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#27 Ethical pots, transparency & citizen designers
It’s Design Lobster #27. This week we’re taking a moral detour, asking what it means to be responsible as a designer and whether the things we design can have ethical qualities. Do the right thing, and read on. 😉👩⚖️
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Question: What is a citizen designer?
Above: An extract from the 2000 US Census form designed by Sylvia Harris.
I was recently introduced to the work of Sylvia Harris, an African-American designer whose career spanned graphic design, environmental graphics and public information systems. In the 80s she worked with Citibank to design one of the first user-centred ATM systems and she later reversed several decades of declining US Census participation (particularly among minority communities) with a redesign of the form. In recognition of her work the AIGA posthumously awarded her the AIGA medal, their highest award.
She died suddenly in 2011 just after renaming her company Citizen Research & Design – a title that encapsulated her belief in designer’s responsibility to everyday citizens. Her conviction was that designers themselves were first and foremost citizens and should always consider the wider consequences of their professional actions in their work.
Design takeaway: How much do you think about your responsibilities as a citizen when designing?
Watch a video about Sylvia.
Object: Ethical Pot
Above: 1950’s lidded teapot by Bernard Leach.
Bernard Leach is regarded as the father of the British modern studio pottery movement. After living in Japan and training under Urano Shigekichi (浦野繁吉) he established his own pottery on the outskirts of St Ives in 1920. A generation of studio potters apprenticed here, drawn to work with Leach after reading his book A Potter’s Book, in which he laid out his philosophy of craft pottery.
“…a pot in order to be good should be a genuine expression of life. It implies sincerity on the part of the potter and truth in the conception and execution of the work.”
— Bernard Leach
Leach ware is characterised by its simplicity of form, spare decoration and use of rustic salt glazes. The historian Oliver Watson coined the term ‘ethical pot’ for this kind of pottery, giving its qualities as a piece of design a moral significance. He distinguished the so-called ‘ethical’ pots from ‘expressive’ or ‘fine art’ pots whose design was more elaborate or aestheticised.
Designers have a tendency to ascribe moral characteristics to aesthetic decisions, which can often seem abstruse to outsiders. For some the idea that a pot can be ‘ethical’ is comical. How can an inanimate object be spoken of as if it has moral agency? But adjectives like ‘honest’ and ‘sincere’ relate more to the process of decision-making the maker believes they have gone through - in this example deciding to treat the clay simply and not cover it up. Whether or not the treatment of a material is substantial enough an activity to merit these adjectives I leave to you. But it is representative of a craft frame of mind, where design decisions have a weighty moralistic bearing and must be delivered almost like justice.
Design takeaway: What moral qualities would you ascribe to your design?
Essays in appreciation of A Potter’s Book.
Quote: “Good design is obvious. Great design is transparent.”
– Joe Sparano, Designer
In Design Lobster #22 I featured a quote from Don Norman that described great design as “invisible”. I felt conflicted about that description because I believe that design which helps us make choices should not conceal itself from us. I think I prefer Joe Sparano’s formulation above. “Transparent” to me suggests that the design recedes into the background but is not hidden. Design that is pleasantly unobtrusive, but not so unobtrusive that it could work against you without you noticing.
Keep discovering. 🦞
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