Skip to main content

FROM: "BRANZI'S DILEMMA: Design in Contemporary Culture"*

Richard Buchanan
Department of Design
Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh

By reducing culture to ideology, we neglect the original and more fundamental meaning of culture as cultivation. From this perspective, culture is not a state, expressed in an ideology or a body of doctrines. Rather, it is an activity. Culture is the activity of ordering, disordering, and reordering in the search for understanding and for values which guide action. Culture is the search for principles in the everyday engagements of life as well as in the special human engagements of science, art, politics, and design.

The ultimate purpose or function of design in society is to ]K products which express and, necessarily, reconcile human values concerning what is good, useful, just, and pleasurable. However, these terms no longer possess fixed and generally accepted meanings. Their meanings are the subject of our deliberations. They are essentially contested in society at large as well as in the complex processes of design and product development, although we seldom recognize the significance of the shift and are not well prepared to deal with it productively.

The shift in the direction of deliberation is inevitably perceived by some people as a weakening of culture, a sign of the loss of central vision and values, because vision and values are now an explicit subject of discussion.

Instead, the new situation is potentially a strengthening of our culture, if culture is conceived as the type of activity that we described earlier: an active search for new principles or for new embodiments and expressions of trusted and traditional principles. However, the problem is to find new tools and disciplines to support the search for new principles or appropriate expressions of old principles.

For example, the quality control movement began half a century ago as a form of high-end systems engineering, where statistical measures of manufacturing and performance provided concrete information on the successes and weaknesses of systems. However, the radical feature of this movement was not, as is sometimes suggested, a focus on statistical measures, but a rediscovery of collective human agency within organizations. Workers and managers began collaborating to discuss and evaluate problems of quality and to modify work processes. This was initially supported by statistical tools, but in essence it was a rediscovery of the value of dialogue and of the nature of rhetoric and dialectic as arts that are useful in shaping human affairs. This venture was both an extension and a relaxation of the traditional devices of dialectic, now separated from Marxist, Hegelian, or other philosophic ideologies which, in their academic and political forms, have too often limited the practical value of dialectic in the concrete circumstances and daily interactions of culture.

The result of the new disciplines of design thinking is typically not agreement on an ideology that may stand behind a new product. Instead, the result is an agreement that this or that is what shall be done today, so that ideological disagreement may be suspended and production move forward with the support of all of those involved in the planning process.

It is a contribution to the search that we have described as culture. Instead of a new general ideology that is substituted for modernism, design can advance culture as an ongoing search for values and understanding.

The task in this activity is to reconcile the pluralism of human values in concrete, productive action suited to immediate circumstances. Terms such as "good", "useful", "just", "pleasurable", and "true" are essentially contested, but agreements are possible in particular circumstances.

*The Italian Journal Modo

[After Post-Modernism Conference. Copyright 1997.]