James Auger, practice-based design researcher and director of the Department of Design at the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay (ENS) examines the social, cultural and personal impacts of technology and the products.
This text is about designed objects, or more specifically “the superlative object” – objects of design that somehow achieve an elevated status. The central thesis is that by placing such a high cultural value on the object, the systems and resources behind its realisation are largely allowed to be hidden from view, ignored or unconsidered. This elision gives mainstream design an enormous advantage over alternative approaches, as all the available means – global resources, neo-liberal labour practices, highly sophisticated manufacturing and marketing methods, intricate supply chains and the latest technological advances – can be exploited to achieve the celebrated end. How can more ethical or ecological design processes compete – when only the end product, the superlative object, is the subject of evaluation?
In Mythologies, in 1957, Roland Barthes describes the elevation of object status through the example of the Citroën DS, the “Goddess” – “a superlative object”. He comments on the seamless perfection of the vehicle, likening it to the “unbroken metal” of science-fiction spaceships and even to the smooth and seamless robes worn by Christ. Barthes’ emphatic words somewhat anticipated the sealed and sacred nature of contemporary status objects, in the sense that seams, he argues, reveal the hand of the (human) maker, therefore suggesting that the DS is beyond human – an immaculate conception (the closest French translation of design) and the ultimate dislocation of the object from its manufacture. Similar claims could be made on behalf of the latest Apple product (perhaps the best example of a contemporary superlative object), based on the complete absence of all visible forms of assembly (and from a repair point of view, disassembly).
In 1972, Charles Eames provided the following description of design: “[a] plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose.” From this starting point we can make the following observations:
1. The verb “design” has become increasingly separated from the verb “make”. As a consequence, the practice of planning has become reduced to moving shapes around on a screen, whilst the arranging of (physical) elements happens in increasingly complex technical systems. Design is dislocated from making.
The designers of today’s superlative objects follow both Morris and Bel Geddes’s lead in that they remain obsessively connected to the manufacturing process. However, the complexity and expense of the machines that do the making have grown exponentially. In a video showing the manufacturing process of the iPhone 5, designer Jony Ive describes how “with the parts on a conveyor, two high-powered cameras take pictures of the [phone] housing, an instantaneous analysis is done and then the best match out of a possible 725 cuts is determined.” He goes on to state that the Apple belief is that “going to such extreme lengths is the only way that we can deliver this level of quality”. Whilst Apple’s approach clearly leads to the elevated status of their products, the machinery at their disposal gives them an enormous advantage over those with humbler tools.
2. The material elements used in contemporary designed artefacts (e.g., rare earths) have become increasingly global and out of reach of the individual.
In this case we can trace the origins of the designer’s use of elements back to the colonial era. Chandler notes that at the time of the 1855 World’s Fair, “the French attitude is a mixture of pure greed and the dawning sense of the ‘civilizing mission’ of France: Africa will supply the raw materials; and in return, France will supply the most precious of all commodities: French civilization”. Turning again to the iPhone, it comprises 75 of 118 elements from the periodic table (the human body is made up of around 30). In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Brian Merchant described the pulverizing of an iPhone and then analysing the resulting dust using mass spectrometry, X-ray fluorescence and infrared analysis. He suggests that to obtain the 100 or so grams of minerals found in a single iPhone, miners around the world have to dig, dynamite, chip and process their way through about 75 pounds of rock on nearly every continent.
3. The functional purpose of contemporary designed artefacts has become increasingly dependent on global infrastructure systems, thus perpetuating established power structures.
In The History of the Future, Goodman describes how the invention of electricity was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the coming machine age. By the 1940s, 90% of American homes were connected to the electricity grid. This in turn led to many new domestic products – all electrically standardised via the sockets they plugged into, and all dependent on the expanding infrastructure. Contemporary products today are reliant on far more complex systems than the electricity grid; for example, the GPS system on mobile phones is owned by the US Government and operated by the United States Air Force. Anything from thermostats (e.g., Nest) to vehicles (e.g., Tesla) are increasingly reliant on, and controlled by, connection to the internet.
4. The aesthetic purpose of contemporary designed artefacts has become deeply entwined with the manipulation of human desires via marketing practices – a process whose complexity has increased exponentially with the layering on of technological manipulation through big data, surveillance, and algorithmic control (Susser et al., 2019).
This is not a new practice. Redgrave likened the French Goods at the 1855 Paris Exhibition to the “gilded cakes in the booths of our country fairs, no longer for use, but to attract customers”. In Objects of Desire, Adrian Forty affirms that, for a product to be successful, it must incorporate the ideas that will make it marketable. This results in manufacturing goods “embodying innumerable myths about the world, myths which in time come to seem as real as the products in which they are embedded”. Contemporary superlative objects typically gain their status not from how they look or function, but rather what they represent (and this is notoriously fickle).
5. The plans for designing contemporary artefacts are typically iterative in nature. This facilitates and maintains the current approach to economic growth via generational products.
According to the economist Robert Heilbroner, “All inventions and innovations … appear essentially incremental, evolutionary. If nature makes no sudden leaps, neither, it would appear, does technology”. And as a consequence, neither do technological products – this limits the designer to developing only what the current product could realistically evolve into. In reality it is a mechanism employed by corporations to: maintain lucrative generational economic models, extend the life of production lines, pander to conservative tastes through risk-avoidance, facilitate rapid object obsolescence, and encourage various forms of brand loyalty. There is nothing to suggest, however, that the decisions made many product generations ago were the ideal ones. Whilst natural organisms cannot be freed from their genealogical lineages, technological artefacts certainly can.
To fully understand the power of industrial design, it is necessary to understand its relation to the modern economy and the constraints that this imposes. The true purpose of industrial design is ultimately to sell more products. It uses all available methods to achieve this – global resources, cheap labour, complex manufacturing methods, the latest techniques – all disguised beneath the glossy façade of a well-designed surface. This formula has been perfected over the past century, and it is therefore a gargantuan challenge to provide viable alternatives.
By the 1960s and 70s, designers were realising the role they played in merely facilitating the growth of consumer capitalism – and some began to question and resist this role. In the words of Superstudio’s Adolfo Natalini: “If design is merely an inducement to consume, then we must reject design”. Whilst Italy’s Radical Designers chose a critical approach to mainstream design, others sought more constructive solutions.
Enzo Mari’s Autoprogettazione is particularly inspiring for the way he combined a rigorous critique of modern modes of production with a tangible but also “well-designed” practical proposition. He asked: “How is it possible to change the state of things? … How is it possible to accomplish the deconditioning of form as a value rather than as strictly corresponding to content? The only way I know of … is what becomes possible when critical thought is based on practical work”.
It is also encouraging to see, in recent years, the remarkable resurrection of Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World. Papanek’s own words, in the preface to the second edition, offer some suggestions as to why his book gradually found broader acceptance. Listing the problems experienced by the city of Detroit, including high unemployment and unusually cold winters, as well as a global energy shortage, he concludes that “maybe we learn best from disasters.” Like Mari, Papanek devotes extensive thought not only to critique but also to “how it could be.” More recent approaches such as the Maker Movement also represent means through which we can deliver more appropriate ends though a technical expansion of more traditional approaches like DIY, and in turn, promote activities such as tinkering, hacking and repair, as well as the creation of new objects and devices.
Whilst all of the above present viable alternatives to mainstream design – and in the case of Mari, even approach the level of the superlative object – their impact on popular culture has been little felt, and they continue to exist mainly as hobbyist activities or niche cultural projects.
Such alternative approaches address (in some way) the key issues described above. However, the application of more considered and appropriate means constrain the possibility of what can be made, both in terms of material and functional performance. This observation, to an extent, explains their limited impact – unethical approaches make better superlative objects.
Based on this observation, the key challenges may be stated as follows:
First, the deskilling of generations of young people, as secondary and tertiary education focuses too exclusively on new ways of making such as 3D printing and laser cutting. This form of “Taylorisation” dramatically limits the scope of what can be made and by whom.
Second, most consumers have grown too accustomed to superlative generational objects to accept the typical (low-design) DIY aesthetic. Therefore, unless (or until) consumer values shift, DIY cannot compete with the mass-produced objects of multinational corporations, which are artificially infused with an aura of magic.
Third, DIY by necessity places a focus on the local and available, thus narrowing the scope of what can be made under current (formidable) expectations of scale and performance.
And fourth, the complexity and inaccessibility of technical infrastructure limits what can be made and what can function independent of these systems.
As Morozov points out, paraphrasing Mary Dennett’s early critique of Arts and Crafts, these shortcomings are best explained not as failures of aesthetics, but simply of economics.
Design creates desire. If, in the past, design has been used to encourage consumption and to make consumer goods more desirable, then, in the future, we must enlist design in the fight to bring our desires more closely in line with our needs. Moreover, as Eriksen points out, while it is difficult to identify a powerful single alternative to the neoliberal world order, smaller scale alternatives and pockets of resistance are many and varied; they tend to be “embedded, sprawling and diverse.” As Eriksen argues, “the complaints are universal and global, while the solutions are particular and local”.
In theory, if not always in practice, DIY represents a perfect union: of bringing making to the average person, on one hand, while simultaneously preserving the aura of craft – and making visible the process or means that mass production destroys – on the other. The Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin recognised that capitalism would inevitably seek to exploit the possibilities of a mass medium like film, using it to pacify and manipulate rather than empower people. Similarly, many of the techniques of mechanical production could be used by everyone, but they are increasingly kept hidden and out of reach through deskilling, black boxing, and the manipulation of desires through advertising. Corporations manufacture artificial auras for their superlative objects, obscuring their origins and the human hands that make them. The question is, can we reshape this socially constructed nexus of values, shifting consumers away from supporting destructive practices and towards more engaged, visible, and ecological processes?
James Auger is the director of the department of design at the École normale supérieure Paris-Saclay (ENS) and co-director of the Centre de Recherche en Design, a laboratory jointly run by ENS and ENSCI Les Ateliers. His practice-based design research examines the social, cultural and personal impacts of technology and the products that exist as a result of its development and application. Running parallel to his academic work, James is a partner in the speculative design practice Auger-Loizeau, a collaboration founded in 2000. Auger-Loizeau projects have been published and exhibited internationally, including MoMA, New York; 21_21, Tokyo; The Science Museum, London; The National Museum of China, Beijing and Ars Electronica, Linz. Their work is in the permanent collection at MoMA. James is co-author of Crap Futures, a blog he writes with Julian Hanna on subjects relating to design, futures, innovation, politics and technology.
 Barthes, R. (2009, p.101). Mythologies. Vintage Books.
 Barthes, R. (2009, p.101). Mythologies. Vintage Books.
 Eames, C. (1972). Design Q&A. https://www.eamesoffice.com/the-work/design-q-a/
 For some key figures in the Arts and Crafts movement (such as Ruskin and Walter Crane), the making of an object should happen totally under the hand of the designer, while others (including William Morris) believed that mechanisation was not negative in itself, and machines used well could improve the quality of the designed object.
 Bel Geddes described a design approach that completely incorporated the manufacturing process, advocating that the designer should “visit the client’s factory and determine the capacity and limitations of the machines and workers” (Goodman, D. (2008, p.92). A History of the Future. Monacelli Press).
 Apple Inc. (2012, September 14) iPhone 5 Manufacture processes [Video]. YouTube. https://youtu.be/W_tYDrBL0Dw
 Chandler, A. (1986, p.13). The French Universal Exposition of 1855. World’s Fair Magazine. 6(2). http://www.arthurchandler.com/paris-1855-exposition
 Merchant, B. (2017, July 23). Were the raw materials in your iPhone mined by children in inhumane conditions? Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-merchant-iphone-supplychain-20170723-story.html
 Goodman, D. (2008). A History of the Future. Monacelli Press.
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 Mari, E. (2014). Autoprogettazione. Corraini.
 Papanek, V. (2019). Design for the Real World. (3rd ed.) Thames & Hudson.
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 Previtali, F. S. and Fagiani, C. C. (2015). Deskilling and Degradation of Labour in Contemporary Capitalism: The Continuing Relevance of Braverman. Work Organisation, Labour & Globalisation. 9(1). 76-91. https://doi.org/10.13169/workorgalaboglob.9.1.0076
 Morozov, E. (2014, January 5). Making It. New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/13/making-it-2
 Eriksen, T. H. (2016, p.21). Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. Pluto Press.