26 March 2017

Design for Life

Written by Published in Books
Human Rites
With Hidden Silence III
Water - A modern history
Oedipus Eyeglasses

Stuart Walker’s design practice confronts the costs of consumer culture. Through objects that blur the boundaries between art and design, he invites us to reflect on critical contemporary questions about progress, technology, nature, spirituality and death, and offers a positive vision that is socially and culturally meaningful, locally relevant and environmentally responsible

Cover Design for life Stuart WalkerDESIGN FOR MEANINGFUL LIVING

Achieving better, lasting, and more meaningful ways of living is unlikely to result from grand schemes and masterplans that impose the will of ruling elites on ordinary people, be it political, corporate or religious. Such narrow, inevitably biased ideologies usually create more problems than they solve. We have seen the tragic results of such impositions throughout history, but perhaps especially in the past century – from residential schools for indigenous peoples in North America and Australia, to the one-child policy in China, to exploitative labour practices by global corporations. All these ideologies were, and in some cases still are, imposed on ordinary people and communities by top-down bureaucracies irrespective of local cultural norms, individual needs and preferences, and deep, situated knowledge, and all have proved to be socially, and in some cases environmentally, disastrous. This is not the way forward.

Human activities and a growing population are creating very serious damage to natural systems and these, together with rising socio-economic disparities, are fundamentally related to our economic system and the political agendas that support it. The so called free market is based on indiscriminate economic growth, is resource and energy intensive, and depends on, and therefore constantly encourages, excessive consumption habits. Curtailing this will not be through the imposition of ideologies by ruling elites – not just because their own interests would be jeopardized but because such ideologies are invariably inadequate. Positive change will occur through education, dialogue, the development of new realizations, and by many people at the local level striving to do what they believe to be right and true, overcoming self-interest and greed, and working towards the common good. Unlike top-down diktats, small-scale, locally-based initiatives can draw on local knowledge, be tuned to local conditions, and remain flexible, adaptive and dynamic. Through such means, we take responsibility for our own actions, overriding the all too easy excuses of realpolitik by which principles are set aside in favour of short-term expediencies. Through principled actions and striving to do the right thing, we exchange self-interest, greed and short-termism for integrity, ethics, and the long view.
It is through such means, informed by context and situated knowledge, that behavioural norms and material expectations can change for the better, building a sense of community and creating the conditions for the development of a meaningful material culture. At the international, national and regional levels this will mean implementing policies that recognize the value of the local, enable the voice of community to be heard, support local enterprises, and prevent multinationals disregarding long-established customs and the welfare of those who live and work in a particular place. Policy changes are required that better serve the interests of small-scale endeavours, including the elimination of regulations that prevent local producers from competing with large corporations.


From the international style of the 1920s and 1930s to the multinational corporations of today, modernity has increasingly taken us towards the global and the universal. In the process modern society has tended to cut its ties with the local and has often ridden roughshod over the particularities that characterize contextualized customs, traditions and practices. It is becoming increasingly clear that this has been a great mistake, not to say a tragedy.

Community, tradition, values worth passing on to the next generation, a sense of identity and deeper spiritual meanings are all found within specific contexts. They are tied to patterns of thought, practices and customs that are informed by the topography, climate, ecosystems and the human history and intercultural interactions of a specific place. When we focus on the local, the particular and the contextualized in an authentic manner and seek to do this to the best of our abilities, such work will be relevant at the local level and may also resonate with universal questions of ethics, virtue and notions of truth and, thus, will have universal appeal. We see this with contemporary artists like  Grayson Perry and the composer Arvo Pärt, whose creative works are tied to a particular place and culture but are, nevertheless, valued all over the world. While there may be no direct causal link, there will be correlation between a designer’s creative work and their philosophy and beliefs, which are informed by and arise from their local culture.


In choosing such a path, we must be aware too of the hurdles. If history is anything to go by, any attempt at change that gains momentum by espousing a markedly different way forward – no matter how ethical, virtuous and democratically elected – is likely be ridiculed, dismissed as naive, undermined and, if possible, suppressed by those in power and those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. This, unfortunately, has been the case throughout history when people try to invoke positive change. In Haiti in 1804, for example, revolutionary leaders, brought to the region as slaves, strived to free themselves from French colonial rule. At the time, not only were unjust regimes the norm in this part of the world but the system was designed to ensure that governance and self-determination of any kind could not be claimed by certain groups. Haiti was ridiculed in the press and derided in highly pejorative terms to discredit it and to justify harsh counter measures. And it was made to pay dearly for its audacity – the French government demanded repayment for the loss of their property and, in a move that reverberates down the centuries, French banks offered loans to Haiti that essentially meant a future of continuous debt.

Such approaches have continued in one form or another to the present day – notably through globalization and its attendant financialization, privatization and/or occupation of other peoples’ territories; actions that are all embedded in colonialization and its history of exploitation of labour and land. We see similar traits even in the recent history of Europe. The left wing Syriza party in Greece was elected in 2015 on a platform of anti-austerity, which challenged established ideologies of free-market capitalism. In reporting the election victory, the Financial Times of London underlined the potential threat posed to the established system by this leftist party, “The most we can say is that if Greece’s creditors blink, the significant demonstration effect to the rest of the eurozone will give rise to economic relief in the south and angst in the north, hardly furthering the cause of political unity”. The international financial and banking crisis of 2007-08, the common European currency and, internally, a history of financial mismanagement and corruption had resulted in Greece suffering severe financial and social deprivations. This meant that Greece needed substantial help from Europe. But following the election, many commentators suggested that the loan conditions being imposed on Greece were both draconian and punitive. Greece was forced to accept terms that many argued undermined its sovereignty, weakened its national democratic process, and would mean a never-ending debt situation; terms that the IMF subsequently declared to be unsustainable.

While these issues are a long way from design, they do tell us something about the context in which design and production exist. And they tell us much about the difficulties of invoking significant change and working towards a system that is not only egalitarian and socially and environmentally responsible but also imaginatively reconceived to be more holistic in its outlook. Contemporary directions are often far too focussed on short-term financial gains – driven by consumerism, dependent on labour exploitation and resulting in debt, waste and burgeoning pollution. It is unethical and unsustainable and sooner or later it will have to change. As author James Rebanks has said, “… modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them … how much it asks of so many people for so little in return”.

Our conceptions of things that matter and consequently our priorities will have to change if we are to address these issues at a deeper level. And if this change is to be substantive it cannot but challenge established ideas and outlooks. 


Extract from Design for Life: creating meaning in a distracted world by Professor Stuart Walker. Published by Routledge on 18 April 2017.


About Stuart Walker

Stuart Walker is Chair of Design for Sustainability at Lancaster University, UK where he co-founded a new design programme and dedicated design research centre, ImaginationLancaster. He is also an Emeritus Professor at University of Calgary. His distinctive practice-based research explores the environmental, social and spiritual aspects of sustainability. His conceptual designs have been exhibited in Canada, Australia, Italy, at the Design Museum, London and most recently at Brantwood, John Ruskin’s house in the English Lake District. His books include: Sustainable by Design; The Spirit of Design; The Handbook of Design for Sustainability (with J. Giard), and Designing Sustainability. His latest book is Design for Life: creating meaning in a distracted world, published by Routledge in 18th April 2017


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