48 / Design For Life

All Together Now

Hi and welcome to this week’s 1-2-3 Tech Miscellany — the newsletter crying out for a new name (if only I could make up my mind). Here’s this week’s rant — an essay on buying shit you want but don't need.

Reading time: 3 minutes

Part 1 - Essay

Design For Life

Working as a designer can be fun. On a typical (pre-pandemic) day, I get to doodle, daydream and draw. But there’s a problem. A big one.

I’ve come to realise the trouble with my career choice as a designer, is that it’s stuck in the 20th Century — aka all bound up with consumerism.

In the design industry, there’s too much emphasis on making shit people want but don’t actually need:

  • I nabbed a pristine office chair from a skip full of pristine office chairs. I mean wtf? Dumped for what? Some new-fangled design aesthetic?

  • I nabbed a lift in a status-signaling SUV. I was too far from home to risk mentioning that over the past decade SUVs were the second-largest source of the global rise in emissions, eclipsing all shipping, aviation and even trucks.

  • I nabbed a minute on Google while my kids made a hames of brushing their teeth. Google and Facebook make money getting you to buy shit. The more shit you buy, the more money they make. Big Tech is the primary engine of consumerism. Consumerism is the primary driver of global warming.

Human-centred Design

For the last 100 years, the field of design has enabled and perpetuated this consumerist society. In recent years, human-centred design — an industry buzz word — has ensured products, be they an app, shoe or vacuum cleaner, address the emotional and practical needs of people. And to some extent, that’s fair enough.

But it’s gone too far.

We never existed in isolation and we can no longer live with the illusion of isolation. We either embrace this new interdependence, or face the hubris of our inaction. - Anab Jain

Human-centred design privileges humans over all other beings and the planet as a whole. It’s anthropocentric — it perpetuates the idea that humans are superior to others.

But this human centricity costs the earth:

  • There’s a drought. The town needs water, so a dam is built. The town gets said water but at untold cost - Massive ecological and habitat destruction.

  • The State needs “clean” energy. Big Oil promises marvellous, new technology that will sip the treacle from beneath the land without fuss. River spills follow. Indigenous people suffer.

  • Rechargeable batteries need cobalt. Extracting it is dangerous work. Children in a poor country mine it and ship it to a rich one. Eventually, the people in the rich country dump their old phones for new ones. The dead devices are sent back to the poor country where more kids burn them in pits.

Bad Habits

As our planet changes, we struggle to change our bad habits.

Because it’s hard.

I know of no step-by-step guide to a post-anthropocentric future. I know of no paint by numbers way to embrace an increasingly complex and challenging world.

But I do know designers (and everyone else for that matter) need to recognise the impact of their actions within the complex assemblage of interdependent entanglements - or to put it another way: stop buying shit you want but don't need.

I guess this means for my next design project, instead of asking how best to make the piece of shit, I’d be better off asking if it should be made at all.

Just don’t tell my my boss — like the nabbed lift in the SUV, I might chicken out again.


Part 2 - Good news

“Just Like Me”

Think less ‘meals on wheels’ and more ‘heals on wheels’. A Texas farm is having remarkable success helping kids struggling to cope with a disability, special need, or traumatic past. They simply pair the child with a rescued, neglected animal and let the magic happen!

Growing Up

In densely populated Singapore, it's not just the people they stack high, it's the vegetables too. At least they're trying to. With scant space for farming, the country imports pretty much all of it's food. So they're experimenting with vertical farming: growing towers of veggies, stacked one on top of the other — indoors instead of in fields.


Part 3 - Random Bits

  1. Surprise muthafuckas! Source

  2. SpaceX. How it started, how it’s going.

  3. Me too chair, me too.

Glad you made it this far! Thanks so much. Take care and stay safe — Scott