product understandable

It clarifies the product’s structure. Better still, it can make the product talk. At best, it is self-explanatory.

5. Good design is unobtrusive

Products fulfilling a purpose are like tools. They are neither decorative objects nor works of art. Their design should therefore be both neutral and restrained, to leave room for the user’s self-expression.

6. Good design is honest

It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.

7. Good design is long-lasting

It avoids being fashionable and therefore never appears antiquated. Unlike fashionable design, it lasts many years – even in today’s throwaway society.

8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Nothing must be arbitrary or left to chance. Care and accuracy in the design process show respect towards the user.

9. Good design is environmentally-friendly

Design makes an important contribution to the preservation of the environment. It conserves resources and minimises physical and visual pollution throughout the lifecycle of the product.

10. Good design is as little design as possible

Less, but better – because it concentrates on the essential aspects, and the products are not burdened with non-essentials. Back to purity, back to simplicity.

These principles are, upon reflection, often constrained by the profit imperative and private ownership of the means of production.

Innovative

Access to technology and cutting edge capital equipment is mediated by access to capital: without capital, there is no access to technology, no matter the emancipatory or life-saving or revolutionary nature of the technology in question. If access to capital is no obstacle, amortization of capital equipment as a component of overall product cost must then be accounted for, and then tempered by further consideration of projected sales and expected profitability. This is aggravated by the absurd way in which a unit rise in product cost generally manifests as a multiple of that unit rise in the final cost to consumers. The scope for incorporating innovations in manufacturing and production or advances in materials science into the design process can therefore be limited by this mode of production.

Useful

Rams acknowledges here that design is fundamentally about the creation of use-values, through the provision of raw functionality and a less tangible experience involving both the direct act of usage and the indirect aesthetic, visual, auditory, tactile and intellectual stimuli inherent in the design. Good design is – therefore – the creation of greater use-values.In a system predicated on commodity production for profit, capitalist enterprises are concerned with maximising profit through seeking both the highest possible exchange-value – price – and lowest possible cost for a commodity.This imperative conflicts with the use-value creation objective of design not so much during the process of creating useful design or at the point of valorization (production), but at the point of realization on the market. Under capitalism, commodities are produced solely for their exchange-values, with justification for the legitimacy of this mode of production arriving in the capitalist conception of value: that use-values are always and necessarily correlated with exchange-values (i.e. the more useful a product, the higher the price).

Here the designer is confronted with a dialectical contradiction: the greater the use-value generated by good design, the higher the extractable exchange value becomes, the less accessible the design becomes, thus lowering the theoretical upper limit to the mass of use-value generated. In simpler terms, the more useful a design produced by the designer, the higher the price, the fewer the people who have access to the design, thus counter-intuitively diminishing the total possible impact or usefulness generated by the design. Good design thus simultaneously imposes constraints on itself as it engages in expansion.

Aesthetic

Design that is comparatively aesthetic is invariably seen as a competitive advantage, a quality that can be used to maximise revenue through higher prices realized on the market. Aesthetic design thus becomes increasingly the domain of those who can and will pay, creating a tendency for it to be subsequently undertaken in order to validate the experience of the stratified class, marginalising the excluded. This argument was adapted from Chomsky, who makes a similar point about the elite media in his book and documentary Manufacturing Consent – available on YouTube.

Unobtrusive

It is worth noting here that Rams’ works and approach are very much of the Modernist/functionalist movements, and that the principles presented here by no means represent an absolute, objective standard of good design. There is no such thing. Nonetheless, insofar as these principles broadly reflect my own views on design, they provide a viable conceptual framework from which I may launch an inquiry into the limitations of design within a profit-driven enterprise.

Edward Bernays – Sigmund Freud’s nephew who created highly effective marketing theory and was known as the “father of public relations” – pioneered the idea of attaching a product to a person’s inner self and identity, thus validating consumption as a form – even the form – of self-expression.

Leaving aside the obvious ideological implication that richer people are better people because they possess a greater capacity for consumption and therefore self-expression, the comparative and competitive nature of commodity production for profit creates a tendency for a greater proportion of the design process and focus to be redirected from functional considerations towards superstructural aspects.

For instance, in the domain of household appliances like toasters or clothing irons or fans, it is fairly evident that products within specific price segments are functionally similar, and that their unique selling propositions or competitive advantages are derived from non-functional differentiation. Brand values, colour schemes and visual forms become increasingly the focus of design work, diminishing the space available for “the user’s self-expression”.

Dyson fans – or in their marketing parlance “Air Multipliers” – further illustrate a related phenomenon. There are of course tangible technical and functional differences between typical fans and Air Multipliers, including the distinctive operating principle and the recent integration of HEPA filter cartridges. And yet the price premiums commanded by Dyson fans (and other products) cannot be explained entirely by technical and functional superiority. Furthermore, Dyson has historically positioned itself at the higher end of its product categories and deployed its marketing strategy accordingly. And it is precisely this high-end price positioning that allows their products to function in part as status symbols, transcending the functional by virtue of their exclusivity, allowing the ultimate form of compensatory consumption: self-validating self-expression.

Peter Coffin argues in this video that, “Bernays believed that the masses were unable to be informed and rational actors, and thusly needed to be controlled… the idea that consumption was the expression of the self, this makes purchasing or whatever kind of consumption we’re talking about… into a validating action, and that validation being the ultimate means of control in a society where people resist all attempts at control.” The capitalist mode of production is by its very nature obtrusive, and self-expression – as with everything – is another commodity to be bought and sold.

Honest, understandable and as little design as possible

Do “good products sell themselves”? As a kid, I held the simplistic view that firms derive their competitive advantages primarily from relentless innovation, as all efforts and resources were directed towards developing the best products, services and experiences, and creating the maximum possible use-value for consumers.

What a fantasy.If that were true, there would certainly be no need for marketing departments or advertising campaigns, which are by their very nature manipulative and comparative. Instead, gun manufacturers in the USA produce weapons for killing and destruction, but run ad campaigns tying ownership of their weapons to a caricatured masculine identity and male self-esteem. Coca-Cola produces soft drinks, but wants you to believe that it sells happiness. The bourgeois one-upmanship of haute couture and designer handbag marketing employ something of a circular “desirable-because-expensive-because-desirable” logic, a raison d’etre effectively predicated on comparative extravagance and superior decadence, and a direct rejection of Rams’ “as little design as possible” principle.

The need to realize profit on the market can exert such pressure on firms as to form the primary preoccupation of corporations, diverting resources from research and development or manufacturing to unproductive activities including marketing, distribution and overzealous corporate lawyers. Sportswear megacorporation Nike spent $3.577 billion on “demand creation expenses” in 2018 alone, compared to an estimated $2.5 billion on R&D in the five years preceding 2017. Propaganda – it would seem – is more profitable than progress.

“They got you thinkin’ that

What ya need is what they selling

Make you think that buying is rebelling”

– Zack de la Rocha in Rage Against the Machine’s No Shelter

In case you’re interested, the 1988 cult classic They Live presented incisive commentary on the pervasive and subliminal manipulation of mass media advertising.

The profit motive creates an incentive for even dishonest and manipulative strategies to be employed, both at the point of realization with unproductive marketing activity and during the design process, given the pressure to generate marketable, flashy, fashionable designs that often attempt to “make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is”. This pressure filters downward from top-down marketing specifications or sales targets diktats into the conscious cognition of the designer engaged in the design process, for whom conformity remains a necessary condition for continued employment, thus limiting the possibility for honesty and restraint in design.

Long-lasting, environmentally-friendly, thorough down to the last detail

Planned obsolescence is irrevocably one of the most environmentally destructive and yet widespread practices applied in this profit-driven mode of production. The pursuit of greater profit via shortened replacement cycles exerts immense pressure on the design process in terms of development cycles, functionality, reliability, serviceability, backward compatibility and cost requirements, with dire ramifications for environmental sustainability, pollution and climate change.

Shortened replacement cycles demand accelerated product development cycles, with less time available for a comprehensive consideration of the product life cycle – from conceptualisation through to sourcing, manufacturing, engineering validation, usage and disposal. Design deadlines become stricter, work is compartmentalised, and so the possibility for iterative, thorough and meticulous design is further constrained. Similarly important considerations like the embodied energy, recyclability and environmental impact of products manufactured for profit are nevertheless ancillary and largely optional concerns, creating crises of sustainability exacerbated by the increasingly short-lived and disposable nature of the commodities produced and consumed.

Beyond extra profit, lowered product lifespans enable the application of a wide array of design and engineering “shortcuts” – not necessarily in terms of technical complexity, but more in terms of cost, compatibility, serviceability and reliability. Diminished durability due to the use of lower cost materials may now be an acceptable tradeoff, especially given the magnitude of the cost reductions achievable. Permanent snap-fits and adhesive joints can be incorporated into designs to simplify assembly and thus reduce manufacturing labour costs, but likely render internal components non-serviceable (and the entire assembly non-functional) and upon premature failure expedite product lifecycle progression, right into the nearest landfill.

“Long-lasting” design is therefore surplus or even antithetical to a regime of profit-motivated planned obsolescence. “Fashionable” designs can capitalise on current market trends in a way “anti-fashion” ones designed to remain contemporary in the longer-term may not, with the resultant incentive structure such that firms can increase their profitability by – for example – selling customers a completely new product every year or so than offering parts and warranty over, say, a five-year period.

Planned obsolescence as a cornerstone of corporate modus operandi evidently contradicts the generation of long-lasting, environmentally-friendly designs that are thorough down to the last detail.

***

Design is a complex, expansive and subjective field, comprising different disciplines, movements, philosophies and approaches. These musings – while relevant to my lived experience and worldview – are preliminary thoughts and most likely non-exhaustive. They also appear to apply more to mass market consumer goods, and not industrial or military equipment – where functionality considerations predominate.

The scope of the discussion above is finite and specific: I am absolutely not making the case that the capitalist mode of production inhibits all foundational design aspirations all the time. It is certainly true that many design and engineering marvels have been produced under capitalism. There is nonetheless the potential for obvious and extensive contradictions between the elementary objectives of design and profit, as examined above.

***

Suddenly, the limits to what is possible and achievable as a design engineer employed in a capitalist firm become painfully apparent.

At the outset, instead of creating truly emancipatory and lasting technical solutions for everyone, there can be a tendency for the design brief to be directed towards developing short-term, potentially environmentally destructive technical solutions for only those with the willingness and ability to pay.

If I labour and manage to design something useful, the concept may only contribute to the general intellect in a very limited way, as a result of its enclosure by intellectual property laws and patents that are somehow owned by the employer, despite the cost of reproducing the design as a purely information product being virtually zero and the benefit being unrestricted access as part of the creative commons.

Then comes the manufacturing and production process, through which my design would enable and perpetuate the brutal exploitation of Chinese workers labouring in dimly-lit, poorly ventilated and noisy factories – conditions over which I would ultimately have very little influence, and which would likely not be addressed adequately in the name of profit maximisation. When we consider the epic scale of the alienation and exploitation permeating manufacturing supply chains, it becomes evident that there is no ethical production under capitalism. And I would be exactly complicit.

My primary motivation as a design engineer – aside from not starving – is creating technical solutions that are accessible to, and directly benefit the masses. As a constituent of a society engaged in the social reproduction of human beings, it is clearly in my rational self-interest to contribute to the betterment of society as contributing to the betterment of the environment in which I live. I say this while absolutely cognisant of the privilege derived from the fact that I presently live in a first-world country built on the backs of, and sustained by imported, alienated and exploited third-world labour. In this last year, I have begun harbouring serious doubts about the possibility for creating significant and lasting positive impact within the framework offered by this job and this mode of production.

***

The central question of this essay is this: how should we relate to good design?

Maybe we should appreciate the revolutionary potential of good design were it available to everyone, just as we should recognise the acute limitations imposed upon it by an external base and superstructure. We can solve most of the major global issues right now with the appropriate application of technology, engineering and good design.

That we somehow don’t – therefore – is truly dystopian.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s