Redesigning Design

I have been doing some “design thinking” (to use the currently fashionable term) which has led to an essay in New Geographies 09 (“Posthuman”) published out of the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 2017. It picks up some of the themes in my 1993 essay “Cultural Origins and Environmental Implications of Large Technological Systems,” which you can find elsewhere on this website. “Redesigning Design” is difficult (impossible?) to find online, so here is a copy that is very close to the published version.

Rosalind Williams
14 March 2017

Writing in 1994, in his overview of 20th century history titled The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm notes a proliferation of words beginning with “post”:

“When people face what nothing in the past has prepared them for they grope for words to name the unknown, even when they can neither define nor understand it. Some time in the third quarter of the century we can see this process at work among the intellectuals of the West. The keyword was the small preposition “after,” generally used in its latinate form “post” as a prefix to any of the numerous terms which had, for some generations, been used to mark out the mental territory of twentieth-century life.”

He lists examples: post-industrial, post-imperial, post-modern, and post-structuralist, among others. Adding the prefix “post” to familiar words, Hobsbawm concludes, signifies an event of consciousness:

“In this way the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it.”

The terms posthuman and posthumanism (with or without a hyphen) were just coming into fashion then. They have become much more common since and should be added to Hobsbawm’s list. Their meaning is cloudy, because essentially all these post-combinations are saying “I can’t find words for what is going on.” What is this “greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history”? This question, and not the specific term posthuman, will be the focus of attention here.

In the whole middle part of The Age of Extremes, Hobsbawm explains that for him the transformation is essentially the “death of the peasantry” in the third quarter of the twentieth century, when the Neolithic era, characterized by the harvesting of land and sea, ceased to be the material and cultural foundations of human life. Many other historians have defined the transformation as the vast expansion of productivity in the Industrial Revolution beginning in the late 1700s, extending through the Second Industrial Revolution and continuing in the still ongoing Information Revolution.

More recently, other historians have borrowed terms and concepts from geology to describe the transformation as the advent of the age of the Anthropocene. This label may be seen as a bold act of disciplinary border-crossing—or as an admission that traditional historical language is inadequate to express new historical events. On the other hand, the language of natural history is inadequate for describing human history. Its time constants are far too sweeping to fit the temporal scales of human experience. The evidence it seeks in stratigraphic and other geological markers rarely register struggles for power within the human species, much less the role of human consciousness in co-evolving with its habitat.

All these ways of looking at “the greatest and most dramatic, rapid and universal transformation in human history” have this in common: they describe its essential feature as the creation of a new habitat for human existence. Since the emergence of the species, non-human nature has been the ground of human life. The relationship between figure and ground—or, better yet, figure and surround–has shifted so that now we dwell in a hybrid world, in which human-generated technologies and the given world are inextricably mixed. In this new habitat, humans start processes—biological, meteorological, and radioactive, to take some examples–that would never have happened on the planet without us. We are not the only agent in our habitat, but we are the primary agent. The substance of this great transformation is humankind’s creation of a new habitat, which humans dominate but do not control.

How do we talk and therefore think about this as a historical event? Usually we do so from the outside, using as evidence things and systems we have made and continue to make and operate: plows, mills, knives, steamboats, photographs, computers, highways, spacecraft, and so much more. The re-creation of our habitat through making and using all these material things has been a process taking place in many dimensions with many complicated feedback loops. At moments, however, these processes crystallize into events that make us realize what is happening over large stretches of time and space. These are events that, in Hobsbawm’s words, show that the transformation of the human habitat has “entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it.”

Such an event of consciousness took place in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within the space of a few decades, the great, centuries-long project of the modern West–the mapping of the planet, as “mapping” was defined by the mappers themselves–drew to a close. World atlases of the time show that just a few areas of the globe (most notably the Poles and the interior of Africa) had not been surveyed. The map implicitly proclaimed that soon these “empty places” would soon be filled in. The notable features of the lands and waters of the globe would be known. The great project of the Renaissance, the surveying of the entire planet, would soon be accomplished.

Americans learn about this event as “the closing of the frontier” (famously described as such by Frederick Jackson Turner in an 1893 lecture to the American Historical Association). It was not just the American frontier that would soon be gone, however. Everywhere around the globe, lightly populated lands were being brought into markets, technological systems, and political oversight. This process involved more than a “scramble for Africa.” It brought a speedy and final end to indigenous peoples all over the world, in a relentless genocide due to a revolution in firearms. The mapping of the planet went with a global invasion of Western civilization, so-called.

But if mapping and conquest of the planet was regarded as a great triumph by many Westerners, it was also a source of anguish for them. Henceforth there would be precious little space available for adventure, discard, refuge, and experimentation. More and more would the planet be dominated by human desires, needs, and actions. The end of the age of exploration opened a new age of geography, when the world is both known and closed.

This event of consciousness is the context—not a cause, but an important element of historical context–for the emergence of design as a key word and concept. Design is something humans have done since the Neolithic. (Indeed, the very concept of a “new stone age” is based on the design of stone tools.) The end of the world frontier, however, raised consciousness of the opportunities and necessities of better organizing the known world to fit human needs and desires. What is new in the late nineteenth century is the emergence of design as a conscious project, with articulated goals and methods, offering new ways to explore and take control in a new habitat.

As the age of exploration was drawing to a close, the word and concept of design changed dramatically. Before then, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, neither as a verb nor a noun did design have anything like its current meaning. As a verb, from its first appearance around 1400, design had the meaning of appointing, nominating, or designating. Later on the verb could refer to planning or intending, but only in the mind. As a noun, design appeared in the late 1500s, but again referring to a plan conceived in the mind. The use of the word as having something to do with a sketch, drawing, or physical plan emerged only in the late 1600s. And only in the mid to late nineteenth century did design assumes its current meaning, in referring to the arts of drawing or sketching, the processes of modeling and constructing, and planning features of an object in conformity with aesthetic or functional criteria.

At the same time new professions, arts, manufactures, and markets emerged that proclaimed themselves to be organized around design. The sequence is especially notable in Britain, where there is a clear and striking series of episodes: the role of Owen Jones in the decoration of the London Great Exhibition of 1851, the influence of John Ruskin, the work and ideas of the Pre-Raphaelites, the career of William Morris, and the founding of the Century Guild and of the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society. In the later nineteenth century this stream of events broadened into the Arts and Crafts movement, and eventually Art Nouveau, as practices, ideals, and forms spread to the Continent and the Americas and beyond.

This is not the place to follow this story into the twentieth century and twenty-first centuries. It is enough here to point out that the rise of design consciousness has continued to expand and intensify to this day. One of the markers would surely be the founding of the Harvard Graduate School of Design under that name in 1936. Another might be the even more recent convergence of engineering education and design education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which in 2016 began a new Minor in Design, and which has, in the words of its current president, “taken steps to promote design thinking across the Institute through the lens of problem setting.”

What is consistent in all this history is the tone of celebration for the brave new world of design, with its open frontiers and boundless opportunities. This tone is expressed in the statement of purpose for this journal, New Geographies, which begins:

“The journal…aims to examine the emergence of the geographic—a new but for the most part latent paradigm in design today—to articulate it and bring it to bear effectively on the agency of design…. It is time to consider the expanded agency of the designer.”

The editors of New Geographies want the journal to ask how “design practices can have a more active and transformative impact on the forces that shape contemporary urban realities.”

Thinking of design in such ambitious terms comes from awareness that human domination of the planet requires and offers a much greater role for human design. What challenges, and what opportunities! But here too the sense of triumph is muted by a sense of anxiety, even anguish. As the scope of design keeps expanding and evolving, it inevitably reduces the scope of the undesigned world as a source of inspiration and knowledge. Inevitably, too, the expanded agency of the designer may prove unmatched to the power of historical forces such as those that “shape contemporary urban realities.”

Let us look at some of the complexities of this new design consciousness by focusing on William Morris (1834-1896), arguably the individual most responsible for its rise of design in the nineteenth century, both in theory and in practice. No one presents a broader, deeper vision for the future of design—but no one better understands its limits.


In 1883, when Morris filled out his membership card for the Democratic Federation (later the Socialist Democratic Federation), he identified himself in one word: “Designer.” Twenty years earlier, when he had started out in life upon graduating from Oxford, he had taken an apprenticeship in an architectural firm. It lasted only nine months, partly because he was tempermentally unsuited the tedium of office work, and partly because he had higher ambitions. Morris had discovered Ruskin while a student at Oxford. Towards the end of a revelatory tour of Gothic cathedrals in northern France, on the docks of Le Havre, Morris and his travel companion and friend Edward Burne-Jones vowed to dedicate themselves to “a life of art.”

For Burne-Jones, art meant painting. For Morris, it was not so clear what his art would be. Over time, under the influence of Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and his own defiant spirit, Morris was increasingly drawn to the “lesser arts” of decoration, committing himself to narrowing the distinction between them and the fine arts. He would later write, in an essay titled “The Lesser Arts,” that he wanted to “help bring forth decorative, noble, popular art.” Such art would sanctify the human-built world:

“That art will make our streets as beautiful as the woods, as elevating as the mountain-sides: it will be a pleasure and a rest, and not a weight upon the spirits to come from the open country into a town… ”

The artistic brotherhood slowly evolved into a creative collective. In 1861, along with six others of this group, Morris founded a decorative arts company that became known simply as The Firm. At the outset, the Firm primarily executed commissions for wall paintings and papers, stained glass, metalwork, jewelry, sculpture, embroidery and furniture. The painters among the group were commissioned to produce drawings for stained-glass windows or tapestries. Morris’s architect friend Philip Webb designed sturdy simple furniture. The Firm used flexible production methods for a specialty market. Some items were made by hand; other items were produced by machinery in the Firm’s workshops or were outsourced to other manufacturers.

As the business grew, the Firm moved to various locations in and around London. Eventually in 1875 Morris took over sole management of what became Morris & Co. He was the epitome of the hands-on manager. In developing new lines of business, and also for his own pleasure, he took up one art after another, teaching himself oil painting, calligraphy, embroidery, and illumination, among others. As a more or less conventional designer, his strongest talent lay in creating patterns for two-dimensional products like fabrics, carpets, and wallpapers. He would hand-sketch the patterns, adding to the side directions for the colors of each detail of the drawing, identifying the threads or paints by number.

But for Morris the work of design extended to all steps of the manufacturing process. Since most of the fabric and paper production was outsourced, he worked closely with the manufacturers to make sure the dyes were true and that they were correctly adjusted to the different materials being printed. He got interested in dyeing wools for tapestries and carpets. He researched the water flow around the mill sites to be sure they would be adequate handling the dyeing vats as well as running the machinery. Morris became interested in weaving techniques displaced by those of mass production. Eventually he installed a loom in his bedroom at his London home, where he enjoyed the rhythmic labor of handweaving.

For Morris, then, the work of design included design of the labor process. When he came out publicly as a socialist in an Oxford lecture in 1883–with Ruskin in the chair, and in shock to hear Morris’s declaration of himself as a revolutionary–the leading theme his lecture was “art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.” When the lecture was printed as a pamphlet, that theme was set forth boldly, on a separate line, in capital letters. The enemy of joy in labor, Morris declared, was not machinery but class division: not the “tangible steel and brass machine…but the great intangible machine of commercial tyranny, which oppresses the lives of all of us.” The Firm was his design for a business that would bring some pleasure to worker and consumer alike within the context of the greater machine of capitalism.

For Morris there was no contradiction between being an owner-manufacturer and a socialist. But there are contradictions between his “desire to produce beautiful things,” which engaged him as a designer-manufacturer, and his other two strongest desires: love for the non-human life of the earth and for human history. This tension is expressed most clearly in one of his best-known essays, “How I Became a Socialist,” written in 1894 at the request of the editor of the periodical Justice. In it Morris declares, “Apart from the desire to produce beautiful things, the leading passion of my life has been and is hatred of modern civilization.” He then goes on to describe how downcast he felt before his “conversion” to socialism because “modern civilization” seems to be destroying the two things he cares about most: “a deep love of the earth and the life on it, and a passion for the history of the past of mankind.”

The “beautiful things” that Morris designed were intended to provide connections, for him and for others, with the life of the earth and with the human past. But no matter how much they resist the oncoming tide of “modern civilization,” the tide keeps coming: it is stronger than the designs are. Over and over again, in his letters and talks, Morris expresses his dismay that junky buildings are encroaching everywhere; that cathedrals are being “restored” in false and ugly ways; that the forests and rivers are being channeled and trimmed into well-manicured parks; that wonderful stories of human heroism and devotion are being lost and forgotten; that a lovely city like Oxford is being cut up and developed. While Morris was not conventionally religious, he saw the world and the past as sacred precincts constantly being profaned.

Worse yet, to some extent the designer is complicit in this process. His or her designs may be beautiful, but they still have a role in the constant extension of human presence, in the constant acceleration of human conquest of the planet. They are inherently, unavoidably, associated with humankind and the present, rather than non-human nature and the past. Just as mapping the world devours the unknown, so does the activity of design devour the undesigned, which Morris continues to value as a resource for art and a source of consolation and perspective.

Biographer E.P. Thompson analyzes Morris’s turn to socialism as his way of reducing the anxieties, depression, even despair that had accumulated in him over the years. Upon joining the socialist party in 1883, Morris wrote to a fellow Socialist that

“I have not failed to be conscious that the art I have been helping to produce would fall with the death of a few of us who really care about it, that a reform in art which is founded on individualism must perish with the individuals who have set it going.”

Morris spent most of his time speaking, writing, and organizing for the party, in the firm conviction that socialism would shape the forces of history in a way that design alone was not capable of doing. By the later 1880s, however, his energies were increasingly consumed by internecine quarrels among the British left. Morris never ceased to be a socialist, but he came to realized that the revolution would not come in his lifetime, and might not come for a long time afterwards.

Thompson concludes that “we may see in William Morris not a late Victorian, nor even a `contemporary,’ but a new kind of sensibility.” It is a sensibility shaped by the triumph of human empire, where delight in new mastery over the planet goes along with countless, endless experiences of change and loss. Human connections with nature and history always seem fragile. The expectation that the world will provide a stable, predictable platform for design cannot be taken for granted. Morris was pugnacious and energetic, but he lived with a constant sense of loss and of foreboding. He was bravely realistic in accepting the fact, as he saw it, that he was fighting a losing battle.

The example of Morris suggests that design is not just a new profession, a new way of transforming the world through art, but also a new consciousness: reveling in the broad new possibilities for human powers, but also constantly sensible of the prospects for loss and of the limits to design. To have the whole planet, and maybe some distanced beyond, available to design, can seem a wonderful thing—or a frightening thing—or both at the same time. Is the fully known world really a welcoming one for human life? Is the fully designed world one that is truly comfortable for us? Can design be redesigned to address loss and instability, or does it inevitably, if unintentionally, contribute to the burdens of “modern civilization”?

Morris himself responded to such questions by extending his activities of design in new directions. In the spring of 1890, when anarchists and other factions drove his group of socialists out of the party, Morris responded by finding two new outlets for his “life of art.” He shifted the focus of his design and manufacturing activities to bookmaking, which eventually became a new business venture, Kelmscott Press. He also started writing stories about the deep historical origins of just, equitable societies. The two projects merged when in 1891 he used the Press to publish as a book one of those stories, The Story of the Glittering Plain.

This turn to story-telling was by no means sudden or surprising. From the time he entered university, Morris was what we would now call a folklorist. He retrieved, studied, translated, and disseminated romances, epics, and sagas from European and non-European sources. Eventually some of these tales formed the basis of a long poem, The Earthly Paradise, published in four parts between 1868 and 1870. It was a best-seller and became staple reading among the English Victorian bourgeoisie.

Morris himself moved on to folktales closer to what he considered an art of the people. He started reading Nordic sagas, first in translation and later in the original tongue, in collaboration with an Icelandic scholar. Morris immediately took to their “delightful freshness and independence of thought…the air of freedom…their worship of courage (the great virtue of the human race,) their utter unconventionality…” He began to write stories about early Europe, experimenting with various mixtures of prose and poetry. He wanted to go back in time before the rise of the Roman Empire, to retrieve the sense of freedom he imagined there when European tribes still ruled themselves. Morris also went into the future in his imagination, writing a utopian prose romance, News from Nowhere, that imagines a society connected with the life of the earth and with the human past.

At the same time he was writing News from Nowhere, Morris was working on another project, a sort of fairy tale. He wrote to his wife, “I have begun another story but do not intend to hurry it—I must have a story to write now as long as I live.” This was the story that would eventually be published, first serially and then by Kelmscott Press, under the title The Story of the Glittering Plain. One scholar has written about it that this brisk and engaging story is entirely original in style and story: “It is simply unlike anything else in English literature before it.” In it Morris designs a coherent, independent habitat, earthlike, but not identifiable as any place on earth, that presents an engaging field for action, learning, and heroism. In subsequent stories, Morris invented a whole series of new geographies. The importance of their imagined boundaries between land and water are evident in the titles: The Well at World’s End, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, The Wood Beyond the World, and The Sundering Flood.

These stories are the prototype of a whole new type of design: alternative worlds that can be inhabited by the reader, or viewer, or player. In the next generation, J.R.R. Tolkien, deeply influenced by Morris as linguist, folklorist, and writer, would call them Secondary Worlds. Today they are called fantasies, and Morris is respected as a pioneer fantasist. For Morris, they are realistic visions of what human life could and should be like. They provide a setting for how humans should live, when the actually existing world of “modern civilization’ does not.

This synthesis of two kinds of design—of Secondary Worlds, and of splendidly crafted books–occupied William Morris from 1890 until his death in 1896. Although he did not see the socialist revolution on the horizon, he was not trapped by history. The worlds he invented offered a sense of possibility, a lessening of the sense of entrapment and bondage. “William Morris: Designer” redesigned design to include new geographies.

Design, as we know it today, is characterized by beliefs in the agency of the designer and in the potential of design to transform the human-built world for the better.

William Morris shared these convictions, but he also had strong doubts about them. He expanded the concept of design to include the labor process as part of the design process. Later he became a revolutionary Socialist because he believed design practice, no matter how broadly defined, could not bring about the collective changes that human life deserved. In the last years of his life he turned to designing imaginary worlds as settings for adventurous stories. He did this to nourish himself and others with comfort, inspiration and pleasure. He was no longer trying to change the world, but to enjoy and accept the world as it exists—a world, as he explained in a letter to a dear friend, that “goes on, beautiful and strange and dreadful and worshipful.”

Morris’s brave realism, his coming to terms with the forces of modern civilization without illusion or evasion, provides a model for designers today who face political and environmental problems that seem and to some extent may be insoluble. One response to these problems is to keep expanding the scope of design to new things and systems: more of the same, but with grander scale and scope. Morris’s example suggests that another response. Giving design the burden of changing history may be too heavy a load for it to bear. There may be other ways that design can make the world a better place through rethinking what design means and does.

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1996 [1994], 278.
Ibid., 288. Hobsbawm’s passage echoes the title of one of the best-known books on this topic, Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation, first published in 1944 as The Origins of Our Time, with The Great Transformation as a subtitle. Later the phrases were reversed, in a 2001 edition titled The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our time. The term and debates about it continue in lively fashion: see Johan Schot, “Confronting the Second Deep Transition through the Historical Imagination,” Technology and Culture 57:2 (April 2016): 445-456.

For a summary of the intellectual history of these terms, see Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xi-xxxiv.
Hobsbawm, 289.
See discussion in Rosalind Williams, “The New Human Habitat,” in Retooling: A Historian Confronts Technological Change (Cambridge MA and London: The MIT Press, 2002), 19-26. Like Hobsbawm, I call upon the Neolithic Age as the closest reference point for the transformation of recent times (23-4). The distinction between domination and control has been explored by Michel Serres (“Our very mastery seems to escape our mastery”), especially in Serres with Bruno Latour, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans R. Lapidus (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995): 171-72.

Rosalind Williams, The Triumph of Human Empire (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), ix-xi, 9-11. The title of the well-regarded work by Paul N. Edwards, The Closed World (The MIT Press, 1988) is echoed here, though as its subtitle (Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America) suggests, this book does not focus on the events I am describing here.
MIT President Rafael Reif, “Design at MIT: Inventing Excellent Answers,” Spectrum, Winter 2017, p. 1. In January 2015 Hashim Sarkis, professor at the Harvard University GSD, was chosen as dean of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning.
Graeme Sutherland, “William Morris, Designer,” insert in Asa Briggs (ed.), William Morris: News from Nowhere and Selected Writings and Designs (London: Penguin 1962 [1984]), n.p.
William Morris, The Collected Work of William Morris, ed. May Morris, 24 vols., (London: Longman, Green, 1910-15), 22:26-27.
Williams, 154-57.
Ibid., 190-91. Examples of these drawings are found in Sutherland, passim.
Sutherland, n.p.
Briggs (ed.), 33 (the word “conversion”): 35-36
Williams, 228-29.
Briggs (ed.), 32; from a letter to Andreas Scheu.
Williams, 227.
Briggs (ed.), 31; from a letter to Andreas Scheu.
Williams, 215.
Richard Mathews, Worlds Beyond the World: The Fantastic Vision of William Morris (San Bernardino, Calif.: The Borgo Press, 1978), pp. 34-35.
Williams, Triumph, p. 223-27.
Quoted in Williams, 195, from Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for Our Time (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), pp. 363-64. The letter was written in 1876 to a beloved friend, but we do not know which one, and the letter was never sent.

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