by Michael Lockhart | 7 August, 2017

I was honoured to give a talk today at the International Cultural Sustainability Symposium run by Victoria University of Wellington. Thanks to the organisers, speakers and those who attended. The following is a transcript of my talk.

The noted design academic Ezio Manzini said “There is too much making and not enough designing.” This remark sums up the theme of a book I’ve nearly finished writing called SLOW Design. One of the goals of SLOW Design is to bring culture back into design. In my talk today I’d like to give an insight into what I mean by this.

Design was traditionally done by makers – people who were dedicated and skilled craftspeople. As production became more industrialised design became divorced from making and workers, who were no longer craftspeople, became more and more alienated from the stuff they were responsible for producing.

Industrialists took over the mantle of maker but they did not have the primary goal of creating well-being for people, their main goal was, and still is, to produce the maximum amount of cheap goods at high margins.

There have been many dissenters over the years including the Arts and Crafts movement, which I’ll talk more about later, as well as the Hippie back-to-the-land movement, the Punk DIY ethos and the more recent Maker Culture. However the industrialisation of our culture has continued relentlessly.

Early on, industrialisation was a good thing, because for a long time it helped raised standards of living for most people in the western world. But a rising real standard of living stopped decades ago, and has even reversed, and the many disadvantages of industrialisation continue unabated, including both environmental and cultural deterioration.

Industrial production tends to commoditise, standardise and globalise the design of products. These products are what I call Fast designs because like Fast food, they are made fast to be consumed fast. Just as you can buy a Big Mac and a Coke anywhere in the world and it will taste the same, you can buy cotton jeans, t-shirts and baseball caps and they are all the same. Wherever you go, anywhere, things are starting to look the same, cars look the same, houses look the same, high-tech goods like cellphones all look the same, websites, packaging and signs all look the same. And there are also way too many of all of them.

With cultural artefacts becoming increasingly the same, it is a death nell on cultural diversity. However, modern-day producers are very cunning. By regularly introducing new technology and features, which they call innovation, and by constantly changing attractive styling and emotional advertising campaigns they create superficial differences which continually makes last year’s model redundant and pushes the amount of stuff piling up in people’s cupboards, wardrobes, garages and lockups sky high. The problem is that the more culturally shallow things are, the less of a real and enduring connection people have with them.

Making has become a matter of quantity over quality. It is more about designing material, extrinsic satisfactions than much more sustainable intangible, intrinsic satisfactions.

The consumption of Cultural products including visual art, music, film, dance, theatre, literature, new media, heritage and cultural events is much more environmentally sustainable than industrial production. And obviously it is more culturally sustainable too.

However, there is a disconnect between how extrinsic-focused and intrinsic-focused productions are perceived in terms of value. I’d like to give an insight into that now.

For a few years a colleague and I ran workshops up and down the country teaching artists how to make money. These were artists in the broadest sense – musicians, performers, visual artists, writers and other creative endeavours. In particular we taught them how to promote themselves to increase their profile and sell their work. Over the course of about three years we took over 50 workshops with over 500 participants. Needless to say we were just hitting our heads against a brick wall. What was I thinking trying to get artists to sell themselves?

I had hoped in some small way to help those who were struggling to do better for themselves. I felt that art was not being valued properly and that artists were not being paid their worth. Most artists struggle financially and rely on the support of loved ones and/or work they would rather not do that is valued higher, in a financial sense, than their art.

Artists provide profound cultural value in our society. In a sense what artists do is priceless, and because it is intangible and experiential it is hard to commodify. Which is exactly why capitalists steer clear of it, there’s just no way to control it, mass-produce it and profit from it.

There are many people who say that art should be kept away from commercial imperatives and I agree with that to a large extent. But artists have to eat. And is it really fair that artists struggle whilst subsidising our cultural well-being, at the same time businesses are are doing their damnedest to turn our culture into a completely commercial operation?

In stark contrast to the undervaluation of art, is the fact that you can buy a pair of jeans for $1000, indeed it is possible to find jeans for tens of thousands. We live in a topsy-turvy world when a pair of jeans can cost more than most paintings, poems or songs.

I would be the first to argue that design is not the same as art. However, design/making traditionally had much more in common with art than it does these days. I’m talking about the fact that making a practical artefact by hand offers the maker an authentically human self-expression of their skills, intentions and values. The user of their products has a personal connection with the maker in a way that a machine-made, plastic product from overseas could never have. The Arts and Crafts movement was based on this notion. By bringing the designer back in touch with their productions it was believed that there would be more meaningful and therefore more emotionally durable products. This is a much more environmentally and culturally sustainable approach than the current meaningless, throwaway approach.

Its obviously not all doom and gloom. Talk of the Arts and Crafts movement brings me on to one of the key solutions that will allow society to produce environmentally sustainable goods and services at the same time as enhancing cultural sustainability through diversity, quality, and depth of meaning. Craft industry. The growth of craft industries in recent years is a clarion call from the grass roots for quality over quantity. Craft production allows a more authentic relationship between the designer/maker and the customer and it’s those types of relationships that sustains a culture and provides more well-being for both producers and consumers. Craft industries are inherently small and local. This means they are less resource hungry and less wasteful. And small businesses are less profitable but they employ more people, which are both good things.

In summary, I believe design should be SLOWer, meaning not industrialised and more hands-on, as it used to be. This will mean that less is made, but it will have higher intrinsic value. The point is that whilst the world’s material resources and productive capacity is limited, there is no limit to human creativity. A deeper connection between what is designed and what is made will create better quality, less waste and it promotes greater cultural diversity and resilience. Thank you.