Designing Culture

Design plays a central role in cultural reproduction. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, for anyone.

Want to hear a really pretentious definition of design? Probably not, but I have to listen to this stuff almost constantly and misery loves company, so here it is: “Giving form to culture.”

I hear people actually say those words from time to time, and it never puts me in a particularly good mood. My main beef with that definition is that after a year in a postgraduate design program and too many hours spent between stacks of anthropology textbooks, I still can’t figure out what “form” and “culture” even mean.

My other beef is that the above definition is delusional. It seems to be gesturing toward the all-too-common notion that designers have some kind of sociocultural superpower: by shaping the physical objects that mediate and regulate people’s behaviors and interactions, they are shaping society itself! It’s a classic credit-hogging move on the part of the design world’s plentiful narcissists, who would like you to believe that material culture emerges fully formed from the depths of their magical sketchbooks.

The reality is that most designers work under some pretty heavy constraints: There’s a client or employer who gives them a mandate and makes the final call on what will actually be manufactured, printed or constructed. There are precedents set by existing designs that simultaneously inspire and circumscribe the designer’s work and limit the range of possibilities that clients and users will find acceptable. Finally, designed objects, spaces and images are frequently reinterpreted and repurposed by people who have no idea what the designer had in mind. In short, design is subject to the same limitations as any other so-called creative practice, and designers are no more authors than, well, authors are.

But despite the limited influence that designers themselves are able to exert over culture at large, design as a practice plays a central role in cultural reproduction.

Industrial design in particular has been especially important in the creation and maintenance of class divisions. Here’s a second, much different definition of industrial design specifically: it’s the profession of creating instructions for factory workers. Design is one of the linchpins of capitalism, because it makes alienated labor possible.

Starting in the mid eighteenth century, some factory owners realized that they could increase the efficiency of their operations by allowing customers to order their wares from catalogs and samples rather than selling them directly off the shelf in stores. But first they had to solve an unprecedented problem: customers buying from a catalog would expect their goods to look just like the picture, or else they’d return the goods and probably start buying from a competitor. This meant that factory output would have to be made almost perfectly uniform, which had never been done before.

Originally, factory craftsmen had a fair amount of creative license over what they produced, which meant that individual products in the same style could vary quite a bit. Now that freedom had to be taken away. Complex, varied jobs originally performed by a single craftsman were chunked into simpler, more easily standardized units. Each of these subtasks was then assigned to a different artisan, with the goal of eliminating any creative decision making on the part of the people actually making the wares.

The most famous documented example of this process occurred in the factory of the pottery tycoon Josiah Wedgwood, described in Adrian Forty’s design history classic Objects of Desire. Forty quotes Wedgwood boasting that he would “make such Machines of the Men as cannot Err.” But having stripped his men’s work down to the most inane, repetitive tasks possible, Wedgwood needed to pay someone else to do the creative work of preparing the original models that the rest of the artisans would then bore themselves stiff trying to replicate.

Who would be good for such a job? The ideal candidate would be good with their hands and broke enough to need employment, but still conversant in the tastes of the upper classes, whose purchases supplied most of the factory’s revenue. What Wedgwood needed, obviously, was an artist. So he hired one, and the field of industrial design was born.

As manufacturing shifted away from handicrafts and became increasingly mechanized, design as a distinct form of labor, and designs themselves as a form of intellectual property, became more and more important to sustaining relations of production.

The historical lesson here is that the idea that designing something should be done independently from making it — in other words, the idea that design should even exist as a profession in its own right — has been foundational both to the formation of the modern working class and to capitalist production period. This is not to hate on designers, who don’t get much say in the matter either.

All of that, though, is only what goes on in the factory and the studio. Designed objects don’t exert their full influence over cultural reproduction until they get out into the world of our homes, offices, and schools.

Most criticism of industrial design’s impact on everyday life amounts to a lamentation of consumerism. I think that sort of misses the point, but let’s run with it for a moment. Design is often decried as a tool for creating false needs through unnecessary product differentiation, promoting a pandemic obsession with individuality and newness. As the popular argument goes, design enforces and reproduces existing social hierarchies by making the lower class waste their money on goods they otherwise wouldn’t want. This traps them in poverty by preventing them from accumulating capital, and also creates a feeling of inferiority to the higher classes, who are able to afford the material signifiers of status that poorer people are tricked into craving.

My attitude toward that line of reasoning could be characterized as seasick agreement. There’s a lot of truth in there somewhere, but such a facile explanation leaves me feeling queasy. Yes, everyone buys too much shit and poor people get exploited in the process, but forty-two years after Baudrillard’s Consumer Society we know it’s not that simple. The ideas of waste and need are monumentally more complicated than a lot of leftists are willing to admit. Who can I trust to tell me which of my needs are real? How can I know whether I’m wasting money or investing in symbolic capital?

In any case, when it comes to design’s influence on social structures, the focus on consumerism distracts from something more significant and interesting. Design’s real power is that it makes relationships and divisions between people concrete. Without physical stuff to remind us of how we supposedly differ from one another, our hierarchies would be awfully ramshackle; stripped of our possessions, categories like “class” start to look like just a bunch of learned behaviors and confused ideas. Whether prohibitively priced cars, gendered garments, or separate schools for blacks and whites, social hierarchies are always maintained with the help of physical objects and spaces designed to reflect those hierarchies. Otherwise everyone’s claims of superiority and difference would be quite literally immaterial.

This is why women’s rights groups were so pissed off when LEGO released its dumbed-down “LadyFigs” line targeted at young girls. By simplifying a common toy for girls to use, LEGO was not only insulting girls by implying that they are technically inept, uninterested in challenges and generally stupider than boys; more importantly, the company was also proliferating objects that obviously embodied some blatantly discriminatory ideas about differences between the sexes. The point would not be lost on a five-year-old, who would realize immediately that compared to her brother’s LEGOs, hers look like they were made for an idiot.

This is a big deal because one of the main ways that people are socialized is through using, observing and contemplating material objects. The idea that people learn their places in society by engaging with the physical stuff around them has a long history in anthropology, but it was finally cemented into the theoretical mainstream in 1972 when Pierre Bourdieu published his Outline of a Theory of Practice. Bourdieu makes the case that we come to internalize the expectations of our particular social group by analogy with categories, orders and relations of things. Spatial arrangements of objects in the home, for example, or the use of different farming tools at different times of year, come to stand for intangible relationships between genders, social strata and the like, thereby anchoring abstract ideas about social organization to the physical world.

Regardless of whether you buy what Bourdieu has to say about it, it’s interesting to note that people often really do act like objects and spaces are actual concrete instantiations of their relationships with other groups of people. A particularly good example of this sort of behavior comes again from Forty, who details the measures taken by Victorian elites to maintain a sense of superiority to their servants.

In nineteenth-century England, domestic servitude was one of the few lines of work in which employees still lived with their employers, a practice that had been common on farms and in workshops a century earlier. Servants, whose social peers in other professions had more of a life outside of work, were growing frustrated with what they saw as an anachronistic form of labor that offered little in the way of personal independence. Upper-class households read their servants’ disgruntlement as a crisis of disobedience, and they reacted by systematically degrading servants’ living standards, just to make sure everyone knew who was who.

In addition to creating a bunch of new rules for servants’ conduct (stuff like, don’t hand the master anything unless it’s on a silver tray), wealthy families began to build homes with separate living quarters and work areas for servants, which were decidedly shabbier than the rest of the house. Homewares companies started designing extra-low-quality furniture and crockery and marketing them to the rich as items for their servants to use, the idea being that anyone who ate and slept on stuff that bad couldn’t help but know their place.

Of course the servants knew what was going on. Forty cites the autobiography of one housemaid who complains about her “lumpy mattress, specifically manufactured for the use of maids, I suspect.” But it wasn’t particularly important whether the servants were savvy to the situation or not, because their employers had fulfilled their real goal: they’d successfully created material environments that reassured them that they were better than the people who worked for them, which enabled them to keep acting like they actually were better.

Once you realize that all designed objects carry this sort of encrypted information about the organization of society, something amazing happens: you suddenly stop feeling bored in home furnishings stores. Washing machines and cooking implements have a lot to say about norms surrounding domestic labor; office trash cans embody the values of a middle class that can’t deal with its own waste; alarm systems and porch lights offer a crash course in the popular phenomenology of crime. But these objects are not just passive representations of ideas about how society should run. They actively promote those ideas, validating certain prejudices and chastising us when our behavior deviates from certain norms.

Maybe the problem with designers who boast that they are “giving form to culture” is that they don’t realize how big a responsibility they’re claiming. The chicken-and-egg relationship between systems of stuff and systems of people is very real, and with the world as it is, anyone who could legitimately claim control over either would have to be a pretty unthinkable asshole. Rather than glorifying themselves as cultural architects, perhaps designers should be relieved that they are such a small part of the apparatus that actually gives rise to the stuff all around us.

That’s not to say that designers are powerless. Far from it. They occupy a nodal position in the capitalist mode of production, and they’ll be important for getting out of it. Stuff — objects, spaces, images, technologies — play just as critical a role in restructuring relations between people as they do in maintaining them, and a solar cooker or a free software application requires way more design work than a Philippe Starck lemon squeezer. But any kind of progressive work is difficult if we’re deluded about what we actually do. As designers, we’d do well to abandon preoccupations with our own ability to generate solutions, and start being more aware of the ways that we participate in the problems.