Response Crafting

Design: not a love of things, but rather a love of life

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Good design is not design for design sake, but design as a response to a love of life:

Biophilia

Biophilia is, simply, a love of life or living systems – not our own individual lives, but the concept of life overall; our collective existence. It is the “instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.”

  • It is the urge to affiliate with other forms of life. (Edward O. Wilson, Biophilia, 1984)
  • It is “a psychological orientation of being attracted to all that is alive and vital” and “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” (Erich Fromm)
  • It offers, as with all phillia, a sense of reciprocity that yields a sense of happiness. (Aristotle)

Biophilia: “nature” as the primary “living system”

If you do a search for biophilia + design, you will see that architecture is one of the design disciplines that has a foothold with the concept (like the film Biophilic Design: The Architecture of Life.) Architecture’s interpretation and use of biophilia, however, defines “life” as “the natural world,” and puts an emphasis on natural systems, specifically.

Here, even, they are not bringing elements of nature into the built environment arbitrary, for the sake of doing it, but rather as a response to the recognition of its importance. “Beauty is our word for the perfection of those qualities of environment that have contributed the most to human survival.”

“If you look at it in terms of its negative – if we’re deprived of the opportunity to affiliate with nature – it also effects us. If we were in a room that had no windows; that had just artificial light and processed air, basically you wouldn’t want to be there for very long, and if you were there for very long – if somehow you couldn’t escape from that room, you would start to have a sort of sensory deprivation.”

To build in this way, we account for the ways in which human beings interact with their environments – both indoor and outdoor – and compensate for what is surrendered when entering an indoor space by bringing some of those critical “natural” qualities (light, air) into it.

Biophilia: “life” defined beyond “nature”

While we can honor the focus on nature as an approach to biophilia, it is also important to explore a “love of life” in a broader, more comprehensive focus with regard to both fields of design as well as the systems of life called into study. Life, after all, is built up of much more than ecology and biology. And the living systems we should consider are not the only naturally-occurring one. The systems we construct are equally if not sometimes more important.

Conventionally, “design” has been viewed as the “production of things” – the creation of everything from clothing to cars to furniture. It has always been rooted foremost in a viewpoint of utility and maybe secondarily of form… but very rarely as a conversation of cultural ecologies, philosophy or anthropology – life overall.

Renato Troncon writes, in his essay on service design and biophilia in This is Service Design Thinking:

“Books and treatises on design – even the most brilliant – often base their discussions on the idea that design means the production of objects… But the same indistinct ‘buzz’ of a thousand and one different objects that design introduces into daily life today requires even the most inattention observer to consider that there are other issues in design beside the ere things in themselves – such a psychologies, the circumstances of life and income, geography, lifestyles, and so on.” 

Troncon argues that design “requires investigation, ’empathizing’… and generally ‘knowing’ the processes in which a certain artifact is to be inserted – and even to know them in their ‘qualities,’ and through qualitative means.”In service design, “the view is not monocular, fixed solely on the object itself, but binocular, seeing the ‘thing’ but also all that this thing ‘provokes’ or ‘claims’ for itself.” (Appropriately, he also published a book titled “Be a Traveler, Not a Tourist!”, because separation from a context is un-compelling in our actions and lifestyles as well.)

In short: we cannot approach design merely as the creation of a thing, but instead as a response rooted in a deep understanding of how that thing fits into the existing context.

“It is crucial not to teach students only how to make gloves without ever telling them to practice by shaking hands with their neighbors, or carelessly removing their gloves with the indolence of a great theatre actress… We often end up asking whether, before designing a certain lamp, it might not have been better to understand what reading means in general, and what it means to read by artificial light in particular. Or if, before building a famous name hotel in a certain place, it would not have been better to have a real idea of the nature of the activity that goes on there.”

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“A certain ‘vital sequence’ exists along the whole chain of an event, and that it cannot be dissociated from the variety of ‘media’ – artifacts or others – on which it hinges. Such activities are not in fact ‘pure anthropology’ of the sort that would exclude the concrete nature of things, or the actions and plans with which they are ‘interlaced.”

Design must be “responsible – that is, responsive.” We should not pursue invention for invention’s sake, “but must rather marry the knowledge of ‘responding’ to what is beautiful and ugly here and in the world.” Because good design is in fact an ‘active philosophy’ dedicated to making space for life.

Because why shouldn’t design be a love for life? And why should not life, in all its incredibly variety, be “the key giving us access to design?”

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One thought on “Design: not a love of things, but rather a love of life

  1. Love this! I totally loved the line in This is Service Design Thinking about biophilia – the love of life.

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