The Accidental Power of Design – The New York Times
Do we know what we’re talking about when we talk about design? Design is both noun and verb, covering work that ranges from the composition of a tattoo to the amelioration of climate change. We design spoons and rooms, houses and cities, power grids and national identities, international treaties and defense systems and, when all else fails, military campaigns. If design refers to that which is planned and brought to fruition by human ingenuity, we’ve reached the point where, as Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina, curators of this year’s Istanbul Design Biennial, aptly observe, “the planet itself has been completely encrusted by design as a geological layer.” Even the few undesigned places left exist because we design the borders around them.
The basic motivation for design is the very human desire for coherence. With so much designed in the world, we begin to take its results for granted. Often, what we have conjured assumes the sheen of inevitability, as if its results were inalienable facts in the world rather than the product of someone’s ideas and actions. In other words, design solidifies, and naturalizes, things that start off as opinions, stories and traditions, supplying form to the fictions by which we live. We rarely stop to consider the faith-based proposition represented by our paper money or the imagined national narratives engendered by borders. Unlike words, the meaning of which can be debated, the objective materiality of designed objects exudes a unique power. Once established, it’s difficult to think outside the systems and structures these objects represent.
Consider the current public bathroom kerfuffle. Recently, several states have introduced legislation that would compel citizens to confine themselves to the bathrooms that align with the sex designated on their birth certificate. So one designed system, the binary “M” or “F” box on the birth certificate, is used to justify another: men’s and women’s bathrooms. Never mind that we’re perfectly comfortable sharing unisex bathrooms at home, in trains and on airplanes — the male or female designation, at least in most public spaces, is taken as self-evident. That division of bathrooms, however, is a historical relic. As women began to enter the industrialized work force in the 19th century, employers started to segregate bathrooms, ostensibly to protect delicate sensibilities.
Over the course of the next 150 years, this division of the sexes, which had begun as a product of ideology, was legally codified. Now, building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act stipulate detailed requirements for how public bathrooms must be designed, and architects are required by law to follow them. As the origin story fades into the past, the presence of the two distinct spaces is cited as proof that the difference they identify is sacrosanct, when in fact the twin rooms are, essentially, architecturally codified ideology.
In 2013, after California passed the law guaranteeing any public school student the right to use the bathroom facility they felt aligned with their gender identity, a Republican state assemblyman withdrew his 13-year-old son from school, declaring: “The public schools are no longer interested in education. They’ve become government-indoctrination centers.” His mistake was in not recognizing that all design is indoctrinating, because design manifests the distinctions by which we order our world. The overheated rhetoric spinning around the bathroom debate claims we are creating a “recipe for disaster” by entering “unknown territory.” But this territory is hardly unexplored; it’s just that a century and a half of architecture, icons and ideology has done its work. Now change seems unimaginable, even dangerous, despite the fact we designed it that way in the first place. What seems self-evident can no longer be imagined as arbitrary. It’s only when our belief systems shift, and culturally we experience a seismic disruption, that we suddenly recognize the underlying fictions on which our designed world is built. Design always depicts the things that matter to us … until they don’t.