On the Social Dimensions of Modern Design
As has been noted, for example by José Ortega y Gasset in his Meditación de la técnica (from lectures first delivered in 1933), traditional technics includes both the “invention of a plan of action«—which is not the same as a planning process—and the “execution of this plan.” Traditionally, both the formal-final and efficient causes remained within the mind and hand of an artisan. It is the modern separation of mental and manual, and the coordinate creation of inventor-engineer and worker, that grounds the original character of modern design. The two new categories of designing and working are not just thinking and making separated. Thinking and making are too inextricably conjoined in traditional craft for such a simple disjunction, which is discerned only by critical abstraction. In the separation of intending and making are created instead an embodied, active form of intending (design) and a nonreflective but methodological form of making (labor).
This separation of formerly unified aspects of human active experience is further coordinated with the becoming autonomous of a whole range of elements in human culture. Religion and politics are to be independent, likewise with art and religion and politics and science and education; all, along with economics as a kind of paradigm, become what Karl Polanyi terms “disembedded” from social life as a whole. This separating and becoming independent of previously interwoven dimensions of a way of life constitutes, for Jürgen Habermas, the essence of the modern project.
The emergence of disembedded and autonomous design constitutes as well a movement from vernacular to professional design and has thus been variously defined by the two professions who Claim it, engineers and artist-architects. The former emphasize the quantitative, analytic, but iterative character of a multiphase process that includes preparatory and evaluative moments. The latter presents design as embodied, poetic thinking. Louis Bucciarelli, from “an ethnographic perspective,” has described engineering design as a social process, whereas Richard Buchanan has argued for design as a kind of rhetoric. But what kind of social process? What form of rhetoric? What is to distinguish engineering and artistic design from the social process and rhetoric of politics? Whether engineering or architecture, accidentally reflecting social process or rhetoric, the defining activity is miniature making. For Bucciarelli this is found in a social process centering around distinct “object worlds«; for Buchanan it is a rhetoric of artifacts.
On the Ethics of Designing
Possibility and contingency are the fundamental ground of ethics. On the one hand, in the absence of any recognition of alternative possibilities for some course of action, no ethical reflection is called for. On the other, if the course of action is strictly necessary, reflection can give rise only to theoretical explanation, not ethical judgment. One does not ask ethical questions of what cannot be or of what cannot be otherwise.
The historical discovery of design as systematic anticipatory analysis and modeling as a unique form of human action roughly contemporaneous with the rise of modern science and engineering uncovers a new way of being in the world. The most fundamental ethical question concerning design is this: to what extent is this new way of being in the world desirable or good?
It is now common to recognize that, as Langdon Winner has said, technologies are “forms of life,” or as Buchanan has put it, “Design involves the vivid expression of competing ideas about social life.” But not only do different designs embody (implicitly or explicitly) distinct sociopolitical assumptions and visions of life, designing itself constitutes a new way of leading, or a leading into, different technological life worlds. Part of the unified newness of this way of leading into the techno-lifeworld, the activity or process of designing, can be indicated by noticing some difficulties or inadequacies of standard approaches to ethics in relation to it.
Consider, for example, what can be termed an ethics of correspondence, which judges action by the extent to which it is in harmony with or corresponds to what is already given by some preexisting order. Common forms of such an ethics of correspondence are found in appeals to tradition or to natural law. The attempt to judge the design act as lawful or unlawful in accord with the degree to which it harmonizes with and represents or opposes a tradition is contradicted by the core effort within design not to be guided by tradition, but to figure things out anew, to create new artifacts, to break with tradition, to innovate. Modern design becomes a new tradition precisely to the extent that it opposes tradition.
-  Ortega y Gasset, José (1939), Meditación de la técnica. In: Obras completas, first edition. Madrid: Revista de Occidente, 1945—1947, vol. 5., p. 365.
-  See Harrison, Andrew (1978), Making and Thinking: A Study of Intelligent Activities. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
-  See Polanyi, Karl (1957), Aristotle Discovers the Economy. In: K. Polanyi, C. M. Ahrensberg, and H Pearson, eds., Trade and Market in the Early Empires: Economics in History and Theory. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, pp. 64—94.
-  See, for example, Habermas, Jürgen (1983), Modernity—An Incomplete Project. In: Foster, ed., The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983, pp. 3—15.
-  Bucciarelli, Louis L. (1988), An Ethnographic Perspective on Engineering Design. Design Studies, vol. 9, no. 3 (July), pp. 159—68.
-  Winner, Langdon (1986), Technologies as Forms of Life. In his: The Whale and the Reactor: A Search of Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, pp. 3—18.
-  Buchanan, loc. cit., p. 94.