Designers have a clear task to do. Like other workers, we {verb} to create {noun} which we then sell. Simple. The {verb}, in our case, is "To Design". The {noun} could be a variety of things, but let's assume that it's either a product itself or a specification — like a set of drawings or CAD models for tooling — describing how to produce an object or objects. This arrangement of of linguistic rules and ontological ordering seems right; it makes sense to be paid to take less ordered materials, and give them more order. 

We believe we're being paid for this order - the increased order in the object itself, that derives from our labor. And at the same time, we are surprised when products have externalized costs or cause hidden damage. The weakness isn't our designs. The weakness is in how we conceive of what we are being paid to create. 

A design is a network of choices, influences, and consequences. A good design should locate its interventions (physical, social, ideological) in the best place within this network to achieve a set of goals for stakeholders.  A good designer should work to make the most beautiful tangle of consequences possible. 

Microplastics in oceans, ecosystem destruction from mining, exploitative labor practices, Biodiversity loss from resource plantations or harvesting - I don't have to name all of these, if you're a designer (and probably even if you aren't), you know that these, and more, are all possible negative "side effects" or "unintended consequences" of manufacturing. But again, these linguistic forms seek to minimize the primacy or importance of these consequences, and to distance the designer (or the end user of the product) from culpability. How can these consequences not be unintended if they were known? And would turtle choking on a plastic straw think that this was a side effect, or a primary one? 

This language betrays design's fundamental human-centeredness. Which, strangely, is what designers have been advocating for a few decades, only with a different goal in mind (maybe?). Even so, we still end up with users frustrated by the impacts of their products. And with designers trying to alter their products to distract from, offset, undo, minimize, or otherwise alleviate this frustration. 

What would it take to avoid this auto-sabotage? At least two major things about design would have to change: where is the edge of a design, and who is at the center.

The Object is not the Boundary

Pick something up off your desk and hold it in your hand - a coffee cup, a pen, a pad of paper. Most folks tend to think of that thing as a self contained entity, a semiotic boundary which identifies the "noun-ness" of that object. The coffee cup is all the matter within the surface of the cup. The pad of paper is all the cellulose fiber sheets stapled in between the cover cardboard. The pen is an assembly of parts, each of which is less than a pen, but which add up to the boundary of "one pen" when assembled. 

Designers, being the making-oriented thinkers that they are, might have a more expansive view of these objects, and consider them as the end-point of a process. Understanding this gathering, refinement, shaping, and assembly of matter into the finished object is a big part of being an industrial designer, even if we mostly use this knowledge to ensure that we can make the most beautiful, functional end product for the lowest price. We might care about the process of making, but the "finished" object is still the most important boundary.

And this is where we go wrong. Designers (and really anybody) don't really care about the [collection-of-atoms-in-the-shape-of-a-coffee-mug]; rather, we care about the consequences of those atoms when they interact with other things in the world. How do they physically function — hold coffee, interface comfortably with a hand, resist breakage when dropped. How do they aesthetically function — what  does the silhouette of the mug or coloration of the glaze evoke when our mind compares it to other things we've seen? How do they environmentally function - did this mug require child labor to assemble, or release toxic smoke as it was fired, or will it pollute waterways if it is thrown away carelessly?

The problem is one of boundary definition - we culturally define the boundaries of objects by their atomic characteristics, but as designers, we should be defining these boundaries in terms of relationship edges instead.

 But don't take our word for it, checkout this passage from this amazing paper by authors Gustav Cederlöf and Alf Hornborg (pdf):

In this article, we argue that system boundaries constitute an epistemological problem in assessments of social and environmental impact, but more importantly, that system boundaries should be treated as ethnographic phenomena. The measurement of social and environmental impact depends on how the conceptual boundaries of technologies and other objects are fixed in time and space, and how people draw system boundaries around different phenomena itself differs cross-culturally. System boundaries, we argue, can be studied as cultural artefacts in a comparative perspective, and when exposed to ethnographic analysis, the way system boundaries are drawn in discussions on energy transitions calls into question how the existence of technology relies on socially uneven flows of resources, land, and emissions, implying a geographical displacement of environmental load.

In short, boundaries are an ideological choice.

And it is not simply the way the boundary is described that matters, but the state space in which that boundary gets drawn.

To illustrate this, think about these two very different ways of assigning land-control boundaries, one developed by the United States government in the late 1700s, and one developed by Native Hawaiians (possibly even before they arrived in Hawaii, given similar systems on the Southern Cook Islands which were settled by Polynesians at least 200 years before Hawaii)

A Boundary Drawn Through a State Space of Speed and Exclusion 

After the revolutionary war, the US needed funds to pay soldiers, and to pay war debts. And, they had just scored a bunch of land from France in the Northwest Territories. But that land was both inhabited by Native Americans, and non-commoditized (there was no way to refer to specific parts of it in a bill of sale or deed) and so it couldn't be sold or used as payment.

So, based on a proposal from Thomas Jefferson, the Public Land Survey System was enacted. Rather than accommodating any sort of localized understanding in the division of these lands, the PLSS takes a gigantic-scale Cartesian strategy of gridding.

scan of an 1790s survey of Wisconsin

As you can see in this survey diagram, the boundaries of ownership have no relationship to edges of rivers, catchments of watersheds, edges of bodies of water like lakes, or transitions between ecotopes (regions of consistent landscape, plant,  and animal types, like a coastal pine barrens, or tallgrass prairie). This arbitrary division of ownership has lead to arbitrary variation in land use in the present day, as you can see from a satelite view of a similar spot today.

Modern day satelite view over the american midwest

These arbitrary divisions, initially intended to speed up the process of commoditization of land, and ensure that newly minted American settlers occupied it (and displaced the Native Americans there), succeeded in this initial goal. But now, centuries later, we suffer with wicked problems like water access, pollution, and a lack of integration of ecosystem behaviors upstream and downstream (for example, nutrient loss in Mississippi river tributary lands like Wisconsin, and nutrient excess in the Gulf of Mexico)

A Boundary Drawn Through a State Space of Ecological Flows

Contrast this with the land organization strategy that the Native Hawaiians implemented on their newly-peopled islands. Like the Jeffersonian system, larger units, with sub-units are used, and offer a scalable addressibility of land. You can tell someone where you're going to be, where you live, of transfer your control of land to descendants. 

Unlike the PLSS, the Hawaiian system is explicitly built around ecosystemically important boundaries. Moku, the largest division, constitute all the watersheds which feed into a region of coast which faces a single direction, and therefore, has similar sorts of currents and fish access. Ahupua'a are smaller slices of the Moku, running from ridge top, down along the ridges on either side of a single stream's catchment area, and then out to the breakers at the edge of the reef.

Map of the Moku and Ahupua'a of the island of Kaua'i

Even though these traditional boundaries were dismantled by surveying post-the US Forced Annexation of Hawaii, enough of their influence remains to make for interesting opportunities for ridgetop-to-reef agricultural integration projects.

Tangling All These Threads Together

So, every design is not an object, discrete and apart, but a tangle of relationships. Some of these involve a physical product directly (the physical cellphone you hold and own). Some of them involve relationships between that object and external entities or services (you might stream music through your phone, which you never own, or view remotely stored pictures, which you legally do own).  And  some of them are relationships in time, through society, or in trophic succession (your phone's gold plating required child soldiers to oversee mining of minerals in an ecosystem where apex predators and people later experienced heavy metal poisoning). Many of these might be relationships that don't involve human stakeholders exclusively — or even at all.

In order to wrangle a well designed web of relationships, it's necessary to see the problem defined in the appropriate state space - through the lens of relationships that you would like to impact in your solution. This is the real challenge of good design - not form giving, not functional innovation, but welcoming of and empathy with all the downstream stakeholders (human and otherwise) of your design intervention.

If this was a lot to absorb, I'll leave you with Donna Harraway's thoughts on the subject. We guarantee you never thought of product design the way that she does. 

Go on. Our world is full of far two many products with loose ends. We need more webs, more networks. More beautiful tangles.


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