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Is there a tension between ethics and aesthetics in design? Essay Sample

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Introduction of TOPIC

Ethics are a fundamental element of any functioning society, essentially providing the codes of conduct that must be followed by a majority to ensure social survival. These, often unspoken rules, give us a sense of right and wrong but are not common to all cultures and are often subject to temporal change. This is evident if we examine the historical change in attitudes towards a subject such as suicide. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans considered suicide as an honourable and heroic act, whereas in early Christianity it was pronounced a ‘mortal sin’. In fact, in England suicide was considered a criminal act until as recent as 1961, perhaps due to the social importance of maintaining the family unit up to this point in time.

This would suggest that ethics are not pre determined by our nature but rather are rationally constituted by a specific culture for its continued existence, depending on the conditions by which that society is to survive. Ethics can also be defined as moral ideals belonging to a culture and also those belonging to the individual. There is often much overlay concerning the two instances but it is important to recognise that every individual will inevitably put his or her unique spin on the dominantly recognised set of ethical values.

So how does this relate to design? Firstly it would seem that there is a personal ethical responsibility on those involved in the production of objects, such as designers, material engineers, manufactures, business people, etc. Such elements for ethical consideration in this instance may include sustainability, socio-psychological well being, and a concern for the dehumanisation and cultural reduction that might result from mass production and globalisation. In the case of sustainability, it is only logical, at least in developed countries where our basic needs for survival are met, that there is a moral goal for ecological sustainability, which if unrealised threatens the current cultural way of life.

As such I believe that the majority of designers hold this ethic even if they fail to practice sustainable design. One way a designer might achieve a level of sustainability comes from Victor Papanek’s idea of ‘Design for Disassemble’ (DFD). As such Papanek proposes that an object be designed so that it is easily and cheaply disassembled after use and the individual components can be recycled, thus providing a functional ethical solution. In addition to creating a sense of moral fulfilment in the designer, should a product that has been designed for disassemble be marketed as such, it then allows for the consumer to be ethical through choice and therefore translates on a cultural level, which might also increase the products commerciality.

Often ethics are considered as an alternative to function and beauty in design, as though we have to compromise between these supposedly conflicting values. This assumes that there is a hypocrisy between what people consider to be ethical and the things they do and buy. Because consumer choice is based on our sense of what is beautiful and what is not it therefore becomes important to understand this mediating factor of aesthetics.

According to the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant there is a fundamental relationship between ethics and aesthetic experience. It is indeed obvious through observation that there are certain formal aspects that a specific cultures might label as beautiful and as a result will aspire to own objects that exhibit these design choices. It is also apparent that the phenomenon of an aesthetic generally occurs culturally, which renders void notions such as individual taste. Kant explains aesthetics as ‘the symbol of the morally good’ (Cooper, 293).

In other words cultural ethical values are embodied in objects through semiotics and therefore an object that comprises elements that best translate to convey the ethics of a particular culture, will hence be considered the most aesthetic and desirable. In effect Kant is claiming that aesthetics, as do ethics, come from a purely rational subjectivity. Schiller adds a further level of complexity when he suggests a third element to the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, which is play. The freedom of play that aesthetics permit, as Schiller suggests, essentially allows us to negotiate between our ‘sensual drives’ and out ‘formal drives’, or what we might term our emotional and rational tendencies. Playing through aesthetics is essentially our means of objectifying our rationalised thoughts and concept. ‘There is no other way of making sensuous man rational except by first making him aesthetic’ (Schiller, 1967, letter 23, p.2).

One of the earliest considerations of an ethical involvement in design is evident in the mid-19th Century British Arts and Craft Movement, headed by William Morris. Morris believed that he could evoke social change via the embodiment of certain ethical ideals within his works such as classless equality and a concern with the dehumanisation and environmental damage associated with a modern industrial society. These morals eventually manifested themselves in a style that was fascinated with traditional ‘handicraft’, valuing the quality and expression of true craftsmanship over financially driven mass production. Morris also recognised that by employing an ethical concept based on his own beliefs and those held more generally by other members of the culture that he was essentially creating objects that would be regarded as aesthetic.

Another example of an ethical response to create a design aesthetic exists in the form of Organic design. Organic design attempts to convey a holistic and humanizing aesthetic by imitating formations that are apparent in nature. One example of this is to construct an object in such a way that an aesthetical appeal is achieved not by individual parts, but the object as a whole. However with the development of cheap plastics and other such materials, Organic design tends produce objects that merely utilise curvatious forms to appear organic on a superficial level. I think this fails to realise the original goal of the concept, to provide a humanistic experience.

‘Spin’ by Ross Lovegrove

designed for Driade, Italy

When designing, we might also find it important to identify, understand and in some cases challenge ethical values that are more specific to a certain type of product. For instance, if I wanted to design a refrigerator that would appeal aesthetically then it might be important to understand cultural attitudes towards cleanliness. ‘Coprophilia’ by Terence McLaughlin provides an entire chapter on our attitudes toward ‘dirt’. McLaughlin begins by describing dirt as ‘the dark side of all human activities’, which suggests that dirt holds a certain immoral connotation. McLaughin identifies the first common criteria for a substance to be classified as dirt, which is that it is ‘matter out of place’ (McLaughlin, 1). For example, soil in a garden is considered natural and nourishing, but tread mud through your house (a cultural supposed to a natural space) and it becomes dirt. Secondly he points out that in addition dirt is often of a slimy or sticky nature, which gives the experience that ‘something dirty has attached itself to us and we cannot get rid of the traces,’ (McLaughlin, 2). In effect a felling of invasion or inflection is created.

The fear of slimy substances is perhaps magnified if those substances have come from another human. Although we have learnt to tolerate our own slimy secretions and those of people that are close to, comi

ng into contact or to being reminded of the traces of a stranger is considered disgusting, as though

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we have been contaminated. For example the majority of cultures would consider that ‘being spat on is extremely humiliating and disgusting, despite the fact that the saliva is mostly water’ (McLaughlin, 4). Such ethics about dirt and cleanliness probably result from a primitive logical solution to prevent the out break of disease however such ethics have developed far beyond their rational needs.

If we consider this in the example of designing a refrigerator, then it becomes important that the object not only function hygienically but that it also conveys the ideals of cleanliness on an aesthetic level. This best translates to the design of many existing refrigerators if we consider the use of colour white. White is most popular as it tends to signify ideals of purity and cleanliness, which might be explained logically by its ability to show up any substance that is considered unclean. As such the use of white constantly assures us of the absence of dirt.

Examples of the use of white in other design objects include kitchen and bathroom appliances such as dishwashers, kettles, baths and bath towels. After all, it would be extremely uncomforting to use a bath after someone else if the bath was black and might be disguising remaining dirt from the previous person. Another manifestation of ethics concerning dirt is apparent in Raymond Loewy’s 1935 refrigerator. As well as the use of white, the design also employs a streamlined, wipeable form and surface finish that conveys the ‘physical embodiment of health and purity’ (Forty, 156). As such it clearly has aesthetical advantage over previous designs that present an object similar to a standard varnished cabinet.

‘Coldspot’ refrigerator by Raymond Loewy

‘Coldspot’ refrigerator by Raymond Loewy

designed for Sears

The idea of using white to obsessively eliminate all that we consider to be impure and dirty is also in the chapter on ‘dust’ by Alastair Bonnett in ‘City A-Z’ by Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift. Bonnett explains the importance of white in ‘Modernity’s war against dust’ (Pile and Thrift, 62) and explains how dust is threatening to the ‘clean’ simplicity and rational of Modernism.

Nowhere else is this more evident than in the re-design of Hospitals from the end of the 19th century, as ‘dust-free environments… with their endless ‘spotless corridors, their regular white rooms and expanses of window’ (Pile and Thrift, 62). Bonnett ends the chapter by suggesting that this endeavour for a ‘wipeable’ world, without doubt and obscurity is shifting. As he puts it, ‘Dust is becoming an object of nostalgia and a symbol of resistance,’ which may have all sorts of ramifications for the design choices we make, for example in the surface of objects. This reinforces the idea of a flux in ethics and therefore a resultant, but foreseeable change in aesthetic.

Another colour that we might examine for its ethical connotations is green. Green is my opinion extremely important in design at the moment, with a general concern of ecology and respect of nature for which green is representative. In the essay ‘Green is the Colour’, Mirko Zardini states that ‘The use of this colour is so direct that we almost never ask ourselves about its meaning. Green is simply green, it is the vegetal world, or even the natural world tout court’ (Koolhaus, 434).

However Zardini elaborates that it is not as simple as that because our association of the colour green is not predetermined. Instead like any other sign it is fed by images in a variety of forms. This is true if we take the example of the historic association with green in urban environments. Zardini demonstrates that the signified is constantly shifting, ‘It is no longer an element of protection and separation between buildings … no longer an educational element, as in the nineteenth-century park’ and it is ‘no longer a factor of production adding to the monthly salary, as it was for the working mans’ vegetable garden’ (Koolhaus, 437).

Nowhere has green been more important than in the recent move by corporations to re brand themselves as ethical, especially in terms of the environment. BP for example have recently replaced their famous corporate logo that has changed little over a century for an image that is intended to resemble something of a flower.

This image is combined with various hues of green to convey a ‘green’ ethic, which is something of a paradox considering BP are a petroleum company. Similarly McDonalds have recently added to their menu an extensive range of healthy foods, which are highly advertised both on television and in each of their restaurants by an extensive use of the colour green. However I have yet to witness anyone purchase anything healthy from McDonalds, which suggests that they are simply disguising their business with a healthy image as supposed to selling a healthy product. I disagree with semiotically promoting a false ethic. Not only is it immoral in itself but it lacks a deeper sense of aesthetic.

Bp logo, 2003

Despite the superficial use of signs to convey morals concerning the environment, we have made some noticeable and truly ethical advances recently, such as the nationwide implication of a recycling system on a domestic level. Changes like this make a good case for the existence of a strong and dominant eco-ethic, which warrants designed objects to suit.

One problem that comes with ethical design is exclusivity. For instance if we take the example of organic food, then few people can disagree that we all aspire to be healthier, and it is claimed that organically grown food can provide this function. However because there is more cost involved, that is transferred to the buyer. This is accepted due to another generally held ethic that everyone should be as ethical as possible. Therefore people will pay more to be better people than everyone else, thus creating a moral hierarchy. This is realised by various industries and so ethical products are often marketed at a higher price. Unfortunately this I believe creates a certain cynicism about ethical claims as a marketing ploy.

If our aesthetical experience is based primarily on cultural ethics then it is similarly possible to explore the existence of an aesthetic based on immorality or transgression. For instance, if we take the automobile industry as an example, then it is clear that the majority of consumers aspire to an aesthetic which is mainly reliant on branding because there is very little material difference between modern cars. In this case we might suggest that this branded aesthetic is based mainly on an ethical system of status. Effectively people aspire to achieve status within a society but more importantly require the symbols associated with such an achievement.

This is perhaps the reason that there is such a lack of individuality when it comes to what is considered beautiful when purchasing a car and why so many people are happy to own the same, mass-produced objects. In my opinion, the transgressive element to this dominant system of ethical value, aesthetic experience and consumerism manifests itself in the culture of car modification. Cultural transgression often occurs in the form of youth cultures and if we look at the demographic market for magazines such as Max Power and Revs, then car modifying supports this claim.

On a website forum discussing the legality of car modifications such as body kitting, and the addition of UV lights, a guy who goes by the name, Mr. Escort makes an interesting comment, ‘why you getting riley about the pigs, we’re moding our cars to piss people off so lets do it’. This shows us the ethics behind car modification, which is to make a rebellious statement with obnoxious paint jobs, 3 inch exhausts and 1000w sound systems. Essentially the product is customised to exhibit a personal statement of taste that does not conform to the dominant aesthetic and therefore ethic, which in this instance involves status. This is not to say that the concept of customisation promotes individuality. Instead the transgressive sub culture merely exhibits its own oppositional ethics and aesthetic, which in for car modification takes shape as a bold and aggressive style.

An area of ethics, which I think is often overlooked when designing, and differs greatly between different nations and cultures, is etiquette. In the book entitled, ‘Watching the English’, author Kate Fox examines the many unspoken rules that govern the behaviour of the British public, concerning a variety of topics from linguistic class codes to pub-talk. Interesting in one chapter Fox explores an emerging etiquette based around an fairly new technology and product which has very much engrained itself in British culture, namely the mobile phone. One observation that is made involves the attitudes towards mobile phone etiquette by business people.

As such Fox identifies two types of executive, those of low-ranking who tend to make a big ostentatious show of using their phones whatever the situation and those of ‘higher-ranking people who have nothing to prove and so tend to be more considerate’. If we take the first of these two sections of society, who believe it acceptable to make a show of their use of a mobile phone, often using it to display their own self importance, then it is possible to design an aesthetic that compliments this ethic. An example of this is the development of mobile phone ring tones, which now allow the user to apply ever more elaborate tunes.

In conclusion I hope to have demonstrated the importance of an ethical consideration in design. Firstly there is an ethical responsibility on those involved in the production of objects, such as government, captains of industry and designers. But more importantly I have shown that there is a definite link between the ethical values we hold and what is considered beautiful in the world.

It therefore becomes essential to understand the ethics of different cultures and sub cultures in order to achieve aesthetical designs. This may then enable to foresee shifts in morals and in some cases perhaps challenge them. I have discussed some examples of sign associations with ethics and how they can be exploited by companies and products to convey false ethics, thus creating cynicism. Finally I think it is valuable to consider that transgressive sub cultures have their own set of ethics that are often in opposition to those of the dominant culture. In this instance the transgressive set of values are likely to manifest in an oppositional aesthetical style.

Bibliography and References


David Cooper (ed.) A Companion to Aesthetics, Blackwell, (1992)

Kate Fox Watching the English, Hodder & Stoughton, (2004)

Umberto Eco Travels in Hyper-Reality, Picador, (1986)

Jeremy Myerson (ed.) Design Renaissance, Open Eye Publishing, (1994)

Charlotte & Peter Fiell Design of the 20th Century, Taschen, (1999)

Rem Koolhaus (ed.) Harvard Project on the City, Actar, (2003)

Adrian Forty Objects of Desire, Cameron Books, (1995)

Steve Pile & Nigel Thrift (ed.) City A-Z, Routledge, (2000)

Terence McLaughlin Coprophilia, Cassell & Company, (1971)

John Carey The Faber Book of Utopias, Faber & Faber, (1999)

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