Design, ethics and humanism

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How Design offers companies a tremendous opportunity to work on their corporate social responsibility

Design is in vogue, in vogue for companies who believe that creation and innovation are drivers of their future development. Managers talk about innovation strategies, foresight, concepts, possible futures, design thinking. They organize their teams transversely in project groups which are united around an idea of what tomorrow will be like, determined that it will be more “enlightened”, more beautiful, better designed than today, and of course, more profitable. Design has become a management strategy and discipline. But what is left of Design, the humanist discipline born of the Applied Arts? What is left of the “unique human dimension and the esthetic values of traditional small-scale production”? (1)

If you ask a passerby what design is, they will not fail to talk to you of beautiful tables, stylish chairs and magnificent lamps. Paint your living room white, put a posh white leather chair in the middle and everyone will tell you how designer your house is. Tell them you’re a designer and you will immediately be treated with respect.

I recall a conference by Philippe Stark, the great French designer, talking about transparency as the sublime embodiment of design, as if to say that anything that wasn’t transparent could not be considered “designer”. It was the time of Kartell chairs. Obviously, that is ridiculous except for the talent of the entertainer who seeks to tell the gullible what is beautiful or ugly, esthetic or meaningless, what can be considered as art and creation and therefore divine, or what is common. A white leather or transparent chair is no more designer than a pouffe bought in the Istanbul bazaar: only the meaning that we give things is designer.

Casimir Malevitch clearly understood that “White on White” is only a thing of beauty for those who take the trouble to make sense of it. Design is whatever we decide it is; when it comes to beauty, there are no absolutes, only humans determine the rules to give it meaning. The row of low-rise council flats is hideous, but it becomes a treasure when we discover that it was built by Le Corbusier and that nothing is due to chance. Design is a representation of the world and of things, the vision for which mankind is responsible, the one we want to live with, better and happier. Design is a humanism in the sense that it makes individuals responsible for the world in which they want to live.  The designer’s work is based on the humanist visions of the Renaissance artists and philosophers.  Similarly, artistic creation, from which design differentiates itself completely, implies a result which provokes, at least for its author, emotion, pleasure and values. The designer goes further and introduces the notion of progress for mankind.

Design is a humanism

Humanism is a world view in which everything gravitates around man like everything used to gravitate around God in the earlier vision of the west. The full importance of this philosophy became clear during the Renaissance era, particularly thanks to Thomas MORE, an English Catholic philosopher, theologian and politician who died a martyr in 1535. By going against classical theologians who believed the world gravitated around God, he cited and reflected on the words of Protagoras (Plato – Protagoras – Dialogue with Socrates): “Man is the measure of all things and the source of all light”.

His most famous work, Utopia (2), is the revelation of an imaginary world created and ruled by man, a sort of projection of a perfect world, an allegory which is both idealistic and impossible but also sufficiently accurate for us to be able to imagine it. This notion that man can conceive of, or even create, the absolute, good and evil, perfection and Love, stands out from Christian theories of the time which claimed that happiness could only come from God.

Humanism eventually left behind its theological and Christian references, and with Kant became a general outlook on life (political, economic, ethical) based on the belief in salvation through human forces alone.

 “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it” wrote Karl MARX later in “Theses on Feuerbach” (3). That is the real challenge. Humanism became political doctrine in the 19th century, when the industrial revolution was defining other horizons for the notion of progress. The idea is for responsible humans who are not alienated by machines to change the world and make it a better place.

Design and ethics

Whether you consider the work of designers on purely philosophical and spiritual grounds or, on the contrary, on technical grounds, it is clear that it is a specifically human activity based on a moral, intuitive or reasoned approach to progress.

Designers project themselves into the future, they create, relatively speaking, their “Island of Utopia”. This activity fosters reflection, debate, an awareness of what is and the prediction of what will be. It fosters desire, consciousness of what will be better, and intuition of the resulting pleasure. This is precisely how Spinoza defines mankind in “Ethics”, the work he wrote between 1661 and 1675. Extending the Cartesian doctrines of “Cogito ergo sum”, he defines it according to two specific approaches: consciousness and desire, the consciousness of yesterday, of today, of tomorrow and desire, the ability to distinguish what is good, from what is better, pleasure but also, from that moment on, the awareness of good and evil. The designer’s act of creating corresponds perfectly to this definition: a conscious act of imagining the future to satisfy the desire for something better.

Today’s designers continue to use tools and thus revive the age-old tradition of craftsmanship: this characteristic is essential because it is not enough to be a “thinking man or a project man” in order to be. If we take Darwin’s theories of evolution, particularly the ones that deal with adapting to one’s environment, we distinguish humans from animals by the former’s ability to manipulate tools, to perfect them and to use them as an extension of their head and arm. It’s partly through using tools that man has managed to adapt, develop, raise himself from his original condition, but also and above all to change the world in which he was living. Without their tools, designers are nothing but project managers. With them, they become committed architects and builders of future progress – and happiness. “The hand is the mind” teach the companions. The aim is to reconcile the head, ideas, the mind, doing and acting. Because ultimately, if we want to change the world, we will have to take the lead.

Finally, designers create. In a subconscious state, the pencil sometimes escapes from the hand which is holding it to draw invented and involuntary shapes. As such, designers, although human, approach the sublime, something which goes beyond them, a transcendental objectivity… They touch God with the end of their pencil. In a sense, they invent him, they create him. In a world where sacred and moral values are in decline, where robots and artificial intelligence make us question what humanity is, designers, with their ability to create beyond themselves, call on us to find a new definition of humanism, one that consists of thinking that there is something above us, the ability to be able to conceive of God. It’s highly unlikely that robots, however intelligent, will ever have this faculty.

If God has a purpose, whatever the religion, it is to teach us about morality. Free from theological references, ethics, a philosophy concerned with the moral judgement of our actions in society, offers a rational justification for what is good and evil. It goes even further than morals. Emmanuel Lévinas writes “Morality makes us pity those who are hungry, ethics makes us take responsibility to help feed them. Faced with the hunger of men, responsibility can only be measured objectively.” Ethics replaces the religious values of morality and forms part of reasoned action.

Design is humanist because it puts the individual at the center and makes it the measure of all things, and ethical because it aims to represent and to build “with its hands” tomorrow’s world, the world in which we hope to have a better quality of life despite the fact that our moral reference points, those of God, but also of Marx and Proudhon, the reference points of every form of idealism, are disappearing in favor of the law.

What of humanism and ethics when it comes to working for companies whose sole purpose is to generate added value?

Design as it was derived from the Applied Arts became industrial as a result of the tremendous technological and economic boom that took place in the mid-19th century. The idea was to “rediscover the unique human dimension and the esthetic values of traditional small-scale production in industrial-scale production”. The notion of progress was changing: owning a car, taking the train, buying your clothes at Parisian department store Le Bon Marché became the symbols of happiness to be attained. It was, however, important to find a sense of meaning to this deep social and economic change in the industrial products being churned off assembly lines which alienated workers to the point of swallowing them (4). A touch of beauty in a rapidly-changing world dominated by machines.

Design accompanied the industrial then commercial boom of western societies, always with the same responsibility: to produce better, more functional goods and to achieve progress. It is starting to overtake technology and business and to take center stage thanks to the major changes taking place in the world. Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, former rector of the Design School Kolding (Denmark), in her “A Manifesto for Global Design and Leadership” explains: “The 19th and 20th centuries forced companies to ask two questions: What is profitable and what is technologically possible? In the 21st century, the question is: What makes sense?” The importance of design becomes fully apparent for companies which are considering their future and the role they should play from now on.  

It depends on their capacity to innovate. They must adapt constantly to radical changes of context which make their future uncertain if they don’t have this capacity to change extremely quickly.

These are troubled times: changes in ecological awareness (which require us to save the planet), geopolitical changes with the arrival of major new powers, cultural change accompanied by the decline in morality in favor of law, uncertainty about the relevance of democracy and the role of politics, globalization of trade, digital transition, the ageing population, protein transition, etc. All these things are disrupting the world, forcing us to rethink it, to transform its nature, to redesign it. If experience is vital for all things, experimentation, or the ability to project yourself into the future in order to better anticipate it, is becoming primordial.

Design raises questions about the uses of the future. It draws them, represents them, gives them shape, purpose and value. It makes them objective, comprehensible, acceptable. As well as making them meaningful, it also seeks to make them virtuous. Design as an economic discipline is a powerful strategic tool which enables us to speculate about the future, influence development choices, propel companies into the future since they have no choice but to anticipate and adapt to rapidly changing environments. Competitive advantage is no longer about the ability to produce better products than your competitors, but about being ahead of the game in terms of understanding how the societies in which we live are changing.

The definition of a company’s meaning and values seems to me to be essential, although we must use the concepts of morals and economy with caution if we want to associate them. In the capitalist system, which, like it or not, has historically generated the most freedom and empowerment for people, the purpose of a company is still to produce added value and profit. It is up to businesses and society in general to share out this profit as fairly as possible. A task which is neither simple nor objective, and as such highly questionable. Producing wealth is virtuous and let us praise companies who strive to do so. Let us encourage them, our progress depends on it.

However, it is not reasonable to think that a company could sell products as a moral duty rather than out of self-interest. Morality and capitalism do not go well together. Without being immoral, it is certainly amoral. But once we have accepted this primacy, it is clear that companies must consider their ethical responsibility, the role they play in society, their values and their identity. Their ability to understand new market trends is at stake. It is not only a moral requirement but a strategic requirement. And it is entirely consistent with the goal of generating added value. This necessity is all the more urgent due to the troubled climate in which the values of the sacred are disappearing, and morals are being worn down by friction between cultures in a globalized world. It is a need as much as a requirement.

This need is perfectly embodied by the new managerial experimentation. People talk about corporate social responsibility, liberated companies, etc. The “Made in France” concept is also part of this desire to show off our virtues. These concepts should obviously be treated with caution. What about the corporate social responsibility of an automobile company which limits its vehicles’ polluting emissions out of duty, but which continues to sell SUVs, others that would like to make us think that work can be seen as a liberating occupation… Or what about underwear that is “Made in France” from cotton sourced in India?

Considering meaning is something entirely different. It is a strategic and managerial requirement. The importance of being able to change quickly, to go from one line of work to another, has become vital in a world turned upside down by changing economic and social contexts. Change is no longer organized around the capacity to produce or sell such and such a product or service better than the others, but around meaning, a mission, a role played in building the future. Apple doesn’t manufacture iPhones, Apple is Promethean, it claims to connect humans to God; La Poste no longer sorts the mail, or sells stamps: La Poste consolidates social ties between the entire population of a region; Nestlé doesn’t sell yogurts anymore, Nestlé feeds the world… When the activity becomes an ethical and sacred mission, companies improve their intelligence with regard to change, their potential to go from one sector to another, without necessarily changing their line of work but by defining it differently from traditional industrial and marketing references.

Once again, design has this virtue of representing change and of making it meaningful. Imagining, representing and therefore explaining tomorrow, applying it to products, packaging, spatial planning, multimedia tools – all this helps us take ownership of the future and accept it. It gives meaning to the future and makes it less uncertain. And therefore less threatening. When companies question themselves about their future, it is a powerful strategic and managerial tool.

In a troubled world, designers alleviate uncertainty

Tomorrow is uncertain by definition. What world will we live in tomorrow? What world will we leave to our children? In other words, what world are our children preparing for us while the experience of the elders – which has formed the base of our societies – is replaced by a digital culture that we feel is systematically and irrevocably ahead of its time and therefore eludes us irremediably? Today we hear a lot about artificial intelligence, robots, the end of the work era, and even eternity in order to better substitute ourselves for God, the hereafter, the one constructed by humans to deal with finitude and the afterlife. In short, we are being told about the end of our humanity, replaced by something else with an alternative intelligence.

Tomorrow may be bright or it may be terrifying, depending on the meaning we choose to give it. For designers, tomorrow is an opportunity: they draw, represent and shape the future. They give meaning and expression to imaginary concepts to make them objective and acceptable. They experiment, apply, make things true and real. They look ahead with the aim of achieving progress. They examine alternatives – because our changing world needs something different – in a quest for continual improvement. Designers, in their ethical dimension, provide a solution to the problem pointed out by Marx about the world: “The point is to change it”*. It is up to designers to give it shape and depth.

At company level, leading change is a challenge, since it means throwing employees into a certain form of uncertainty which is potentially stressful. What will become of us? Will we be competent tomorrow in the new organization? Will we be able to adapt? Can I produce something different tomorrow from what I’ve always produced? Can I sell something different on new markets and with other clients than the ones I know well who recognize my expertise, encouraged every year by a system of bonuses on revenue?

The role of the designer is to render future changes objective, and to apply that to all areas of the company. Its products of course, but also its environment, its strategy, its organization, etc. The aim is to get all the company’s internal players but also the external ones sitting round a table and to get them thinking about tomorrow, to help them imagine, apprehend, understand and accept the changes. Design is a management tool. We talk about Design Thinking, but it is a malapropism. It’s just design, pure and simple. In other words, designers alleviate the uncertainty of the future that we all, out of awareness and responsibility, apprehend in some way. Indeed, the meaning of the word “apprehend” is an indicator of the fear we feel about the future. “Apprehend” means both to understand and comprehend and, at the same time, to fear and consider as dangerous. It is speculation about what we don’t know which makes us suspicious.

Designers have become project managers. In addition to their technical skills, they are also able to communicate, share, persuade, spark ideas in others and improve on them while respecting the original idea.   Similarly, they understand the company as a whole: they are no longer confined to using their technical skills, even though these skills are vital to their managerial practice. They are the managers of tomorrow, in companies whose strategic intelligence should far surpass the reproduction of what has always been done.

Designers: from design thinking to design doing

Some people believe that creatives shouldn’t get involved in economics and that designers shouldn’t work for companies that are too capitalistic or not virtuous enough. That clearly makes no sense whatsoever. Art history teaches us that there would be no great artists without great art dealers, like it or not. For designers, they should be free to work with whoever they want: for who are we to judge for another what is virtuous and what is not? No-one would dream of denouncing all car designers on the grounds that they have contributed to the pollution we are now facing. We would also have to denounce all the designers who work in the world of marketing based on contract renewal, all the architects who have built airports, those that take the train or, even worse, their car to get to work. It is simply not realistic. The notion that “the most beautiful curve for a product is the sales curve,” is self-evident and producing added value is virtuous. It is the wealth which must be distributed to all, as fairly as possible. And it is not the companies we must blame, but the politicians who no longer effectively control this sharing. As for designers, they have a role to play in all lines of business and all companies, because they need to change their methods of working, producing, selling and adapting to this tremendous rise in ecological awareness which will radically change our lives.  And that is when the whole ethical and humanist dimension of the profession makes full sense. The company’s corporate social responsibility, if there is one, is ensured through desig

1/ What is left of the “unique human dimension and the esthetic values of traditional small-scale production”? This sentence is borrowed from Jocelyne LeBoeuf – Art and Design Historian.

2/ Thomas More – Utopia or Of a republic’s best state and of the new island Utopia – 1516 – The word “utopia” is formed from the Greek ou-topos, which means in no place or place of happiness (from the Greek eu: “good, happily” and topos: “place”. (Source: Wikipedia)

3/ “Theses on Feuerbach”, Karl Marx, in Œuvres, Karl Marx, Maximilien Rubel, ed. Gallimard, coll. “Bibliothèque de la Pléiade”, 1982  (ISBN 978-2070109913), vol. III (Philosophy), p. 1033

4/ I am referring to “Modern Times” in which Charlie Chaplin’s character is swallowed by the machine, and to the hero of Roger Vailland’s “325000 francs”. The workman Busard’s arm is crushed by the press when he attempts to improve the way it operates.

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