Interviews, Essays, Etc.

Exploring, Through Design, the Big Ideas and Issues of Our Time
December 13, 2011

I was asked to identify some “notable design books” I came across during my 25 years as editor in chief of Metropolis (the magazine is 30 this year—2011). I would, instead, like to talk about books that have, or should have, influenced our culture and the design community that gives form to our physical world. My fellow editors and I discussed our readings at planning meetings during which we shaped and strengthened our editorial commitment to exploring, though design, the big ideas and issues of our time.

Among the first titles we immersed ourselves in were two from Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993). Both books sent up warning signs about Americans’ (designers included) blind embrace of technology and the cultural and societal, emotional and physical toll this blind embrace would take. Postman warned against context-free information as he wrote, “The milieu in which Technopoly [which he located in the U. S. at the time]flourishes is one in which the tie between information and human purpose is severed, i.e., information appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.” The “information glut” we are enslaved by today (how many emails, tweets, Facebook and LinkedIn entries, and must-see blogs do you click on every day?) seems to have disconnected us from everything but “data.” Is it time to revisit Postman? I say, yes. We need to bring his clear thinking about what makes us human into our discussions of everything that occupies designers, from software to classrooms, from smartphones to cities. By and large, Postman’s thinking did eventually reach the design community. Long known for chattering about the great and beautiful things they “create,” designers are now deeply engaged with the large issues that shape our world: technology and sustainability (both environmental and social).

Designers’ almost universal acceptance of an amnesiac modernism, with little regard for the wisdom of the ages—tried and true approaches to things like siting a building to take advantage of sun, wind, and vegetation—have now been recognized as dangerously narrow in focus. Bill McKibben’s 1993 book The Age of Missing Information, was, for our editorial staff, a wake up call even as we were bombarded by concepts like the “information age,” the “explosion” of information, and the information “revolution.” McKibben made us think deeper. As we hungered to know more about what came to be called “sustainable” or “green,” a shift away from purely formal architecture to a more nuanced, informed, connected design began to brew. What McKibben wrote resonated with us: “We also live at a moment of deep ignorance, when vital knowledge that humans have always possessed about who we are and where we live seems beyond our reach. An Unenlightenment. An age of missing information.” These words continue to be powerful provocations, even 18 years after they were written. Today architects are learning how previous generations designed buildings before air-conditioning put us into sealed glass boxes and gave us frozen air. While we were always on the lookout for buildings that took advantage of natural systems, that found inventive ways to integrate biology with technology, such designs were hard to find in the beginning; today they are commonplace.

When Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce was published in 1993, it called attention to the wasteful practices of industry, blindly aided by industrial designers. Hawken’s thesis, that business had the power to provide real solutions to our global ecological crisis, which has been brewing since the Industrial Revolution, gave us hope that some real change might be coming. “The promise of business,” he wrote, “is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, creative invention, and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on its own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in.” Lo and behold, one industrialist did come forward, and it was someone whose business was closely connected to the architecture and interior design communities. Ray Anderson, recently deceased, then chairman of Interface, became an agent of change for the notoriously dirty carpet industry, eventually earning the title of the Greenest CEO in America. He appeared at design conferences, keynoting conventions like the American Society of Interior Designers’ annual meeting, preaching sustainability, and showing how everything from manufacturing-plant design to product design can work to reduce (and eventually eliminate) the use of virgin fossil fuels. We followed his many speeches and read his 1998 book, Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise, The Interface Model, and later, in 2009, Confessions of a Radical Industrialist: Profits, People, Purpose—Doing Business by Respecting the Earth. It was Ray who introduced us to Daniel Quinn’s book Ishmael (1992), a riveting and totally credible account of a captive gorilla who asks, “Is it man’s destiny to rule the world? Or is a higher destiny possible for him—one more wonderful than man has ever imagined for himself?” I am happy to report that designers are now at the forefront of creating that “higher destiny.”

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