Designer ethics

The Green Imperative
January 12, 1996

Victor Papanek is a modern Renaissance man who in his distinguished working life so far has managed to move effortlessly between industrial and architectural design, testing his theories in practice among the Inuit, Navajo and Balinese peoples. In The Green Imperative he brings together the extraordinary breadth of his personal experiences as examples of a new approach to design.

His demolition of current design is thorough and humorous: modernist asceticism accentuates imaginary performances (eg Centre Pompidou); postmodernism as eclectic bits with historic trivia glued on (e.g. Memphis furniture); deconstructivism as a misunderstood adaptation of post-Marxist literary analysis (Peter Eisenman et al). When portable CD players adapt Raymond Loewy's streamlining techniques and appear capable of cruising through the air at 600 mph, industrial designers are indulging in fashionable gimmickry.

Papanek sees no future for self-indulgent designers who ignore what he claims are the issues to be faced now. Their manifestation is depressingly visible and familiar: dwindling resources and energy, and increasing pollution. Yet Papanek diagnoses the system as the culprit: materialism and the throwaway society do not conserve matter nor encourage appreciation of durability or permanence. Those with special needs such as the elderly, disabled and poor have been ignored as we have been seduced by advertisers of convenience and fun.

Dispassionate thinking is essential to identify the ethical dilemmas of the profession. For over a century, designers have been encouraged to think of themselves as artists. Designers in the 19th century were only asking the question: "How can I make an object more beautiful?". The Bauhaus and Scandinavian form-givers asked: "How can I make it work better?" The logical question: "Can it work and look better", is not posed often enough, according to Papanek, who thinks some designers only answer one or other halves of the problem, whereas most only ask: "How can I make it different?" He feels that the moral and ethical issues identified above must form part of designers' briefs, hence the subtitle of this book, "Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture".

Papanek does not believe that attention to environmental issues alone will ensure the survival of the human race. Our ecological consciousness should have a spiritual underpinning and our identification with nature should be re-established. He believes that the lack of any spiritual basis for design will make ethical and environmental considerations mere well-intentioned afterthoughts. In the last century those of us in the northern hemisphere have ceased to work on the land and have all moved indoors; people have the power to change the natural order of the earth and throw it out of harmony. But surely, to bolster an ecological approach using spiritual justification is questionable in our relativistic and fragmented society? Although most religions and cults would endorse a more caring approach to nature, this must be their only common denominator. On every other moral issue there is disagreement and friction; spiritual justification for ecological design is not necessary and will only inflame passions on other unconnected issues.

Any designer or architect who decides to implement Papanek's theories would be faced with a serious dilemma when given a brief that did not share his aspirations. No client will tolerate being lectured on "pop psychology, ethics and personal value-choices" and continue to pay fees. Declining the commission while recommending the competition is not a good way to stay in business either. Papanek has evolved a twin-track approach of transforming the assignment: tell clients that their original brief will be met, but simultaneously propose to research an alternative which would be beneficial to the company on a "no-win, no-fee" basis. Although an appeal to clients' enlightened self-interest sounds hopeful, Papanek cautions that he only succeeds in four out of ten cases. Designers must assess for themselves the balance between increased self esteem and a drain on financial resources.

Yet personal fulfilment can so easily massage the ego and result in misguided movements. The Gothic revival and arts and crafts movements in the 19th century produced great works of art and architecture for the wealthy, but the benefits were thin by the time they filtered down to the less well-off. The promises of an enriched environment and more satisfying work were limited to the talented and articulate, and fostered the deluding notion of all creative designers being artists. Papanek rightly asks for more humility from designers and architects, for often clients know more about their problem than their hired professionals.

Ultimately political action can achieve most in the shortest time. Sustainable design requires the help of governments, industry and entrepreneurs, as well as the support of ordinary people through user groups. The challenge is to convince employers and employees that ecological manufacture, such as "Design for disassembly", recycling and the use of noncompound materials need not lead to lower wages or greater unemployment. Party politics should not be allowed to factionalise a debate that must be open to genuine discussion.

The Green Imperative is very readable, written with the light touch one expects from such a gifted communicator as Papanek. It is full of intriguing illustrations (many of which are in colour) and his personal experiments. His diagnoses are not didactic and would not be misinterpreted as being exclusive by impressionable freshers. For this book would be most appropriate for the young and hopefully open-minded about to embark on any course involving design or manufacture at secondary or tertiary level of education.

As the boundaries between professions become more blurred, it will be design philosophies that distinguish individual and company differences. Forcing designers to justify their work will concentrate their minds wonderfully. With educators such as Papanek challenging students to confront real rather than imagined issues, one hopes that in the future the banal, the fashionable, the hidebound and the contemptuous will become more difficult to be built or manufactured.

N. E. Bridges is a chartered architect practising in London; his practice has just won the competition to redesign the church of St Ethelburga in the City of London.

The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture

Author - Victor Papanek
ISBN - 0 500 846 6
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £14.95
Pages - 256

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