Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 96, February 2011

A Copernican revolution in design?

As we observe the world the ideas and perspectives of society influence our understanding. A dominant change throughout the ages concerns the questions we ask as part of the process of perception. In medieval times an unexpected event would make people ask “why?” Something happened and it had to mean something. These were times saturated by superstition and every little deviation of the everyday was certain to be a sign, of fate, ghosts or God’s will. Why was there such halo around the sun? What does this omen say?

Today we are taught to ask “how?” We search for relationships of cause and effect. This forms the basis for the scientific revolution and also how we as designers think about improving the world: we pay little attention to “why” we do things, and much more to “how”. How does that phenomenon come to be? How does it work?

As we remember from school, one of the starting points for the scientific revolution and the modern world-view was the ideas of Nicolaus Copernicus printed in 1543. Through his limited observations, before Galileo’s improvement of the telescope for astronomical purposes, he figured out that the earth could not be the centre of the universe. Even though his ideas were not new, Copernicus writings set off the process where the geocentric world view, where earth as the centre of the universe, was rectified for a new perspective. Copernicus new world view was heliocentric, with the sun in the middle, where earth was just like any other planet in our solar system. This displacement of the earth, now just one planet of many others, made a deep impact on the special privilege of humans in the universe; suddenly our home was not designed to be at the universe’s centre stage.

The same year Copernicus’ book was printed another transition of perspectives occurred; a revolution of scientific inquiry concerning the design of the human body. The anatomist Andreas Vesalius released his studies in anatomy in which he departed from the earlier theoretical and Classic ideas of Galen by which the body was ordered according to the four elements. To Vesalius, the body was a universe to be explored by empirical studies. It should be dissected and carefully examined for science to better understand life and the functions of the body. His anatomy was based on experience and direct observation rather than old authority. Together with Copernicus, he presented a grounded perspective on inquiry where observation was to be preferred before the authority of Classic text.

geocentric - egocentric design

This was the point of departure for the scientific revolution – asking new questions, exploring the details in empirical experiments and repositioning the human subject. It was what is often called a paradigm shift. It presented new ways of seeing the world, a new perspective, twisting the models of reality to better fit the observed and collected data.

It might seem ironic, but the forces that positioned the human subject out of the centre of the world also later triggered its reaction. As the human subject was moved to the periphery of the universe, it also gave birth to the individual human subject, in which being a human was not primarily a collective experience, but something deeply personal and unique. As a response to the scientific rationalism of the Enlightment, the romantic individual became the centre of the human universe of the sensual and lived experience, which in turn gave rise to the genius myth so deeply engraved in design. This is still true in design education where the two sides are in constant struggle. Every project has to be presented as radically new and sprung from the sole mind of the ingenious student while at the same time be “functional”.

Formulas like “form follows function” have been the perfect smoke-screen for designers to hide their romantic ego, while at the same time best interpret of what “function” really is; mass-housing, fast-food or highways. In the name of “function”, this sword to slash every intellectual knot open, designers reduced the complex world into clean problems and optimal solution.

However, over the last decade a revolution has taken off in the realm of design, not too dissimilar to the Copernican one. After a century of self-centeredness, designers can no longer imagine to be the centre of the world. Much of the world has noticed that other issues concern the future than the styling skills of the designer. This requires asking the more tricky question of “why?” rather than “how?”. To some designers this might seem like a cold, complex and unpredictable universe. Making furniture or textile patterns seems like a safe thing to do. But a shift of perspectives also reveals a multi-dimensional infinity of possibilities to go exploring.

heliocentric - sociocentric design

And perhaps most importantly; such shift from the ego-centric universe also offers new issues and perspectives on the act of design, such as participation, user engagement, social innovation and social plastics. Just like in the earlier shifts, from operation to ergonomics and on to interaction, the focus is to let more factors into the equation on what good design is. Today, the designer is just one contributor in an ecology of agents, affordances and affects, guiding the becoming of the new. A new perspective on the universe emerges if design lets go of its high gravity ego.

A practical example of this shift in perspective can be seen in the “Ecological literacy” developed by Fritjof Capra and David Orr. “Ecoliteracy” is the perspective with which to see and read the interdependent organization of ecological dynamic systems to better intervene in them. From the perspective of ecoliteracy, design is not primarily the human construction of the new artefact, industrial product or service, but rather any shaping of flows of energy and matter into higher complexity. Human design agency is not the construction of novel commodities, but the guiding of already existing forces of becoming into new wholes. The designer intervenes and orchestrates the living world into something different.

In his latest book, Design as Politics, design theorist Tony Fry argues that design throughout modernity has been a “defuturing” activity. Design locks the future into a less sustainable path for every new modern “solution” it finds to problems. To face this, Fry proposes how design can lead the way in a new political revolution of perspectives; from “Enlightment” to “Sustainment”. This new Sustainment is no less radical than the Enlightment was, and according to Fry it needs to be if there will be any chance to save our life on earth as we face global warming and the following mass migrations. Perhaps we can say that just like the Copernican revolution was a starting point for the Enlightment, so will a Copernican revolution in design be also for the Sustainment.

Let us embrace the Copernican revolution in design and see what new scientific paradigm it may bring, what new forms of inquiry, experimentation and repositioning of the human subject we can invent. This will also be a return of the crucial question “why?” As in the theme of the latest National Design Triennial exhibition at Cooper-Hewitt design museum in New York. The title? “Why Design Now?”


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