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May 05, 2011

Bruce Brown’s keynote transcription now available

The State of Design
(This transcription of a talk by Bruce Brown was delivered at the EAD Endless End conference on 4th May 2011).
Good morning colleagues and friends. It’s my very great privilege to address your conference, here in this beautiful city of Porto, amongst a company of distinguished speakers. Your conference’s theme is both compelling and timely. Especially the challenging thought that design may have lost its universe of focus. In response to this I have titled this talk ‘The State of Design’ precisely because I do see Design as a diverse, but coherent, universe. And here I use the word ‘state’ not to suggest any sorry kind of affair (or, as Oliver Hardy might have said, “another fine mess you’ve gotten me into”). I use ‘State’ (with a capital ‘S’) to mean a unified community existing within a defined territory— a territory that is governed by agreed codes of conduct. Indeed it is the nature of this territory, and the things that may unite designers within it, that I want to explore.

So let me first rehearse some of the key issues set out for us to debate in this conference. Firstly—it seems there is “a sense of vertigo permeating contemporary culture as a whole, and design in particular”. Secondly—that design seems to have lost its “discernible territory of practice” and “universe of focus”. Thirdly— a concern that “we often find ourselves wondering if design as we have known it still matters”. Finally—that “design is…a deeply human activity….suddenly [having] the opportunity to expand and mature”.

These concerns are, generally, in the air being spoken about by other people too. For example, it has been said, in many different ways, by many different people (and I quote here from a recent research paper) that “Designers are…so special…they are everywhere and nowhere. We see the product of their work all around, but they are stateless, undervalued and misunderstood”. On the other hand this common view seems at odds with another, near universal, sense that Design possesses all the virtues needed to solve major challenges facings our 21st century—whether these be social, cultural, environmental or economic—but that it is we designers who seem to have lost the plot and gone off mission. Let me give you one example of this view as expressed by Tim Brown:

“The causes underlying a growing interest in design are clear. As the center of economic activity in the developing world shifts…from industrial manufacturing to knowledge creation and service delivery, innovation has become nothing less than a survival strategy. It is…no longer limited to the introduction of new physical products but includes new sorts of processes, services, interactions, entertainment forms, and ways of communicating and collaborating. These are exactly the kinds of human-centered tasks that designers work on every day.The natural evolution from design doing to design thinking reflects the growing recognition on the part of today’s business leaders that design has become too important to be left to designers.”

This quotation offers some interesting perspectives. Firstly, that, whereas design used to be about the production of physical, tangible, things [like tables, or toasters], it now also is concerned with the design of intangibles such as knowledge or services. Secondly, that this new world of designed intangibles needs people who are better at thinking than doing. So designing tangible things is for doers and the design of intangibles is for thinkers. And, here, because designers are seen to be doers not thinkers they cannot be trusted with this task. Therefore, if innovation is going to be essential to our future survival it seems that Design will be colonized by other professions seemingly better equipped for this task.

So, let me try to address your conference’s themes by first asking what may have caused this sense of disorientation and vertigo? To me this seems the direct consequence of a turbulent period of change we have just been forced through. It has been caused by the collision of two currents coming from powerful cultures. Simply for the sake of this discussion I want to identify them as the Symbolic Age and the Digital Age.

The turbulence seems to have been caused as these two currents rushed down on each other along a narrow channel connecting one Age to the next. This short, narrow, channel being called the Industrial Revolution. Soon, when the current throws us out the other end of this turbulent vortex, we emerge disorientated to confront a new Digital Universe. And we seem to deal with this disorientation by hanging onto familiar tools inherited from an earlier period simply because they are the best means we have got to try and make sense of this new universe. To put it another way—we look to the future but act in the past.

The sense of disorientation we experience is, nonetheless, a natural process in passing from one world order to the next. And, here, the Digital Age turns everything we have inherited inside out. Before this point innovation was focused on the design of tools and technologies that would transform intangible things on the inside into tangible things on the outside. This process started over 30,000 years ago when the first modern humans crawled deep underground—painting images on cave walls to create their own Symbolic Universe. Drawing, speaking, writing, printing, photography, radio, film and TV are all tools designed to transform internal stories, hidden within the mind of each person, into the tangible forms of artificial memory e.g. a photograph, poem, letter or song. Once done they could then be transported outwards and put into circulation to be consumed by other minds.

The Industrial Revolution was, in fact, a very brief but tumultuous interlude at the end of this long innovation process. If it were to be condensed into a 60 minute documentary the rate at which this chain of innovation gathered speed would be exponential. The first scene opening with cave painting it would only be in the last few minutes that Gutenberg’s invention of printing from movable type would emerge to herald the Industrial revolution. In the last few seconds radio, TV, photography and film all would emerge—with the very final second being reserved for the www’s commercial availability. And at the end of this one hour documentary we would witness North African dictators being toppled by the democratic power of digital social networks.
This illustrates two things. Firstly, that the history of innovation, through human agency, has had an exponential trajectory—that is, it started very slowly, gradually picked up speed, then ended in a brief, but turbulent, funnel of change. Secondly, the Industrial Revolution is such a recent, and brief event that it could not be considered anything more than a turbulent but temporary interlude on this body of human innovation. Indeed the Symbolic age that preceded it was far longer and more deeply influential on the habits we have acquired.
So I would now like to consider some of the drivers that catapulted us through this period of change. To do this I will go back to look at the future. The process started over 30,000 years ago when modern humans first crawled deep underground—painting images on cave walls to create a Symbolic Universe. It must have a been an overwhelming instinct causing them to crawl down on bellies, with only the flimsiest of flickering lights, deep into inhospitable if not dangerous caverns—to paint images on walls. If you think about these symbolic caves as the first spaces of consumption then they appear in a different light. They brought back to life, in tangible form, the spirits of living things that humans had consumed in order to survive. Only the spirits of living things that had been consumed by humans seem to have been drawn back into the world. In this respect drawing should be seen as an ability to pull intangible things back into the world. It was not the skill to represent things observed in the world.

Their instinct to go underground in order to do this may also have been to simulate a journey into the recesses of human memory where the spirits of things they had consumed were still roaming. But, whatever the motivation may have been, it is clear that a choice was being made to create artificial worlds—separate from the natural world up above—in which intangible memories could be brought back to life in the form of tangible symbols.
Perhaps an unintended consequence resulting from these first spaces of consumption was a growing awareness that they also had the symbolic power to create social cohesion amongst isolated individuals struggling for survival in a hostile environment up above. They helped to connect people. This insight, or instinct, stimulated a major change in behavior that would set out to shift their condition from (i) a natural world of disconnected individuals to (ii) artificial worlds of connected individuals. It was a shift towards greater social cohesion in the interests of survival.

This shift in behavior is consistent with actions defined in Herbert Simon’s famous definition of Design in which “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. Of human behaviour itself Simon also said that “Human beings, viewed as behaving systems, are quite simple. The apparent complexity of our behavior over time is largely a reflection of the complexity of the environment in which we find ourselves.” Put another way we create artificial environments then these environments create us.

These first designers started to control the complexity of their natural surroundings by learning how to create artificial environments in underground laboratories. The aim of this was to shift patterns of behavior from disconnected individuals to connected groups. This was a classic example of designing to effect a shift from one condition to a preferred one. And, it was a two-way shift from natural to artificial and from individual to group. In human terms it was a shift from the inner worlds of individuals to the outer world of social cohesion. It was a trade-off between the privilege of individual freedom that was accompanied by isolation against the compromises of social cohesion that, nonetheless, provided collective security. In environment terms it was a shift from the exterior of a natural world to the interiors of artificial worlds.

In all of this there was one direction of travel. It was to invent technologies that could transform intangible knowledge into a tangible form so it could be distributed and consumed by the minds of many people. Indeed, by as many people as could be reached. This was the beginnings of consumption even though the choices were few. It is this process of creating group behaviour through the production, distribution and consumption of symbolic value, in the form of artificial memories, that I now want to follow. Indeed, this was the point at which the cycles of production, distribution and consumption first emerged and then started to improve their effectiveness.[By artificial memory I mean any tangible object in which intangible knowledge has been encoded—then multiplied and distributed. It is the embedding of intangible things into objects. Drawing, speaking and writing— each in the form of symbols, stories, songs, photographs, films and paintings are all types of artificial memory].

As this story begins to unfold we will witness how improved systems for the production and distribution of artificial memories created ever larger groups of people that started to behave in consistent and predictable ways—showing increasing levels of social cohesion. But then, in the early 20th century, something changed and the behavior of these larger groups started to get unpredictable and seemingly irrational.

The purpose of these systems—for the production and distribution of artificial memory—was to deliver master-narratives from the mouth of a teller into the mind of a listener in order that increasingly larger groups of people would behave in a rationally coherent and predictable fashion. They were not two-way conversations but one-way addresses intended to influence behaviour. In it’s early stages this process likely had the sole aim of creating social cohesion that was in the best interests of group survival. But as the behavior of these much larger groups started to get unpredictable the systems had to shift in order to try and find ways of controlling what seemed to be increasingly irrational crowds. As we will see one way of achieving this control was to turn active citizens into passive, consumers. And, it was here, that design came into its own.

Underneath this shift lay two drivers. Firstly, to control the means of production and distribution. Secondly, to control the master narratives of a consuming society. And, by their effects, these were control systems. These systems were, therefore, designed to deliver addresses from one person to many people. They set out to transmit standard knowledge, in the form of master-narratives, from a ruling authority into the minds of many individuals. Their purpose was to establish both social cohesion and ruling authority. These were the systems of organized power that the Digital Universe came to overthrow and, so, cast practices of design established in the late 19th and early 20th century into a state of confusion.

In order to understand how, and why, this shift occurred let’s retrace the footsteps of some of these systems as they evolved. Their primary aim being to transform intangible memories into tangible forms that could be circulated and consumed. In order that the maximum number of people could be reached with the maximum effect these systems had to meet four conditions. They had to be: tangible; stable; portable; and, replicable.
1. Tangible in that they gave material form to intangible things— they brought what was  inside to the outside.2. Stable in that the memory, once externalized, should retain its original meaning and shape.3. Portable in that these artificial memories could travel the maximum distance possible in order to reach people.4. Replicable, in that multiple copies could be produced to achieve the widest dispersion and saturation of minds.

The first spaces of consumption were evolved as artificial worlds in which intangible memories could be stabilized in a tangible form on cave walls through drawing. Their continued preservation for over 30,000 years bears witness to this extraordinary stability. However, these symbolic worlds, in their own time, failed to fulfill two conditions in that they were neither portable nor replicable. Additionally their representational forms limited the process of encoding and decoding knowledge in that they could only represent things not thoughts—so restricting the range of knowledge that could be carried. At some point, however, someone must have sensed that these symbolic worlds would be more powerful if they were portable and reached more people. So when the symbols transferred from cave walls to human skin or the surfaces of objects a distribution system was born. And when the first storyteller walked out from the interior of a cave carrying symbolic value this started the process of knowledge transmission into outer reaches of space. The new portability of this system also secured it’s stability in that the symbols were permanently engraved. It had, though, two significant deficits. Firstly, the knowledge was not replicable, being tattooed on the skin of an individual, or engraved on an object’s surface, so its capacity for wider dispersion was constrained.

Gradually the work of these human distribution systems gathered in prominence and influence. So speaking took over from drawing as they became official transmitters of knowledge. Family histories, great battles, lovers trysts and useful knowledge could all be transmitted through official storey-tellers whose narratives helped to forge the social cohesion of groups. Though these stories were portable and to some degree replicable they were neither tangible nor stable. Beyond the presence of a storyteller there was no tangible form to give each narrative a permanent legacy—and because the form of this knowledge was intangible it died with the memory of each storyteller. Furthermore, the memories were unstable—being altered in the process of transmission from one storyteller’s memory to another. Whereas they could tell stories it was still not possible to produce and distribute master-narratives that would always remain the same, transmitting exactly the same story, wherever they went.

When writing took over from speaking this moved closer to meeting the four conditions by fusing the two previous systems. Here meaningless sounds were linked to meaningless signs in order to create meaning. The writing system did have a very tangible form and it was highly portable. This said it was only stable if kept to an edition of one. Where the stories were to be replicated as multiple editions they had to be copied by hand. And here variations in the stories again began to emerge as each copyist added their own memory glosses to the narratives which were further modified when passing from hand to hand— so they remained unstable. This point in time also saw the first structuring of society into literate elites having the power that came from privileged access to stories and knowledge.

Guttenberg solved most of these problems through the invention of printing from movable type. Just as writing had been created through a combination of two earlier systems so was Guttenberg’s innovation a synthesis of two existing technologies—the screw press and hand mould. To this he added—and borrowed from easel painting—the use of oil-based inks. Indeed many if not most change-shaping innovations were the result of new connections made between previously disconnected things in the mind of a person like Gutenberg who was able to think a repurposing of existing things. Similarly, it took nearly 150 years for Charles Babbage’s mechanical computer, Friedrich Koenig’s high-speed printing press and Joseph Niépce photographic imagery to be collapsed into desk-top publishing.

So, printing from movable type produced tangible forms of artificial memory that were portable, replicable and highly stable. For the first time books made possible the production of master-narratives that would be identical in every detail, in every edition, that was ever to be produced and distributed. The cheap availability of such publications also stimulated a spread of literacy with an increasingly greater percentage of the population knowing how to decode the symbols each book contained. So the age of knowledge transmission now really took flight to conquer the world. It has been estimated that, only fifty years after printing’s invention, 1000 presses, operating throughout Europe, had produced between 8-20 million books. By the 16th century this had risen to between 150-200 million copies. Presses soon appeared in Cologne, Rome, Venice, Paris, Cracow, London Mexico City, Goa, and, Tahiti. In terms of its portability and replicability printing had achieved global diffusion and saturation in a way never before witnessed.
Gutenberg’s invention of printing from movable type can genuinely be called a revolution—for it changed the shape of human society. It put knowledge, and power, back into the hands of many. It also produced an unexpected shift from social listening back to private reading. It created a massive system through which one person could speak to many people in all corners of the globe.

Previous innovations had struggled to transform disconnected individuals into socially cohesive groups. They had tried to do this through public storytelling and reading. Gutenberg’s invention of printing created a new model where each person could carry—in their pockets—a private world for the private reader. This was to stimulate a shift back to the inner world of the individual—but one that was increasingly connected to the minds and thoughts of many other individuals. But these connections were still, however, the one-way street of knowledge transmission with many people being addressed by one person. And it opened up a new age—of the individual consumer whose appetite for the symbolic value contained in master-narratives seemed insatiable. And so insatiable was this appetite that the quantity of books and newspapers in circulation could not keep up with the demand for the stories and the knowledge they contained.
This demand could only be met if printers’ muscles were able to work faster to produce more. It was at this point that the industrial revolution stepped in to replace muscle power with machine power. The Industrial Revolution also separated Design out from Craft to give the former greater importance and focus. Indeed, it was only in the late 19th century that Design was to emerge as a discrete profession in itself.

This was in direct response to the Industrial Revolution’s substitution of machine power for muscle power which caused an increasingly specialized breaking-down of the constituent tasks in any craft process into production lines of mechanized acts. Just as movable type had fragmented the individual sounds of language down into twenty six soldiers of lead to be assembled then reassembled so too was the crafting process disassembled. Here craft’s previously integrated way of making something, where one person controlled the process from beginning to end, was divided into sequences of specialized skills performed by many actors. The programming and sequencing of these individual acts then became the stuff of Design—which now could be described as a plan to make an artifact  identical, in every detail, to all others in its batch.

As these cycles of production became better designed, and more efficient, they increased the circulation of standardized goods which, in turn, offered choices that stimulated the emergence of mass consumption. This was also the point where active citizens slowly transformed into passive consumers.
Just as Gutenberg’s invention of printing from movable had been a genuine revolution that happened only 500 years ago there were just two other points in the Industrial Revolution that could, similarly, be claimed to have been shape-changing. About 150 years ago intangible memories started to be encoded onto tangible objects through sound, photograph and film. Then, finally, about 100 years ago, the electromagnetic spectrum was harnessed to distribute these narratives, made up of sounds and images, through the ether in coded form to then be decoded and consumed by radio speakers and television screens.

Now these systems for the production, distribution and consumption of narratives seemed to fulfill all of the four conditions to achieve maximum diffusion and saturation. They were each: tangible; stable; portable; and replicable. But it was at this very point that a gap began to emerge. As the Industrial revolution continued to improve the efficiency of its systems for the production and distribution of goods, into the 20th century, the attention of manufacturing industry began to drift away from the primary source to have fired the emergence of these very technologies. It was that tangible objects simply were the carriers of meanings that linked back into more powerful symbolic worlds carried inside the memory of each individual—it was their meaningfulness not their usefulness that mattered.

The purpose of these systems was to help code then decode symbolic meaning so it could be distributed to greatest number of people in the most dispersed locations. It was the inner world of symbolic meaning not the outer world of useful goods that carried value. Here manufacturing industry started to focus on the circulation of tangible goods in the belief that their usefulness alone would be attractive to consumers. Now the priority had shifted from meaning to usage and from value to vessel.
Two consequences emerged. Firstly, as manufacturing industry’s production systems became more and more efficient during the two world wars there was a concern that an overproduction of goods would result—i.e. there would more things in the world than consumers to use them. Secondly, it emerged, that individuals in organized crowds were now behaving consistently but not predictably. Because their inner needs and desires had been ignored it only took the production of one master-narrative to bring dormant images of, say, national identity and territory back to life with a vengeance. And once raised from sleep these symbols of national identity were unleashed in the second World War II

This, in turn, caused a demonstration of political will that was to slowly change the course of the design of democracy. Instead of trying to understand the internal, intangible, worlds of symbolic meaning, that sat within each person, the political world concluded that the masses could no longer be trusted with democracy. The answer was to harness the surplus production capacity of manufacturing industry to design goods that would satisfy the irrational inner needs and desires of individuals. The primary objective now was to evolve stories and narratives that would stimulate these, intangible and irrational desires to then satisfy them with tangible goods.
This seemed to solve two problems (i) it tamed the irrational crowd by turning active citizens into passive consumers (ii) it opened up new markets for manufacturing industry to utilise its surplus production resources. So here industry’s primary focus changed from the design of objects to the creation of desires within people. The purpose being to transform active citizens into desiring but docile consumers. This approach was exemplified in the following statement by Herbert Hoover in the year of his election to President of the United States when he called a group of advertisers together:
“You have taken over the job of creating desire and have transformed people into constantly moving happiness machines. Machines which have become the key to economic progress.”

And here, of course, design and advertising provided the key tools through which to both create and then satisfy the inner desires of these “happiness machines”. It also was at this point that the design profession began to emerge as a major economic force in its own right and to spawn a galaxy of leading stars. But this suggestion that people are machines to be controlled in the interests of political stability and economic growth betrays a profound misunderstanding of the independent power of the symbolic values that we each continue to carry within ourselves. These symbolic caves locked deep within us—containing all the intangible memories we have consumed over a lifetime—remain a powerful force.

This seemed to be a turning point in the 20th century when people looked at what they had created and didn’t like it. After a long period of development from the creation of the first spaces of consumption deep in underground caves the world now was about to change. And this was caused by a growing conviction that two things had to shift from a present condition to a preferred one. Firstly the systems of production and distribution that had protected the one-way delivery of master-narratives from a ruling authority needed to be democratized. To achieve this technologies enabling two-way dialogues from many people to many people had to be created. Secondly, there needed to be a rediscovery of symbolic value—these symbolic spaces still carried deep within each person.

So, new systems for the production and distribution of narratives needed to meet a new condition: it was that they should be two-way enablers of conversation between tellers and receivers of stories. Now there was a push to innovate systems of production and distribution that were not only tangible, stable, portable and replicable but also were–interactive. Moreover, they should be interactive not between one-to-one, or one-to-many but between many-to-many people.

The first sign of an emerging technology that was able to support two-way conversations came around 200 years ago through the telegraph and telephone. But these were either slow or one-to-one interactions. And here there was an imbalance. All of the previous distribution systems had been designed to transmit stories from one-to-many persons so were hopeless at supporting conversations. Conversely the systems that now enabled conversations didn’t support groups. Here it was only possible to have conversations on a one-to-one basis. What was needed was a system that could link many people to many other people in conversation.

This came with the Digital Age and birth of the internet which finally overturned the industrial revolution’s founding principles. Firstly, the Industrial Revolution created small elites having control over the systems of production and distribution. They used these to channel the master-narratives that gave shape to our world. The Digital Age overturned these linear distribution systems by replacing their fixedness of one-to-many processes with distribution networks that now could link many-to-many people in ecologies of consumption that were more fluid and democratic.
The internet was the first technology ever to support both two-way conversations and group dynamics at one and the same time—on a massive scale this was a new knowledge ecology born out of a technology. It broke the monopoly of power that small elites had managed to wield through their control of distribution mechanisms and master-narratives as they were delivered by official storytellers. So it smashed what the great proponent of Utilitarian philosophy, JS Mill, had described as “the tyranny of the minority”.

Secondly, because the industrial revolution replaced muscle power with machine power—in order to increase the volume of goods in circulation—it flooded the market with choice so giving birth to the consuming individual at the same time as seeing a gradual demise of the active citizen. With its awareness of a growing class of consuming individual the digital age began to abandon the standardized goods of mass consumption (typical of the first industrial revolution) by making use of open digital systems to customize and personalize things. This is a shift from mass-production to mass-customization where innovation now happens “in the wild” through the insurgence of users (and hackers) into digital objects they will plunder or transform in the pursuit of mass-customization.

Thirdly, the industrial revolution had broken-up and fragmented the individual acts of making things into discrete operations that could be mechanized and standardized. Because all of these processes could now be rendered digital this had the effect of bringing them all back together into a single space—in this respect the digital age had an integrative rather than a fragmenting effect. Devices like the iPad are no longer information sources but sites of coordination where the many processes and routines of production and distribution can be reintegrated under the control of a single hand—from beginning to end of the production and distribution cycle. This seems to have had two effects. Because all the various means of production can be digitized—and put into the hands of every citizen—so every consumer is now a producer. By integrating all of these processes of production and distribution back into the hands of a single individual, at a single point, this reintroduces new possibilities in what it means to craft something.

These three changes brought by the digital age already are having immense influence on the social behaviour of individuals and groups. Let me give just one example to illustrate this. Though we all know of the changes taking place to North African dictatorships it may be less apparent that digital social networks supply the cohesion needed for these collective acts of resistance. In particular a checklist of 198 ways of non-violent protest and persuasion has been, and is being, widely circulated throughout these states. The majority of these 198 strategies involve symbolic acts and are all contained in a publication by Gene Sharp entitled “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation”. I downloaded this book free of charge from the internet just as any person anywhere in the world can do.

This perhaps illustrates the power now in the hands of one person to produce and distribute a narrative that will be consumed by many people seeking coordinated action against authorities not interested in two-way conversations in order to overthrow them. So, from the hearth of his digital campfire this story teller has distributed a narrative that influenced group behaviour to change the world.

Two aspects of this publication, though, are interesting. Firstly, in traditional terms, it is not a particularly well designed object. But this isn’t the point. What It has done is to fulfill Herbert Simon’s definition that “Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones”. Secondly, as previous innovations were the result of connecting separate things in novel ways (e.g. Drawing and speaking to give writing, or, wine-press and butter mould to give printing) so does this example integrate two means of distribution to cause it’s effect.

The many-to-many conversations now made possible by digital social networks are combined with a one-to-many, traditional, process of storytelling. But in this case digital distribution systems enable this story to have global dispersion and saturation. Now stories can reach into every corner of the world to find anyone who wants to listen. And once a story has connected to a mass of willing listeners the effect of their digital social networks will be an intelligent swarming of individual actors around the central story and its cause.

This is a new model for mobilizing and organizing social groups on a massive scale. It’s a shift from irrational crowds to intelligent swarms. Though digital networks have enabled this new ecology what becomes clear is that it still needs a core narrative around which to swarm. And this swarming behaviour is made intelligent through the connectedness of all actors to each other as they transmit elements of the central story to each other through digital social networks.

Although this new ecology has seen the death of absolute truths on which master-narratives had been based it nonetheless makes clear that stories still have the power to transform behaviour and transcend reason—especially when they are connected to more intangible symbolic values locked within people. Let me give just one more example to illustrate this. When, in the 1990’s, desk-top computing started to spread it was probably a coincidence that the Soviet Union begin to fragment around the same time. In his Wolfson Lectures at Oxford University Thomas Butler tried to understand why previously peaceful neighbours in Bosnia, Croatia or Serbia one day turned to slaughter each other. His explanation was that:
“Memory, as transmitted through folk songs, epic poems and oral traditions has the power to destroy empires, as water has the strength to crack stone. Men die for Memory…”

It seems that as we move further into a new digital universe we also revive the ethos of a much earlier age before it was disrupted by the industrial revolution. We all carry the intangibles of symbolic value around inside us. And, when woken from sleep, they are a powerful force that defies reason. It seems that the digital age has reintegrated social forms so that knowledge can now be distributed through a range of means that includes stories, songs, rituals, systems, events, images and so on. What people now seem to want above useful objects is meaningful things. We are involved in a new economy of meaning in which values, stories and narratives are the primary trade. It is not the tangible object that matters any more but the values and stories to which it is attached. These are the intangibles of our internal world. People do not buy things they buy meanings.

Today the old notion of absolute truth is simply the things that people choose to believe in at any moment in time and then swarm round—in this respect they are relative truths not absolute ones. And here the absolute truths of master-narratives give way to the relative truths of multiple-narratives. The point is that people still need stories if their lives are to have meaning.
The post-industrial digital age, that we now occupy, is more complex and—seemingly—more chaotic than before. As the old orders and systems inherited from the first Industrial Revolution dissolve (if not collapse) so we have to establish new orders of practice and fresh systems of thinking through which to forge coherence in our lived experience. In confronting this task we still seem to occupy a transitional space between old and new world orders. We designers look forward to a digital age in a state of global transformation yet remain tied to tools and habits inherited from the Industrial Revolution.

In conclusion. Today everyone is a designer and design—in all it’s manifestations—is everywhere. It deals both with the tangible and the intangible. The artificial environments in which we spend our lives are acts of Design which also have impact upon the natural environments placed in our custody for future generations. So too are social and political systems the intangible acts of design. Because design affects every aspect of our material and biological world it can no longer be exempt from the moral and ethical issues of citizenship. The ubiquitous products of design that make-up our artificial environment now constitute “a parliament of things”—that regulates and governs our everyday experience of life.

The challenges of our 21st century urgently need the invention of new survival strategies. But, unlike the designer that I quoted at the beginning of this talk who said “design is now too important to be left to designers” I believe the invention of these strategies is too important to be left to anyone but designers. I also believe that the digital age renders the power of Design so great as to be a new body politic needing its own forms of State governance best suited to emerging world orders.

No longer is Design a minority party within the social fabric of life but one of its dominant forces. Just as it has the power for tremendous good it can also be misused. Our State of Design (with a capital ‘S’ and a capital ‘D’) either is in need of professional formation, or, a radical reformation. Indeed, I think Design urgently needs its own Age of Enlightenment fit for the 21st century.
Finally. I am happy for NASA and others to continue their quest to conquer outer space. What we, designers, need to find are ways of reconnecting back to inner space. By linking tangible objects to the symbolic values stored within people. We need to reawaken the dynamic relationships between artefacts and ourselves by moving the exterior to the interior to start exploring inner space again. These intangibles are more powerful than reason when brought back to life. This is why, like your conference, I believe design to be a deeply human activity having the opportunity to expand and mature.
Contact: b.brown @

May 06, 2011


May 05, 2011

Tonight after dinner:

Tonight after dinner:
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