Design as a fundamental human capacity
Professor of Design Theory and Design History at the Royal Danish Academy, Ida Engholm’s new book ‘Design for the New World: From Human Design to Planet Design’ reflects a very ambitious project. It seeks to rethink design based on the coincidence of the development of the concept of design from material design to systems and organizations and the Anthropocene as a designation for the fact that human transformation of its surroundings has reached a point where humans have become the most significant geological force. We are thus in a situation where the concept of design can encompass all the activities by which humans create their own surroundings, and where the surroundings are similarly a product of design processes.
According to Engholm, this calls for a fundamental ecological rethinking of design and design thinking. The attentive reader will also note that the title refers back to Victor Papanek’s classic ’Design for the Real World’ from 1971, which at the time set the agenda for social design and a new ecological design consciousness. From this, Engholm takes over the view of design as a fundamental human capacity that is not limited to the professional design field. Engholm thus aims to fill large shoes, and the book is also referred to as a manifesto for a new design paradigm or even a new “faith” (p. 33).
A defense of design thinking
Like Papanek, the book is driven by a strong ethical agenda regarding design’s responsibility and role in social development. However, while Papanek famously begins his presentation by declaring industrial design to be the second most harmful profession after the advertising industry, Engholm’s book is a lengthy defence of design thinking and design methods’ particular relevance in addressing hypercomplex sustainability challenges. This reflects, however, the development in the design field under the influence of criticism from Papanek and others.
Furthermore, an evolutionary consciousness dimension is attached to design thinking. In addition to the introduction, the book consists of six chapters, where the middle four deal with aspects of design thinking and practice in relation to wicked problems, perspective shifts in space/scale and time, perceptions of needs, and systems thinking.
These sections are placed in an evolutionary and developmental psychological framework in the first chapter, where the history of human consciousness from the earliest humans to the information society is described as a continual alienation process from nature in favour of a narcissistic desire for mastery and preoccupation with one’s own needs. But where we also stand on the threshold of a higher form of consciousness characterized by ecological sensitivity and a holistic connection to the world, which entails a new interest in traditional wisdom traditions (indigenous ways of knowing/IWOK) on modern terms.
The modern ecological consciousness is thus not just another step in the sequence of development, but rather a leap to a new level of consciousness that integrates elements of the preceding and is characterized by the transition from subsistence to “being.” Accordingly, the book’s last chapter is dedicated to the processing of the traditional “medicine wheel,” which can be found among a wide range of indigenous peoples, into a modern design tool.
A hybrid text
In this way, the book has a hybrid character. On the one hand, there is a theoretical investigation and discussion that synthesizes large amounts of theoretical material and works to discuss and develop existing design thinking models with specific instructions for design practice. On the other hand, this is a personal manifesto for a new design concept that is linked to the author’s own consciousness development. The last chapter is thus deliberately marked as a break with the rest of the presentation, where the reader must accept the transition from the traditional academic form of presentation to an argumentation based on personal experience, as the wisdom of the wheel must be experienced through a personal journey (p. 235).
The text thus contains several different forms of address. It is deliberately divided into several levels, where the individual chapters are quite theoretically compressed but supplemented by models and brief concluding summaries that present the chapters as a coherent progression for the reader. At the same time, Engholm writes from a ‘we’ perspective, which marks the position of all of humanity. In that sense, the presentation reflects the idea of the connection between the development of humanity and the individual reader. However, the coupling of the evolutionary and developmental psychological framework and the concept of design also serves the rhetorical role of placing the designer as a kind of avant-garde of consciousness development who develops new forms of thinking that must be disseminated to the rest of society.
Development thinking and the dilemmas of the Anthropocene
However, the coupling of the evolutionary and developmental psychological framework and the concept of design also serves the rhetorical role of placing the designer as a kind of avant-garde of consciousness development who develops new forms of thinking that must be disseminated to the rest of society. I can be sceptical of this way of positioning design through such an overarching evolutionary and developmental psychological framework (as Engholm predicts some might be). Developmental thinking is itself a European tradition, for example, in Hegel’s 19th-century spiritual-historical thinking, and one risks repeating the hierarchization between positions that see themselves as representing higher levels of consciousness that are in line with development and the future and positions that are dismissed as backward.
Conversely, the issues that give rise to the need for new ways of thinking are real enough. To me, the strength of the book thus lies in its precise identification of the way the Anthropocene and the development of the concept of design raise fundamental questions about design’s role and responsibility, and one can only have respect for the impressive amount of knowledge that is synthesized in the book and the author’s willingness to think about it in relation to practice. With the inclusion of critical and speculative design, Engholm shows in the book how the Anthropocene opens a space of possible futures that demand democratic debate through collaborative processes, but which are increasingly limited by the consequences of our choices for the environment we ourselves create.
This paradox centrally hits the current political and design professional situation. If the book can help open up the debate and manage this complexity, it has an important role to play.
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