Recently Mike Monteiro wrote about whether the AK-47 is worthy of study for a design student. I agree and disagree with him at the same time, which led me to write this response. He wrote:
If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.
This sounds powerful but it makes little sense because it pretends design and ethics are the same and they’re not. I know he wants them to be the same (and in a way I wish they were too), but he’s mixing design, which is a practice, with ethics, which is a system of beliefs. They overlap but they are different lenses.
For example, a house cat’s front claws are wonderfully designed: sharp, compact, strong, lightweight and retractable. But by Monteiro’s definition if you’re a mouse or a bird, the claws are a bad design, since they are made to kill you. It might be unfortunate, or even evil (from the bird’s perspective), that such a design exists, but for the purpose it was designed for it’s an excellent design. If you’re a starving cat, those claws are designed well enough to save your life, even if through killing. (Also consider assisted suicide devices, things designed to kill you, but by your own hand. Is that bad design?).
This leads to the very idea of violence: when, if ever, is it ok to be violent and to kill a person? An animal? These are good ethical questions, but not design questions as you don’t need to question the ethics of a supermarket or a slaughterhouse to design one well (as defined by the client), even if you should (and I agree with Monteiro that you should). Most people most of the time don’t ask ethical questions about their daily work, or anything at all.
Regarding the AK-47, I don’t like guns. I don’t like most violence on TV or in movies. I wish the AK-47 did not need to exist, but I can’t deny the staggering amount of violence in human history. Much of that violence thousands of years ago was necessary to survive in Darwin’s world, but just 70 years ago the entire world was at war for a second time (because the first world war just wasn’t worldly enough). I hope we grow out of our violence but moral progress is far slower than technological progress.
We forget that civilization itself is an experiment (Freud thought it’s one that makes us crazy) and in a short time we’ve threatened to end our experiment ourselves. Studying something like an AK-47, and the history of conflicts that surround its use, explains a great deal about human nature, which I’d hope any designer would want to understand. It leads to asking about Einstein (a pacifist) and the atomic bomb, and dozens of more complex collisions of ethics, violence and technology.
Design is an ethical trade.
No it isn’t. I wish it were, but it’s not. Who designed all the junk in our landfills? Who designs pop-up ads? Who designed TMZ? Who designed our culture of conspicuous consumption and the advertising that promises salvation if we just buy one more thing (that we don’t need)? Who designed newspapers that lie to us? Government technology that spies on us? It’s designers. Designers were paid to do all of those things. Some designers are ethical, but some are not. Some designers refuse projects because of their ethics, some do not. But both design things and both are designers.
Modern design is dominated by consumerism and while consumerism has been great for the U.S. economy it has also been bad for the planet and for the human psyche. If design were primarily a noble profession centered on the progress of humanity designers would worship Victor Papanek and Buckminster Fuller instead of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. But we don’t. Most design students today don’t know either of that first pair, which makes me very sad. Most designers today, especially in the tech world, aren’t making the world any better at all. They are paid very well to make shiny things that attempt to solve largely superficial first world problems of extreme convenience.
And to design is to take purpose into account — as my friend Jared Spool says: design is the rendering of intent. You can’t separate an object’s function from its intent.
I’m friends with Jared too, and Monteiro and I have hung out together with him, but I disagree with both of them. I can use a hammer to build a chair, or a torture device, or to knock you unconscious. What the designer intended is mostly irrelevant once it’s in my hands. And even if the designer showed up and chose to tell me “Hey! You’re not using my object with the designed intent!” I could bash her brains in too.
All tools can be weaponized or used for evil, even a spreadsheet (“track the monthly wilding budget”), even an email application (“fire the missiles now!”) , even a calendar (“reminder: blow up building today”). Of course most tools are not designed to be weapons, and some designs are clever in minimizing their uses for evil, but so what. User intent trumps designer intent (See MacGyver, and then imagine him not as a hero but as a terrorist). Designers are arrogant and often forget they have the most influence only over the most trivial of their user’s decisions.
Monteiro wrote: Your role as a designer is to leave the world in a better state than you found it. You have a responsibility to design work that helps move humanity forward and helps us, as a species, to not only enjoy our time on Earth, but to evolve.
I do love this idea. The problem is almost no one who hires a designer sees this as what they are paying for, and as a result, most designers don’t see it either. It’s likely this ambition requires designers to make sacrifices, to do pro-bono work or to start their own companies that uphold a higher moral standard than their past clients. They have to redesign design which is far scarier than simply designing more things consumer companies hire them to do. If anything studying an AK-47 and its impressive and horrible history connects young designers with a world far larger, bigger and more inspiring towards truly noble works than the latest gadgets can. For designers to change the world for the better they first need to understand how the world works at all.