Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 135, June 2015

Design, Enlightenment, Courage

Even if much design can appear ageless, design is often very much connected to its time, not to say that it follows the latest trends. Our magazines and discussions are filled with the latest materials and images of the coolest stuff right now. Yet, sometimes design also look back and seek insight from history. Perhaps it is time for us designers to revisit the old philosopher Immanuel Kant, at least his most famous and easy pieces of writing, the essay “What is enlightenment?”

In this essay he phrases an answer to that question: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another.”

I think this essay is important reading for designers, as we are the ones who are often sought after for producing guidance for others. We design, designate, and guide behaviour and thinking of others, producing frictionless paths of action for our consumers or users. We are hired by our agents to make sure people stay immature, that the stay dependent on us and perpetually guided towards an addiction to the commodity economy. The autonomy of thinking sought by Kant should today perhaps be complemented with autonomy of action: to be enlightened within the realm of contemporary design is to have the resolve and courage to act beyond what is proposed or designated for us, at least to step beyond the design we meet within the everyday “user-friendly” market.

People in general may understand that the conditions of the world are not heading towards a brighter future: injustices are growing, people are jailed without proper trials or both the market and the state propels a general culture of fear. Like Kant says, it is not knowledge or understanding that is missing, but a lack in resolve and courage to act and hold people in power responsible. Most of us are cowards as much as we are lazy. I guess Kant would say we let our enlightenment be robbed from us.

And perhaps we as designers have more blame than we may think. It is the role of design to keep the general public fearful and lazy: fearful of loosing the convenience of our possessions and making sure consumer society stays “user friendly” with minimum friction, so that any form of alternative action seems dangerous and inconvenient. We design to make sure users stay anxious and passive.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously claimed in his essay ”The Social Contract” that man is born free but everywhere in chains. Today we are born free, but everywhere in chain-stores. Still living in self-imposed immaturity, design makes sure we stay guided by fear.

But we can see people who are disobedient and courageous out there, reckless and free-thinking. But it is a little scary that throughout the everyday the encounter with fellow citizens is guided externally by the convenience of design, and its opposite, by fear. Fear contracts the spirit, it turns us into narcissist egotists. It becomes impossible for us to form any compassion or reason. And even a lot of the counter movements, such as Open Design, Do-It-Yourself or socially engaged practices, still pushes us into that individualist, frictionless and fearful direction. As we put our spotlight on the self, the consumer or user, we simultaneously cast other lives and ideals into darkness. We fail to stand up for common goods, for justice and for the courage and inconvenience to do the right thing.

According to Kant, it is laziness and cowardice that are the main reasons why people remains dependent on external guidance. Our first move must be to challenge our own fear and dare to think of the inconvenient, the non-user-friendliness that is the quest for justice, for the virtuous and righteous.

Don’t be lazy. Don’t be a coward. Take action. Design must start to know itself. It must know itself in order to open up outside of itself. To serve justice and to promote peace and civic friendship. A real friendship: inconvenient and costly as it may be.

Dare to act! Have courage to use your own agency! – that should be the motto of the design enlightenment.

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