Slow Design for Cultural Sustainability

by Michael Lockhart | 7 August, 2017

I was honoured to give a talk today at the International Cultural Sustainability Symposium run by Victoria University of Wellington. Thanks to the organisers, speakers and those who attended. The following is a transcript of my talk.

The noted design academic Ezio Manzini said “There is too much making and not enough designing”. This remark sums up the theme of a book I’ve nearly finished writing called SLOW Design. One of the goals of SLOW Design is to bring culture back into design. In my talk today I’d like to give an insight into what I mean by this.

The makers – people who were dedicated and skilled craftspeople – traditionally did the design. As production became more industrialised design became divorced from making and workers were no longer craftspeople. Workers became more and more alienated from the stuff they were responsible for producing.

Industrialists took over the mantle of maker but they did not have the primary goal of creating well-being for people, their main goal was and still is, to produce the maximum amount of cheap goods at high margins.

There have been many dissenters over the years including the Arts and Crafts movement, which I’ll talk more about later, as well as the Hippie back-to-the-land movement, the Punk DIY ethos and the more recent Maker Culture. However, the industrialisation of our culture has continued relentlessly.

Early on, industrialisation was a good thing, because for a long time it helped raise standards of living for most people in the western world. However, a rising real standard of living stopped decades ago, and has even reversed, but the many disadvantages of industrialisation continue unabated, including both environmental and cultural deterioration.

Industrial production favours quantity over quality

Industrial production tends to commoditise, standardise and globalise the design of products. I call these products ‘Fast’ designs because like Fast food, they are made fast for fast consumption. Just as you can buy a Big Mac and a Coke anywhere in the world and it will taste the same, you can buy cotton jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps and they are all the same. Wherever you go, anywhere, things are starting to look the same, cars look the same, houses look the same, high-tech goods like cellphones all look the same, websites, packaging and signs all look the same. And there are also way too many of all of them.

With cultural artefacts becoming increasingly the same, it is a death knell on cultural diversity. However, modern-day producers are very cunning. By regularly introducing new technology and features, which they call ‘innovation’, and by constantly changing attractive styling and emotional advertising campaigns they create superficial differences which continually makes last year’s model redundant and pushes the amount of stuff piling up in people’s cupboards, wardrobes, garages and lockups sky high. The problem is that the more culturally shallow things are, the less of a real and enduring connection people have with them.

Making has become a matter of quantity over quality. It is more about designing material, extrinsic satisfactions than much more sustainable intangible, intrinsic satisfactions.

The intrinsic value of culture

The consumption of Cultural products including visual art, music, film, dance, theatre, literature, new media, heritage and cultural events is much more environmentally sustainable than industrial production. And obviously, it is more culturally sustainable too.

However, there is a disconnect between how people perceive extrinsic-focused and intrinsic-focused productions in terms of value. I’d like to give an insight into that now.

For a few years, a friend and I ran workshops up and down the country teaching artists how to make money. These were artists in the broadest sense – musicians, performers, visual artists, writers and other creative endeavours. In particular, we taught them how to promote themselves to increase their profile and sell their work. Over the course of about three years, we took over 50 workshops with over 500 participants. Needless to say, we were just hitting our heads against a brick wall. What were we thinking trying to get artists to sell themselves?

I had hoped in some small way to help those who were struggling to do better for themselves. I felt that people did not value art properly and were not paying artists their worth. Most artists struggle financially. Artists have to rely on the support of loved ones, or work they would rather not do, that is work that is valued higher in a financial sense than their art.

Artists provide profound cultural value in our society. In a sense what artists do is priceless, and because it is less tangible and more experiential it is hard to commodify. Which is exactly why capitalists steer clear of it, there’s just no way to control it, mass-produce it and profit from it.

I tend to agree with those that say art should be kept away from commercial imperatives, but artists have to eat. And is it really fair that artists struggle whilst subsidising our cultural well-being, at the same time businesses are doing their damnedest to turn our culture into a completely commercial operation?

In stark contrast to the undervaluation of art, is the fact that you can buy a pair of jeans for $1000, indeed it is possible to find jeans for tens of thousands of dollars. We live in a topsy-turvy world when a pair of jeans can cost more than most paintings, poems or songs.

Craft industry favours quality over quantity

I would be the first to argue that design is not the same as art. However, design-making traditionally had much more in common with art than it does these days. I’m talking about the fact that making a practical artefact by hand offers the maker an authentically human self-expression of their skills, intentions and values. The user of their products has a personal connection with the maker in a way that a machine-made, plastic product from overseas could never have. The Arts and Crafts movement was based on this notion. They believed that by bringing the designer back in touch with their productions there would be more meaningful and therefore more emotionally durable products. This is a much more environmentally and culturally sustainable approach than the current meaningless, throwaway approach.

It is obviously not all doom and gloom. Talk of the Arts and Crafts movement brings me on to one of the key solutions that will allow society to produce environmentally sustainable goods and services at the same time as enhancing cultural sustainability through diversity, quality, and depth of meaning, namely, craft production. The growth of craft industries in recent years is a clarion call from the grassroots for quality over quantity. Craft production allows a more authentic relationship between the designer-maker and the customer. It’s those types of relationships that sustains culture and provides more well-being for both producers and consumers. Craft industries are inherently small and local. This means they are less resource hungry and less wasteful. And small businesses are less profitable but they employ more people, which are both good things.

In summary, I believe design should be ‘SLOWer’, meaning not industrialised, but more hands-on as it used to be. Whilst less will be made, what is made will have a higher intrinsic value. The point is that the world’s material resources and productive capacity is limited, but there is no limit to human creativity. A deeper connection between what is designed and what is made will create better quality, less waste and it will promote greater cultural diversity and resilience.

Thank you.

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