By Troy Hudson
We live in a wondrous age, when the marks of human design can be seen on everything from our phones and computers to our office chairs and toothbrush handles. Designers have sculpted the objects and experiences of our modern existence, striving to make life more beautiful, more efficient, more human. But this is also an age of extreme social and political division, ethnic and religious violence, and widespread ecological anxiety. In times like these, it is fair to question the role of art and design. Aren’t there more vital concerns demanding our attention?
I think it is brave to struggle with the question of why we design, especially when it gets uncomfortable to consider that it may not truly be necessary. I must begrudgingly admit that in history’s darker moments, beautiful design is not necessarily an essential pursuit.
John Adams once wrote in a letter to his wife, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.” Adams knew that in the throes of the American Revolution, his energies were best applied to political matters if our young country was to survive long enough to produce Hemingways, Warhols, and Beyoncés.
We embrace design to elevate the experience of brushing our teeth, using apps on our phone or beautifying our homes, while people in other parts of the world struggle to find enough food to survive another day. It can seem that design is a frivolous occupation. But as human beings, we cannot help but strive for improvement. We are an ambitious species. Even though we have not yet solved the problems of today, such as how to feed the world’s 7.5 billion people, we are designing the world of tomorrow.
Design may be a luxury today, but it reflects our longing for an idealized world in which our major problems have been solved and the experience of being a human is better than it was for our ancestors. We may have a long way still to go, but designers have the potential to help create a better world for everyone. Design, at its best, is about serving mankind. That attitude can help ground us and bring perspective to our love for beautiful objects even, and especially, when the world is at its darkest.