See Why Designer Chris Bangle Makes An Urgent Case For Re-Inventing Design

See Why Designer Chris Bangle Makes An Urgent Case For Re-Inventing Design

“Design as it is known and taught is unable, on a systemic level, to cope with the dimension of change coming to the world,” writes Chris Bangle in an article he sends over for me to ponder. The esteemed and often controversial designer has edited a speech he gave last month for the “Pratt Institute Design Symposium 2021: Re-Inventing Luxury” at the Whitney Museum in New York. And I am hooked.

Bangle is best known for his time at BMW where he was instrumental in shaking things up and introducing novel design quirks that many other carmakers subsequently adopted. Since leaving the Bavarian company over a decade ago, Bangle has been running his own design consultancy, Chris Bangle Associates, from near Turin in Italy where his team continue to explore vehicle and transport design and ask fundamental questions surrounding the role of design.

Bangle believes we are focusing on the wrong area. We can’t reassess the meaning of, say, luxury as we forge a more sustainable future without fundamentally rethinking design and the human designer. His essential argument is that design is caged in its meaning in the machine age. “Design, as it is now, rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold idea of the machine-made. We must jettison even the look of the machine age — full stop,” he says.

Design continues to live in the world of the machine. But in the age of machine learning, AI and so on, does the human designer still need to be thinking creatively as a machine? Only through liberation from these chains can design help shape a better future. And this requires a fundamental shift.

Bangle uses a dramatic example in a humble teapot, one that foreshadowed the machine age look that is still with us but was in fact designed three decades before the birth of modernism. When you listen deeply to such an object and let that guide your actions, you are no longer outside the narrative looking in, but rather part of the storytelling. He explains, “you begin to design diegetically, inside the narrative, then suddenly design processes become wonderful design adventures.”

I’m reminded of the work of Isamu Noguchi, one of the most lyrical artists/designers of the last century, whose life was dedicated to sculpting the world he wished to inhabit. He too advocated listening to the stone, the object, the space. Noguchi saw sculpture as a means of creating harmony between humans, industry and nature and thus improving how we live, writing: “art for me is something which teaches human beings how to become more human”.

Bangle concludes his Whitney speech on a high note. Re-inventing design, he observes, need not be a negative. “It will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to. I am convinced design will succeed at redeeming itself; it will be thrilling and it happens when we stop fussing over the ‘whats’ we can create and move on the ‘why’ of what we should create.”

Having spent much of the pandemic period wrapped up in discussions on the role of design and the meaning of luxury as we forge a new world, I needed to know what one of the most curious contemporary designers — with a portfolio that spans cars and industrial design to animation — can reveal about the subject. And so, we connect.

Nargess Banks: You’re making a compelling case for using this opportunity in time to re-invent design, to see this as a new epoch and to embrace its possibilities. I like the positive note. I also admire the call to action. What made you and your design theorist son, Derek, write this speech and why now?  

Chris Bangle: It is the culmination of many discussions we have had about the inadequacy of design to address the needs of the future. It’s a subject I had been considering for years, but it began to become formalized in 2019 when I was invited by the German government to give the wrap-up speech on design’s point of view for the symposium, “The Future of Man-Machine Co-Existence”. 

Many of us are thinking about the accelerating changes around us, shaping a world that “design” is supposed to help us find meaning in. If you really look hard at design — and by this I mean not just the application of its processes but also the theory and philosophy behind it — you will find it to be totally unprepared, even strategically misdirected, for the task. 

The last time we had one of these discussions, this exact time last year, you had also collaborated with Derek on a discourse on car design. I’m sensing these discussions are helping shape and evolve your own creative thinking.

Derek has a younger person’s point of view in all this and it was he who coined the term Original Sin 2.0 to describe the shift in the meta-narrative that is arriving. But we both recognize that even though design is a child of the machine age, it should serve humanity first. The Pratt Institute invitation seemed like the right opportunity to collate our thinking, format it so I could deliver the message in a tight timeframe and hopefully launch it into the right talking space, so the discussion we know must happen can begin, sooner than later.

I agree in that the discussion around the fundamental role of design and thus the designer has not radically altered since its peak in the machine age. Can you explain why design, as we know it, lacks the power to change the problems of the future?  

Because, to put it bluntly, for too long design has been the chief advocate of the other side — the “machines for living” that serve us and surround us. The entire focus and scope of design is to make what machines like to make come to fruition. Therefore, design needs to make us like/prefer/prioritize what machines make. Design lets industry make more, faster, better, cheaper. But who today can honestly say the idea of “better” when the Bauhaus was formed is still our idea of better now? Or that whatever makes things “cheaper” are worth the hidden costs? Or that “more” and “faster” are doing the planet any good? 

So, we’re essentially attaching values to design that are obsolete. And you’re saying by doing so, we cannot move forward.

Can the values of design that were codified ten generations ago and that have driven consumer-societies into gross injustices and disenfranchised whole demographics really be the ones that will address the planetwide human condition in the future? 

I agree, but why then use the concept of luxury to make the point for re-inventing design?

Luxury has always been a sort of ultimate end to the design spectrum. To keep the elitist nature of that concept there will be a price to pay everywhere — luxury too must enfranchise and empower real human beings.

The change is beyond adding a layer of craftsmen and women; it goes deep into the process we cling to for efficiency’s sake and vocabularies of form and surface we apply to our creations. Like I said in my speech, we must jettison even the look of the machine age. Full stop. Even when we know it is a real human being working hard and handcrafting something we treasure, we hold them to standards that are machine qualities: precision, volume-to-cost, surface perfection and fit-and-finish quality. Basically, once we so-called creatives in design sign something off, everyone from there on down in the production chain is slaved to a machine’s idea of what is good — if, that is, there are still people in that chain. 

So, we need to fundamentally rethink our associations and expectations of good and bad design?

All the characteristics of design’s processes and the values we embrace are wedded to this idea that the immaculate of machine made is preferable to the fallible imperfection of man. We are entering the age of Original Sin 2.0, when the effects of our interactions with our fellow man will be the deciding factor not only behind what is “good”, or shows “quality”, but what will be “allowable”. The chief advocate of the machine age hasn’t the tools, the process, or even the mindset to put people first.

You need to explain this concept of Original Sin 2.0…

The idea is a Christian one; that because of Adam and Eve’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden all their “children” are born in a debt condition. The first couple acquired forbidden knowledge and it is up to every one of us to demonstrate through our faith and good works that we are worthy keepers of this ill-gotten gain. That’s the general idea.

And now Eden is totally in our hands. We are fully in the Anthropocene era and all of us are once again “born” in a debt condition, but this time to the planet and everyone and everything on it. It is not a blame game about who’s ancestors burned more natural resources, or any of the other hot topics of redress and justice that consume us. Rather it is a universal negative balance that all of us must work to put right. That is Original Sin 2.0.

I need to ask, what role does design and the human designer play in this Original Sin 2.0 concept?

Only concentrating on carbon footprint or water conservation or any of a host of sustainability issues — while ignoring how well we manage the human engagement side of the ledger — will not cut it, especially when we awake to discover that we’re no longer the dominant sentient entities on this planet. 

It will finally dawn on design that people matter most and when that happens, the symbolism wrapped up in the machine age will be, if not passively rejected, actively dismantled as totems to a culture of disenfranchisement, injustice and inequality. This re-alignment of our priorities, and our basic value schemes that design operates within, will be enforced by all manner of inquisitions driven by Original Sin 2.0. And these inquisitors will have real teeth: the technologies that will allow anything that can be known to actually be known — and tracked and tagged with the names of those responsible and put on public display — means there will be no shadow of ignorance to hide in.

Surely design as a discipline is designed to react automatically and do the right thing?  

I will tell you flat-out: it cannot cope with the challenge of Original Sin 2.0 without a top-to-bottom make-over. This is what our speech at the Whitney called for. 

For a long time, the machine age dealt with resources and human capital the way it wanted to. During this century-and-a-half of innocence, ignorance and irresponsibility, design has served us well as the front line of capitalism and consumerism. But these two phenomena are not known for making the sort of long-term planet saving/humanity salvaging decisions we need to make now.

I couldn’t agree more in that design must take a hard look in the mirror and make a decision as to which camp it wishes to belong to.

Design pays lip service to the human contribution, particularly that of the artisan — who should indeed be praised and valued — while devoting its philosophies and practices to dismantling all the human links in the chain of production in the search of cheaper, faster, better. Design, as it is now, rejects humanity, preferring in every way, shape and form the cold ideal of the machine-made. 

The commandments and principles of “good design” read like a roadmap to “true perfection” — a noble goal for a machine but synonymous with death for humans who are at their best when they are “human”. 

That is not to say that design examples of “all that is human” do not exist, but perhaps they should be better labeled art. To learn from art is a noble undertaking, but we believe the art of Kintsugi (golden joinery and the Japanese art of mending broken pottery) is a much better reference for how design should approach solutions. Yet you would be hard pressed to find a way to fit that philosophy into design as it is formalized today.

That makes perfect sense. But what happens next? What should designers do? What’s your call to action?

As I confessed in the speech, I don’t have answers ready to dole out. For over a century, we designers have been the key to taking the human out of the loop of anything manufactured. Now we should put human engagement first. But where to begin? 

I can only ask for the culture of design — beginning with how it is taught — to open itself up to a dialogue that will honestly admit the scope of the abyss we are staring into and the lack of means at our disposal to deal with it. Then we do what explorers have always done when confronted by the unknown and assaulted by factors out of their control: we summon our courage and buckle down and step off the stable dock and sail off on an adventure. 

I like the upbeat tone.

I’m not a downer about all this. I consider this a fantastic opportunity to do some serious design research. This is a chance to unleash new parameters of bringing meaning and significance into peoples’ lives. 

Your project for the German government looks at man-machine co-existence. I’m intrigued with your simple proposition to re-employ humans in the factories where they were muscled out by robots. Yet, instead of competing with machines, they would do what humans do best: lateral thinking, using skills and imagination to rethink existing products to have other lives — what you term nicely “a turbocharged version of up-spiralling” with machines filling in the blanks spaces.

Our studio is experimenting with the concept we call Second Existence or 2E. It is a first draft of how governments can take positive action alongside of design to change priorities and the money flow needed to get new “unmanufacturing” opportunities moving. And we have begun mapping the territory. We have found new words to help us understand uncharted lands full of new ideas, words like diegetic design and objectomy

Well known landmarks of design are easy to plot and tough to let out of sight, but it’s the one’s marked “here there be dragons”, those zones where design fears to tread, where we will have to go to find the answers. 

I like that you end your speech on a positive note saying, “it will be the greatest creative challenge design has ever responded to”. What is design and the design community afraid of? 

They say that instead of ordering a person to build a boat, you should inspire them to love the sea. The boat then will happen naturally. To address the challenge of Original Sin 2.0, design needs to come to grips with what it loves. Admittedly, being in “love with stuff” is often an easier and preferable love to that of dealing with our fellow man. 

The current political and social climate has brought out the most intolerant, vicious, tribal, egotistical and irresponsible behavior in humanity. Many would say that design is complicit in this tragedy, leveraged by capitalism to create vast arrays of attacks on our cognitive self-regulatory systems.

At its most substrative level, capitalism succeeds by exploiting selfishness in our neurochemistry. That’s why it needs design to trigger the release of dopamine and the rest of those “reward” chemicals. But there are two wolves inside all of us: design is an enabler and it could just as well use those neurochemicals to reward selflessness and goodness. It is up to us to choose which wolf to feed.

Read my previous talk with Chris Bangle.