Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 112, Sept 2012

Love in the age of design

If we are ever to come to the root of the unsustainable conditions of our time, and especially design’s role in this trouble, we must come to discuss the issue of love. Love, as a topic of design, is not at all as comfortably stringent as other themes of design, such as function and ergonomics, and why should we engage with a banal issue like this?
The issue of love is at the core of design in our consumer society. It is the power which employs most of us. Or let me correct myself, what employs us is actually the opposite of love. Let me explain.

As designers, our work is to produce the full spectrum of experiences that fuel longing and desire in consumers, creating a flame of passion which can spread like wildfire through our social relations. We must make our consumers love what we make. Yet, in order to make this happen, we must also do the opposite, produce a restless deficiency and a needing passion for that which cannot be completed or fulfilled. At the core of this passion lies the production of a perpetual and continuous dissatisfaction amongst consumers. We need to tempt their cravings for pleasures which only design can satisfy. We must make them need our design. We continually say to them “you are not good enough as you are” and “you must change into something better”. We teach them to not love themselves, at least not without the help of us designers.

But as mentioned, luckily we designers have what they need to be fulfilled: we produce the stuff that will make them happy. Or so we say, as we all know that they will need to be unhappy soon enough so we can be employed again, and they can buy more. We must make sure they soon enough feel miserable again as we raise the expectations another notch. Their love must falter, their enthusiasm fractured, their attention and affection seek new pleasures elsewhere. To exaggerate slightly we could say that if everyone were perfectly happy as they are there would be no use of more consumer stuff, no use of experiences and services, no use for us to redesign their lives. To make a living, we as designers must produce unhappiness as well as its cure. This is design; the poisoning of love, and its ephemeral remedy. All in one.

With today’s fast, streamlined and integrated production lines we can create both need and temporary satisfaction very quick. And what is most perfect with the consumerism we produce is that it also encourages a perfect ideology of non-commitment. Our well-designed objects whisper to us “buy me, I’ll satisfy you” or “take me home, I’ll make you happy”, and at the same time they also implicitly say, “you can throw me away anytime when you are not happy anymore”. No hidden catch, no strings attached, its (almost) free love.

This aspect of non-commitment is at the root of our liberal economic utopia. Even the most sustainable solutions do not compromise on this aspect, but rather try to minimise the ecological fallout or dire consequences this ideological behaviour of unreliability produces. Eco-cotton makes our throw-away relationship with clothes less awful. Indeed, leaving stuff for recycling makes us feel better as we can guiltlessly buy new stuff as someone else will enjoy our old cast-offs. As a consumer I get a double satisfaction; I get rid of old leftovers and feel like a saint donating something I do not want to someone poorer than me – and simultaneously I help save Mother Earth! But our “sustainable” generosity is just about feeding our ego while leaving room for more self-justifying consumption, and our charity just another sanctioned form of sustainability-coated egotism.

One of a multitude of approaches to challenge this ideology of egotism can be love; a design to support compassion and a tender and deep lasting affection. Love is a condition of satisfaction or a process of kind gratitude and pleasure, not a quick burst of non-committed passion. The old Greek philosophers divided the concept into different parts. Eros is the sensual desire of a sexual nature, while philia is a dispassionate virtuous affection like friendship, brotherhood or general affection. Another form is agape which denotes the love of a spouse or family, a caring affection for a particular activity, or a protective stewardship for a community. The love we need to address in design is not the “design for emotion” as in an ephemeral emotional satisfaction of a commodity. We need to design for a strong and powerful, demanding and committed love. A love that is embracive and affectionate in a larger and more lasting sense, producing acceptance and devotion.

Love in this sense is also a sense of power, but not power as in a forceful manipulation. We need to go beyond the misconception where love is identified with the resignation of power, and also the opposite; where power is the denial of love. A loving design must also be powerful and we must come to see that there is nothing wrong with power if it is used in a compassionate and convivial way. The problem is not power in itself, but the abusive use of power, which without love is aggressive and harmful. Love and power have usually been contrasted as incompatible opposites, but we must do away with this fallacy in order to move forward beyond our habitual design of non-engagement and non-commitment, which far too often is hidden under the banners of naïve “user-friendliness” or “sustainability”. We come to think that the whole world is actually “user-friendly”, that egotism is the normal and only way to be in the world.

Rather, we urgently need to seek loving and committed answers to the critical questions of our time, beyond the pure environmental concerns of sustained consumerism:

How are we going to re-imagine how we live together in a situation of love rather than fear? How are we going to re-imagine the safety of our neighbourhoods and the world, beyond the arms race of violence-based “security”? How are we going to re-imagine how we work and feed ourselves beyond the division of labour and global agro-business? How are we going to re-imagine the ways we communicate with our fellows and educate our children, in order to encourage love and collaboration rather than social competition and strife? These may sound like utopian questions, but they are deeply engrained into the contemporary culture of design, and we need other solutions than those produced under an ideology of non-commitment.

We as designers must learn to design something else than a passion that keeps raising the expectations, continually creating the conditions for unfulfilled promises and unsatisfied longing. In order to love we will need to really see each other and to break through our preconditioned expectations and accept that not everything is designed to please us, but rather, we sometimes also need to adjust and come to love the world as it is.

In a discussion I listened to once, an elderly couple got the question what was the secret behind their long lasting love. The old lady answered with a discrete smile: “The secret behind long lasting love is to constantly lower your expectations.”

We will need to support a design for long loving commitment. We will have to start from there.

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