Rob Walker | Essays

Is Design Benign?

Via Design And Violence: "Defense Distributed (USA, est. 2013). The Liberator pistol. 2013. BSplus thermoplastic, nail. 2 1/2 x 8 1/2" (6.35 x 21.59 cm). Photograph by Michael Thad Carter for Forbes. Courtesy of Defense Distributed."

If you're looking for a not-so-traditional pastime this long holiday weekend, may I suggest a visit to the online Design and Violence project organized by MoMA? Perhaps I risk striking the wrong note there. But really, while it's just underway and will roll out over time, the online "curatorial experiment" is already quite good, and worth keeping an eye on as it develops.

My bias here: I couldn’t be more pleased to have had the opportunity to contribute an essay to Design and Violence, on the subject of 3D-printed guns. I have a long-time fascination with design and weaponry in general — see Barbara Eldredge’s Guns and Design if you do, too — but I’m also really interested in this Web-based exhibition as an example of how to explore the many varieties of  “design” that don’t get as much attention as they should.

Professional discourse” about design, the show’s About page contends, “has been dominated by voices that only trumpet design’s commercial and aesthetic successes.” I would extend that to include design’s “social” successes — the application of “design thinking” into non-commercial world-improvement contexts.

I’m not against trumpeting successes, obviously. And there are clearly exceptions to the rule that “professional discourse” equates design and virtue: Much has been written about, say, the swastika, and certain varieties of control-focused architecture. But I’d go along with the contention in this Dezeen writeup that to “probe the notion of design as an inherently benign discipline” is something “that is certainly overdue from the design establishment.”

Ten or 12 years ago, I would have found the idea of “design as an inherently benign discipline” completely baffling: Why would anybody believe such a thing?

But I think that's because, possibly more than anyone else who contributes to this site, I really am nothing more than an observer of design — I’ve never been a designer, I didn’t set out to write “design criticism” (and I suspect I still don’t write it, really). I was (and am!) just a journalist who is curious about many things. At some point those things started to intersect with “design.” Thus I backed into the discovery that a “design establishment” and “professional discourse” on the subject even existed.

By now, however, I’d definitely agree that a conspicuous amount of energy gets expended on pushing “design” as an idea to be celebrated, rather than an activity —  like painting, writing, coding or governing — to be scrutinized. On some level this still baffles me, because in the long run it seems like such a limiting way to approach the subject.

So I’m excited to follow along as Design and Violence plays out online, and to see what conversations develop as new objects and essays are added. Because it's one thing for someone like me to grouse about where I think the discussion could or ought to go. But it's another, and far better, thing for an entity like MoMA to lead by example. 

You can read my entry, and comment on it, here.

Home page image from by artistic bokeh on flickr.


Comments [5]

The MoMA has become the Marilyn Manson of design, desperately going door to door trying to shock people (see: the onion).

Is this an honest debate, or link bait? Is there anything the MoMA does now (or the design media in general) that doesn't sound ridiculous to the average person or that doesn't reek of some PR strategy? If they were serious about presenting guns, it would be followed up with videos of people being shot, and statistics, end of story. And this project wouldn't be on the internet. Otherwise it is typical museum design fetishization--even more disturbing when guns are on display.

It is fitting that this project is on the internet, where nobody has to stand in front of it and present it to kids from inner city New York who come to the museum on a school field trip, looking for the optimism and positive force that the MoMA formerly represented.

If the goal were to make design less about aesthetics, then why do i see pictures of guns on the website? This isn't really about what you are talking about at all--that would be a noble aim.

I guess that makes me "unhip" and 'unwilling to discuss violence in design," blah blah blah. But I don't think that is really the goal of these projects. Like many internet memes, the goal is to get attention and then disappear, leaving nothing positive in the world. If it's effect is anything, it will be negative. It shows that the MoMA is unwilling to stand behind such a project that it has serious flaws. But I guess its a matter of time before what was good is overshadowed by what is bad.
Mike Lowe

To sum up my rather long comment: since design isn't benign, how can one merely "observe" the world of design violence? You have to take a stand for or against this kind of thing, assuming one has a soul at all.
Mike Lowe

Fitting to colour this 3-d printed gun (which by the way looks like any other gun so is replicated rather than designed) black and white. It defines the way an individual who might use this object sees the world as a place of either/ or.

That's a nice point, consumer.

Mike Lowe: I obviously have a different perspective, but I appreciate the clarity of your point of view. My comment about being an observer wasn't meant to suggest neutrality. I happen to think there's a lot of value in examining design's role in negative behaviors (like violence), in addition to its role in improving the world. I see many celebratory exhibitions and critiques, and fewer that acknowledge that design is not, in fact, an inherently benign practice.

I offer that as clarification, not a defense; I understand your views and do not expect the above to change them.
Rob Walker

What I find problematic is that "examining design's role" in things like 3D printed guns becomes an advertisement and "neutral" celebration of them. Even better when they are stamped with MoMA's brand seal of approval. Perhaps they will be available in the MoMA design store?

Here's a related article that touches on similar themes (amazon drones), with a more "leery" point of view:

"Or maybe I am leery that Bezos, who is also dabbling in space tourism, was looking for a Cyber Monday p.r. coup by playing to Americans’ ranker instincts, hooking our instant gratification society on ever more instant gratification. Do we really need that argyle sweater plopped in our hands in half an hour as opposed to the next day? What would Pope Francis say?"
Mike Lowe

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