Alice Rawsthorn on Design and Choice

Alice Rawsthorne, by Michael Leckie

Alice Rawsthorne, by Michael Leckie

When Aimee Mullins turned 16, she was given a new pair of lower legs. Made from woven carbon fiber, they were lighter and stronger than the wood-plastic compound prostheses she had worn until then, as well as easier to put on, less painful to wear, and less likely to fall off. But they were also designed to be worn by all genders, and coated in thick foam that came in just two colours: “Caucasian” and “Not Caucasian”.

That was in 1992, and Mullins now has dozens of different legs to choose from, and they have helped her to forge a career as an actor, model, athlete, and activist. But most of her prostheses only exist because of the time and energy she invested in their design, and in convincing prosthetists, biomechatronic engineers and cosmeticians to do the same. By doing so, Mullins has secured her right to exercise greater choice, thereby empowering herself and millions of others whose artificial limbs have been better designed to meet their needs and desires, thanks to her experiments.

Choice will be a defining element of design in future. As our personal identities become subtler and more singular, we will wish to make increasingly nuanced choices about the design of many aspects of our lives. We will also have more of the technological tools required to do so. Yet design practise will need to change radically to deliver those choices.

Until now, many of the most important design innovations have restricted choice. Not that choice was deemed undesirable, but it was often considered dispensable in the interests of other qualities like efficiency, speed, economy and convenience, which is why standardisation has loomed so large throughout design history.

As long ago as the 3rd century BC, Ying Zheng, the young ruler of an obscure Asian country, defeated his richer, more powerful neighbours to found the mighty Chinese empire by ensuring that his army’s weapons were made to identical design specifications, rendering them deadlier in battle. By the early 20th century, management theorists, led by Frederick Winslow Taylor, were advocating the standardization of every aspect of manufacturing, starting with design: a practise which was reinforced by ever stricter health and safety regulations.

Despite Jacques Tati’s cinematic parodies of soulless, indistinguishable towns and cities, standardized design earned the modern movement’s blessing by delivering “the best to the greatest number of people for the least”, as Charles Eames put it. For much of the last century, idiosyncrasy was seen as a throwback to an impoverished, poorly educated, pre-industrial culture, but now it is uniformity’s turn to be demonized.

One reason is that it is impossible to ignore the ugly truth about the damage wrought by industrialisation. Secondly, even basic technologies have enabled us to exercise more choices: whether by navigating singular paths around the Internet to extract information from whichever websites take our fancy; determining the outcome of video games, inventing virtual worlds; or tszujing our social media profiles. TV talent and makeover shows have also played a part, by tempting us with the prospect of transformation, as have cosmetic surgery ads.

These changes have encouraged us to expect to exercise greater control over our lives at the same time as the politics of personal identity have metamorphosed. Take the media storm in in the US last summer over the revelation that Rachel Dolezal had chosen to present herself as black in a country where being biologically black is fraught with peril. Or the outcry when Facebook introduced 58 “gender options” for its U.S. users to choose from. Eventually they were replaced with a free-form field where people can write what they wish. Given that our perceptions of ourselves seem set to become even more mercurial in future, design needs to help us to express them.

Some areas of design have done so successfully for centuries, specifically those like fashion and graphics that can be customised easily and cheaply to articulate personal preferences or political concerns. Introducing greater choice is more problematic in other spheres, such as the design of digital devices and other objects, which depend on uniformity to achieve the economies of scale required to make them affordable.

This will change with the development of increasingly sophisticated and accessible digital manufacturing systems, like 3D printing. These technologies will fabricate entire objects, or parts of them, so rapidly and accurately that they can be produced individually, and personalised in terms of colours, finishes and shapes. By doing so, they will fulfil the vision of “mass-customisation” championed by late 20th century design activists, like Jochen Gros in Germany.

Currently, affordable 3D printing systems are limited in terms of the size of objects and type of materials they can process, but these constraints will ease over time, making it possible to personalise the design of anything from cutlery and car doors to artificial limbs. We can then choose how those objects will reflect the dynamics of our identities, or any other attributes, as easily as we can with clothes.

Will we want to exercise this level of choice? It is easy to understand why Aimee Mullins should wish to design bespoke 3D-printed prostheses, but will other people be willing to invest as much effort in design? Some won’t, just as not everyone wants to cook their own food or sew their clothes. But the popularity of “teach yourself to code” devices, like the $25 Raspberry Pi programmable computer, and low-tech video game publishing programs such as Twine, suggests that others will. Twine is already enabling designers, like Porpentine and Anna Anthropy, to explore deeply personal issues in their games, including their gender identities.

If more and more of us engage with design, where will this leave designers? Some will continue to work in the traditional way, but others will redefine their roles to help us to make intelligent design decisions, rather than doing so on our behalf. As the controversy over the online posting of the design template for a 3D-printed gun illustrated so starkly, in an age of seemingly limitless design choices, picking the right ones is more important than ever.


❔ Whois

Alice Rawsthorn writes about design in the International New York Times and frieze. Her latest book Hello World: Where Design Meets Life explores design’s impact on our lives: past, present and future. She speaks on design at global events including TED and the World Economic Forum’s annual meetings at Davos, Switzerland. Based in London, Alice is chair of trustees of the Chisenhale Gallery and the contemporary dance group Michael Clark Company, and a trustee of the Whitechapel Gallery. She was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to design and the arts.

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27 Comments

  1. Really well put together look at the way design can change with identity politics and new technologies like 3D printing.

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  2. Very relevent question. But the world is wide.

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  3. Some years ago, while I was restoring the original scale model of Rockefeller Center for their 50th anniversary, I had the radio on in the background, and listened to an interview of a married couple / professors at Pratt in Brooklyn, and they made the case that our world was ever moving forward to a “grid” design that would superimpose itself over all aspects of our lives. Ever since I heard their verbal presentation I’ve been seeing this take place ‘everywhere’, both in physical design, and in symbolic restraint. For example, go to the mall, into any young female’s store, no matter the name of the store, anywhere in the country – in any country anywhere, and all the clothes look alike, all made in factories from a single country. The only difference are the name tags. Otherwise, the design, the material the clothes are made from, the place where they are made — all the same. An example of how the grid even dominates what should be a pure organic form in our lives, but isn’t. It’s controlled. The same with our music choices on the radio. “We” don’t make those choices, of what we want to listen to. A single individual in an office in upstate New York does. We are forced to choose our favorite songs from what that person decides we have to listen to. The element of “choice” in our lives has all but disappeared. We and our choices in life are controlled by an ever more limited repeated structure over our lives. A kind of “matrix” that most of us as of yet do not see or recognize. Look at how our politicians are being viewed, and why a truly odd choice may win the presidency – because so many people are so mad at how our choices are being taken away by those from a distance who’ve retained power and seem to no longer care about us as individuals. The “grid”.

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  4. It is hard to deny the power of choice, the power it has to pave the way for positive differences in our lives.

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  5. I am a retired industrial designer trained at Pratt Institute and operated commercially in the field in New York City and a few places in Europe. As with most other professions involved in production, the goals of the disciplines are fundamentally oriented towards the market since all other essential disciplines are subordinate to the profit system. This is a reasonable goal from the business point of view and from that of the consumer when utility and style combine properly to promote sales. But there are areas wherein the sales point of view falls strongly out of congruence with consumer economics and, even, at times, with utility. In the areas of clothing styles especially, the dysjunction of it being illegal of utility and economics is way out of sync since the point of the industry is to persuade the consumer to discard his or her latest purchase as quickly as possible and purchase something more recently produced. Products such as clothing electronic gadgets, toys, automobiles, and many others are designed with a purposely limited life and made unrepairable even to the point of it being illegal to seek repairs. This leads to massive basic economic and ecological disasters and even threatens very dangerous world catastrophes. Design inherently can be used constructively and sensibly and can be an absolute delight but, like many other professions wherein market forces predominate, there are great dangers to beware of.

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    1. I had a young niece living in Europe. Due to her not speaking English I would purposely search for toy stores during my work travels across the U.S. just to find toys that were well-made, were not limited to U.S. electric current, and didn’t require English to make work. The choices in stores and items were few, very few. Now they are even less. I own several very nice cars, but refuse to upgrade to newer models – because the controls and interiors, even of very fine automobiles, are all made of plastic. The same with washers and dryers and other major home appliances – but especially those, because they get so hot during their use. They look like they are from the future – but are also fabricated out of plastic, and break down easily, no matter how high the original purchase price. Add in all of the unnatural ingredients contained in plastics that we shouldn’t be swallowing, touching, wearing next to our skin and we have a real problem with how limited we have become in even buying safe, well designed nice things.

  6. I think we’ve been striving for personalization for some time now, especially in some areas like apparel. We can design our own footwear, shirts, and jewelry online, have it manufactured for prices in line with mass-produced items and delivered in days. Prosthetics, of course, should be fitted by a professional, of course, but people are able to design and manufacture lots of household items themselves now. There are some great apps available like 123Dmake, Tinkerplay, & CreatureS that are (amazingly) free which allow you to design all sorts of objects and characters, if that’s your thing. This website: http://picturethisclothing.com/ lets kids design their own clothing as well. It’s a fantastic time we live in, technologically at least.

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  7. Very interesting. Design is such a complex topic.

    http://www.rosieleizrowice.com

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  8. Just wish to share in agreement, that we have primary and secondary colours taught in school and we mix them and produce art. Also we design our life on the basis of a foundation on which we stand. It is our personality guided and formed and ever changing due to close and far off environment. Therefore like we all perpetuate and cannot predict how to design our babies with so much diversity, similar is human mind and designs, the designers should never loose hope and can make, copy, novelty anything is accepted.

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  9. A moving example of a powerful truth. It makes me reconsider my role in clock repair. In a world of mass production we so often grab something off a shelf without knowing its history. Singly designed clocks are a luxury unheard of. Thank you for lighting this idea under my brain.

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  10. It is fascinating to see how design can make such a huge impact on one’s life. One choice that may seem insignificant in one moment may completely changed the thinking and views of others. Great post.

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  11. Michael Mazorodze August 23, 2016 at 4:21 am

    It is awsome i love it

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  12. An interesting perspective! Loved it.

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  13. I loved your article!

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  14. How did you take that picture?

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  15. Hi Alice, I love your take on the power of choice. However, I also feel that the quantity of choices that we have can often times be overwhelming. I recently wrote a blog post of the impact of indecision on our lives and what we can do about it. Do you ever have a problem with the vast amount of choices that you have to choose from? What is your process on settling on a certain design versus another? Are you ever fearful of opportunity cost in which you regret not having chosen another design over the current one?

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  16. Very insightful blog. Thanx

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  17. Very nicely written. It is funny because people tend to associate the body with the body and the mind with the mind, as if they are two, completely disconnected things. But for a person in Alice’s position, merely being able to exercise the ability of choice in regards to her body (be it prosthesis design or what to wear) greatly helps her and others to feel better and more confident about themselves.

    The uniformity you speak of extends to far more than just design…it has extended to the mentality of many societies as well. In school (at least in the US) it seems to me there is no longer an emphasis placed on spontaneous individuality, rather it it is punished and demonized; oftentimes being labeled as a mental disorder. Instead schools want uniformity, a great populace of students who do not think uniquely but collectively as a unit with little variation, as if humans were perfectly logical computers. We aren’t.

    I loved the piece. Keep it up.🙂
    (Also, if you have time and feel like it feel free to check out my blog! Support is always appreciated. https://creatingkings.com/)

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  18. I really like how you connected modern day opportunities and choices with the story at the beginning. A very well written post.

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  19. Love this – makes me appreciate designers all the more!

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