Design, ethics and Humanism
How design offers companies a powerful opportunity to work on their corporate social responsibility
Design is in fashion – the fashion of companies that have sworn that creation and innovation are vehicles of their future development. Managers talk innovation strategy, foresight, possible concepts and futures, and design thinking. They organize their teams cross-functionally into project groups that unite around an idea of how the future will look, with the desire to make it more “enlightened”, more beautiful, more “design” than today and, of course, more profitable. Design has become strategic and a managerial discipline. But what remains then of Design, the humanist discipline that sprung from the Applied Arts? What remains of “the human dimension and aesthetic values specific to age-old craft productions”?
When you ask a passer-by what design is, you can be sure to hear talk of beautiful tables, chairs and lamps. Paint your living room white, set a cozy white leather chair in the middle, and your visitors will without fail comment on the sophistication of your design… Say that you are a designer and you will immediately be treated with respect.
I am reminded of a lecture by Philippe Stark, the great French designer, talking about transparency as a sublime embodiment of design, as if anything not so – i.e., not transparent – could not claim to be design. This was in the day of the Kartell chair. Of course this is ridiculous, and persists only thanks to smooth-talkers purporting to impose on the naive what is beautiful or ugly, aesthetic or indeed devoid of meaning, that which is supposedly art, creation and therefore divine, or in contrast, vulgar. A white or transparent leather chair is no more stylish than a footstool bought at the Istanbul bazaar — only the meaning we give to things is design.
Casimir Malevich understood that “White square on white background” is beautiful only to those ready to go to the trouble to find meaning in it. Design is what people decide it is, and when it comes to beauty, there is no such thing as the absolute. Only Man sets the rules to give it a meaning. A council housing building is hideous, but becomes a treasure when you find out it was built by Le Corbusier and owes nothing to chance. Design is a representation of the world and of things – a representation for which Man is responsible, and one through which we intend to live happier lives. Design is a humanism in the sense that it establishes the individual as responsible for the world in which he wants to live. The designer’s work is rooted in the humanist vision of Renaissance artists and philosophers. Likewise, the artistic creation, from which he sees himself as absolutely distinct, implies a result that stirs, at least for its creator, emotion, pleasure and values. The designer goes beyond that and brings to it the notion of progress for humanity.
Design is a humanism
Humanism is a vision of the world where everything revolves around Man, just as everything revolved around God in the Western world’s earlier view. This philosophy grew to its full dimension in the Renaissance with Thomas More, the English philosopher, theologian, politician, and Catholic, who died as a martyr in 1535. Going against the classical theologians who described the world as gravitating around God, he took up and commented 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 – is the revelation of an imaginary world created and governed by Man, a projection of a perfect world, an allegory that is both idealistic and impossible but also precisely described enough for readers to project themselves into it. This vision, according to which Man can conceive, and indeed even create, the absolute, the good, the evil, the perfect and Love, differs from the Christian theories of the day, which claimed that happiness can come only from God.
Humanism, later casting off its theological and Christian references, became, in particular with Kant, a general conception of life (political, economic, ethical) founded on the belief in salvation by human striving alone. “Until now, philosophers have only interpreted the world, what matters is to transform it.” Karl Marx would later write in “Theses on Feuerbach”. It is on this that all things hinge. Humanism became political doctrine in the 19th century, at a time when the Industrial Revolution was setting other horizons for the concept of progress. The aim was for Man, as a responsible being not alienated by machines, to transform the world so that it would become better.
Design and ethics
Whether we consider the designer’s work on purely philosophical, spiritual or, to the contrary, technical foundations, it is undeniable that this is a specifically human activity based on a moral, intuitive or reasoned approach to progress.
The designer projects himself into the future, creating on his own scale, an “Island of Utopia”. This activity stirs thought, reflection, awareness of that which is, and the projection of that which will be. It stirs desire, both the awareness of that which will be better, and the intuition of the pleasure that will result. This is exactly how Spinoza defined man in his “Ethics”, a work written between 1661 and 1675. Extending the Cartesian doctrines of “Cogito ergo sum”, he defined Man from two specific approaches: consciousness and desire, consciousness of yesterday, today, tomorrow and desire, a form of sensitivity to distinguish what is good, what is better, pleasure but also and therefore, consciousness of good and evil. The designer’s creative activity matches this definition in every way: a conscious act of projection to satisfy the desire for the better.
Today’s designer continues to use tools and thus carries on the age-old tradition of craftsmanship: this specificity is essential, for it is not enough to be a “man of reflection or project” to be one. If we go back to Darwin’s theories of evolution and in particular those on adaptation to environments, we see that the distinction between humans and animals is made based on the ability of the former to use tools, perfect them, and make them an extension of the mind and the arm. It is in part thanks to tools that humans have been able to adapt, develop, and differentiate themselves from their original set, but also and above all to change the world in which they lived. Without tools, the Designer is nothing but a man of project. With it, he becomes the active architect of the construction of progress – and happiness – to come. “The hand is mind”, master craftsmen teach us. The aim is thus to reconcile the head, the idea, the spirit, the doing and the acting. For ultimately, if we want to change the world, we will have to take things into our own hands.
Lastly, the designer creates. Beyond any consciousness, it can happen that the pencil escapes the hand that holds it to draw invented forms that know no intention. In this, the designer, albeit human, approaches the sublime, something beyond him, a transcendental objectivity… He touches God with his pencil tip. In a sense, he invents and creates God, in this moment. In a world where the values of the sacred and of morality are receding, where robots and artificial intelligence raise the question of what it means to be human, it may be that the designer, in that he creates beyond himself, invites us to a new definition of humanism, that of thinking that there is something above us, a faculty that consists of being able to conceive God. There is little chance that a robot, even a smart one, will have that ability.
If God has a meaning, whatever the religion, it is that of talking to us about morality. Existing away from theological references, ethics, a philosophy that focuses on the moral judgment of our actions in society, proposes a rational justification for what is good versus evil. It goes beyond morality itself. Emmanuel Lévinas writes, “Morality makes us feel sorry for the hungry; Ethics obliges us to take the responsibility for acting to feed them. In the face of human hunger, responsibility can only be measured objectively.” Ethics stands in for the religious values of morality and manifests itself as reasoned action.
Design, a form of humanism in that it places the individual at the center and as the measure of all things, ethics because it involves representing and building “with one’s hands” the world of tomorrow, the world in which we intend to live better while the moral reference points, those of God, but also Marx, Proudhon and others, indeed those of all idealisms collapse to the benefit of the law and rights.
What happens to humanism and ethics when it comes to working for companies whose sole purpose is to generate added value
Design as it emerged from the Applied Arts became industrial thanks to the tremendous technological and economic surge that came about in the mid-19th century. The endeavor then consisted of “rediscovering the human dimension and aesthetic values specific to former craft productions in industrial production”. The concept of progress changed nature, owning an automobile, taking the train, and buying clothing from the best department stores became symbols of happiness to be conquered. Nevertheless, there remained a need to find in industrial products, born of assembly lines that alienated workers until they could swallow them alive, a dimension of meaning to this profound social and economic change. A bit of beauty in a changing world dominated by machines.
Design accompanied the industrial, then commercial growth of Western societies always with the same responsibility: to produce the best and most functional, and to contribute to progress. Today, it is starting to overtake technology and commerce and coming to center stage, helped by the profound changes in the world to come. Elsebeth Gerner Nielsen, former rector of the Design School Kolding (Denmark) – in her “A Manifesto for Global Design and Leadership” tells us: “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 has meaning? Design takes on its full dimension for companies that ask themselves the question of their future and the role they need to play from now on. It relies on their ability to innovate. They must constantly adapt to radical changes in context that make their future uncertain if they do not have this ability to mutate extremely quickly.
These are troubled times: changes in ecological awareness – which require us to save the planet –, geopolitical changes with the arrival of new major powers, cultural metamorphosis alongside a decline of morality in favor of the law, uncertainty about the relevance of democracy and the role of politics, the globalization of exchanges, the digital transition, population aging, the protein transition, etc. – each a disruption to the world, compelling us to rethink it, redefine its nature and draw it anew. If experience is essential to all things, experimentation, i.e., the ability to project and imagine the future to better predict it, becomes fundamental.
Design raises questions about the uses of the future. It sketches them out, depicts them, and gives them form, purpose and value. In so doing, it makes them objective, understandable and acceptable. Likewise, it gives them meaning, and seeks to make them virtuous. Design as an economic discipline is that powerful strategic tool that makes it possible to speculate on the future, to guide development decisions, and project companies into the future because they have no choice but to anticipate changes in contexts and adapt. Competitive advantage no longer lies in the ability to make products better than one’s competitors, but on being ahead in understanding the transformations experienced by the societies in which we live.
I see the definition of a company’s meaning and values as essential, though the concepts of morality and economics need to be handled with care when attempting to combine them. In the capitalist system – the one which, unpleasant as it may be to some, has historically generated the most freedom and emancipation for peoples – the purpose of a company remains to produce added value and profit. It is up to companies and then society in general to distribute this profit as equitably as possible. This is no easy task, entirely subjective – and thus open to question. Producing wealth is virtuous and the companies endeavoring to make this happen deserve our praise. Let us encourage them, for our progress depends on it.
Notwithstanding, to think that a company could sell products out of duty rather than interest is not reasonable. Morality and capitalism do not make good bedfellows. While not immoral, capitalism is definitively amoral. However, once this primacy has been accepted, it is obvious that companies raise the question of their ethical responsibility, and the role they play in society, in its values and in its identity. At stake is the ability for them to understand their markets’ evolution. It is not only a moral necessity, but a strategic one. And it meshes perfectly with that of generating added value. This need is all the more acute in this troubled environment, when the values of the sacred are collapsing, and morality finds itself shaken as cultures come into friction in a globalized world. It is a need as much as a requirement.
This need is perfectly embodied by the new managerial experimentations. Terms like corporate social responsibility, liberated companies, etc. are on everyone’s tongue. The “Made in France” also expresses this desire to engage in virtue-signaling. These concepts are obviously open to question. What is to be said about the social responsibility of an automotive company which, as per its duty, might limit the polluting emissions from its vehicles but continue to sell SUVs, or about others who would have us believe that work can be considered a liberating occupation… Or about “Made in France” underwear from cotton grown in India?
Here, the question of meaning is raised in a new light. That of strategic and managerial requirement. The need to be able to transform quickly, or shift from one trade to another has become essential in a world turned on end by changes in economic and social contexts. Change is no longer organized around the ability to produce or sell a particular product or service better than others, but around the meaning, the mission and the role played in building the future. Apple does not make iPhones, Apple wants to be Promethean, and claims to connect people with God; La Poste no longer sorts mail, it no longer sells stamps, La Poste keeps up social ties with the entire population of a nation; Nestlé no longer sells yoghurts, Nestlé feeds the planet, etc. Where business has become an ethical and sacred mission, companies improve their intelligence in the face of change, their potential to move from one sector to another, without changing their profession but defining it differently, away from old industrial and marketing references.
Again, design has this virtue of representing change, and giving it meaning. To imagine, represent, and thus explain the future, and apply it to products, packaging, spatial layout and multimedia tools, is to enable ownership and acceptance. It is to give meaning to the future and make it less uncertain. And thus less threatening. When companies raise questions about their future, they take hold of a powerful strategic and managerial tool.
In a world turned upside down, designers alleviate uncertainty
The future is uncertain by essence. In what world will we be living tomorrow? What world will we leave behind for our children? Or, from a different angle, what world are our children preparing for us, when the experience of our elders – which has formed the foundation of our societies – is being replaced by a digital culture which we feel is consistently and irrevocably further along than us and thus irremediably out of our reach? Now, we are told about artificial intelligence, robots, the end of the working era, and even eternity, to better replace God, the afterlife, that which Men have built to manage finiteness and the afterlife. In short, we are told of the end of our humanity, replaced by another, with an intelligence all its own.
Tomorrow may be bright or terrifying, depending on the meaning we are willing to give it. For the designer, tomorrow is an opportunity: he draws, depicts and gives form. He gives meaning to imaginary conceptions which he materializes to make them objective and acceptable. He experiments, applies, and makes true and real. He projects himself with the aim of making progress. Endeavoring to fashion something different – because this world in motion requires something different – while constantly improving it. In his ethical dimension, the designer responds to the issue raised by Marx about the world “… What matters is to transform it”*. It is up to the designer to give it form and depth.
In the context of a company, leading change is a challenge, because it means projecting employees into a certain form of uncertainty that could give rise to stress. What will become of us? Will we be competent in the future, in the new organization? Will we be able to adapt? Is it possible that tomorrow I will produce something other than what I have always produced? Is it possible that I will sell something else, on other markets, with customers other than those whom I know well and by whom my expertise is recognized and encouraged every year through a profit-sharing bonus?
The role of the designer is to make all future changes objective, and to apply this to all areas of a company. To its products of course, but also its environment, its strategy, its organization, and beyond. It is to bring all the company’s internal as well as external players around the table and get them to think about the future, imagine, approach, understand and accept change. Design is a management tool. People talk about Design Thinking, but that is a misnomer. It is about design, and only that. The designer alleviates the uncertainty of the future with which we all, through awareness and responsibility, grapple in one way or another. The meaning of the word grapple, it should be noted, also reveals the fear which the future inspires us. To grapple with something means both to take it up and understand it, but also, at the same time, to fear it and see it as dangerous. It is speculation about that which is unknown to us and which makes us wary.
The designer has become a project manager. Beyond his technical skill, he now knows how to communicate, share, convince, bring out others’ ideas, and improve them while respecting their originators. Similarly, he has understood the company as a whole, he is no longer limited to the practice of his technical competence, though it is essential to his managerial practice. He is the manager of tomorrow, in a company whose strategic intelligence of which must extend well beyond reproducing that which people have always done.
The designer, from design thinking to design doing
Some would like creative people to stay away from economics, and for designers to refrain from working for companies that are too capital-intensive or unvirtuous. This is obviously and immediately nonsense. Art history teaches us that there are no great artists without great merchants, like it or not… When it comes to designers, they are free to work with whomever they wish: who would we be to determine for another what is virtuous and what is not? Who would suggest that all car designers should be condemned on the grounds they have contributed to the pollution that is to afflict us from now on? In that case, we should denounce all the designers who work on marketing contracts in the name of market renewal, all the architects who have built airports, those who take the train, or even worse their car to go to work. It wouldn’t be serious. “The most beautiful curve of a product is the sales curve” is considered self-evident, and the production of added value is virtuous. It is the wealth that should be distributed to all, as fairly as possible. And it is not companies that should be blamed; it is the politicians who no longer keep this sharing under control. As for the designer, he is responsible for all sectors of activity and all companies, as his endeavor is to change the way they do things, produce, sell and adapt to this tremendous surge in ecological awareness that will profoundly change our lives. And here, the full ethical and humanist dimension of his profession comes into place. The social responsibility of corporations, if there is such a thing, must involve design.