The Wisdom of Design Professions

March 17, 2006 · by Richard Farson

When asked why we seldom see the word wisdom in the same sentence with the word leadership, the former president of a major telecommunications company told me plainly, “Leadership and wisdom may be incompatible.”

When asked why we seldom see the word wisdom in the same sentence with the word leadership, the former president of a major telecommunications company told me plainly, “Leadership and wisdom may be incompatible.”

He was referring, of course, to corporate leadership, and to the special definition of wisdom as the ability to consider the larger implications for humanity of any decision. Clearly, leaders of highly competitive private sector organizations who must satisfy stockholders every quarter cannot be distracted by larger social concerns. As Nobel economist Milton Friedman put it, “The only social responsibility of a business is to make a profit.”

On the other hand, when one thinks of a profession, one imagines that those who practice it would put humanitarian issues first. We seek their advice because we trust that their judgment would be based upon the special kind of wisdom that cannot be exercised in business.

The question then arises, “Is design a profession or a business?” I think that most designers would answer, “both,” because they either do not see or do not care about any ethical incompatibility between the two. Indeed, it seems to me that in recent years architecture and design have become more business than profession. Because they believe the corporate world is where their financial futures lie, they have come to share the values of that world. No longer do they expect to fulfill the social responsibilities they may once have cared most about. No longer do they offer wisdom before service.

I believe this is why they agree to design giant prisons they know will create more crime, housing developments they know will not be communities, and structures they know are not respectful of environmental concerns. Having abandoned a professional posture, they cannot decline such opportunities. But the ability to say “no” to a plan they are confident is not fully responsible is the very definition of a profession. We expect that exercise of wisdom from our physicians, lawyers, and engineers, but do corporate leaders expect it, let alone demand it, from designers?

Admittedly, to the extent that designers care about social responsibility, they try to convince the private sector leaders to care also. The fact that such an effort has proven overwhelmingly futile has not deterred them from continuing to place their confidence in the eventual raising of social consciousness in that sector. What they fail to appreciate is that Friedman has a point. The private sector’s first responsibility is to create a healthy, vibrant economy; that is what makes democracy possible. No democracies exist without a vigorous market system. So give the private sector its due. It makes our democratic freedoms possible. But do not expect it to be socially responsible. The rare cases when a corporation does so oblige us do not show us the future, but provide the exceptions proving the rule.

I keep hoping designers will recognize that they cannot function as professionals as long as they are dominated by their clientele, that they will see the ethical problems of being only market-oriented and that they will choose to return to their professional roots. I hope they will see that the opportunities to fulfill their own sense of social responsibility are much more likely to be found in the public sector. It is the public, the taxpayers, who benefit from lowered crime, better community life, less environmental degradation. The chance for designers to create a better world for millions of slum dwellers and others without adequate living circumstances is a public concern. Because they design situations, experiences, and relationships, architects and designers are better able than any other profession to reduce the indices of despair – crime, illness, school failure, addiction, domestic violence, etc. That is public business.

We need the wisdom, ideas, and programs of designers not just to overcome the bad but to make possible the good. Designers can foster creativity, community, security, effectiveness, understanding, and affection. Other professions such as medicine and education do not hold the promise of design, yet they are funded in the hundreds of billions. Their planning is in the trillions. That should be the future of design.

Richard Farson is a psychologist, author, lecturer, and educator. He is president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute (WBSI) and a senior fellow of the Design Futures Council.

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