ETHICAL AESTHETIC 
QUESTIONS for the DESIGNER
by Marvin Bartel  author bio

Various forms of this essay have been used in discussion with my students in classes in Art for Children, House Design, Senior Seminar, and Architectural Design

These are discussion starters. Not everything is included. What ethical and aesthetic questions are missing? Contact the author with your ideas and questions.

Question ONE - How do we reconcile individuality and conformity. 

These are conflicting values. How much individualism is good and how much conformity is good? How do our design decisions reflect both these needs? Mass produced items tend to show conformity in our culture in spite of the fact that individual freedom of choice is highly valued in our tradition. In many tribal cultures hand crafted items could show individuality, but are often conformist because group identity is very important. 

Do we realize the ways in which we are showing individual identity and conformity? What are the pros and cons of neighborhoods where all houses are nearly identical? How much control should neighbors place on each others aesthetic choices? If I must live in a dormitory or if I can only afford publicly subsidized housing, are their aspects of the design and identity of my residence that I can control and take responsibility for? 

To what extent should design communicate unique identity. How memorable should a design be? What makes design memorable--like a song that sticks in the mind?

Question TWO - How do we reconcile tradition and innovation?

We value permanence and tradition, but we also value creativity, change, improvement, and relevance to the time in which we live. How do our design choices reflect both of these concerns? What are the cultural reasons for our choices? How do we reflect this issue in what we design? If a design can stand the test of time, is it better than a new design that rejects old appearances because better materials and processes have been discovered or invented.

Question THREE - How do we reconcile needs to consume with needs to conserve?

We know that it requires resources to meet human needs, but we also value caring for resources. We have value conflicts between the economic and status seeking motivations for consumption and the ethics of conservation. What can we do to show more care and preserve things? How can we show care about resources as not something we use up but something we borrow from future users. 

Can we make aesthetics and conservation compatible? Does recycling automatically mean clutter and messy boxes in hallways, or are there beautifully designed solutions to encourage even diehards to recycle? Can we select materials and produce goods that last longer to cut down on consumption? What designs will endure and which will go out of date? How can we tell in advance? How many things do we make or acquire with the idea of it being so valuable that it can serve for more than one generation? What are the ethical issues around planned obsolescence which seems to be built into the business plan of most manufacturers as well as the psyche of most consumers? Are we conditioned to find pleasure in preservation of resources, or are we conditioned to find more pleasure in the consumption of resources and in the acquisition of more privately held stuff?

Question FOUR - What is proper role of single use and multiple use space in our constructed environment. 

What is the architectural decision here? Good architecture provides spaces where strangers interact to become friends. Maybe schools that serve lunch in multi-use gymnasium/cafeterias are inculcating children with an animalistic feeding frenzy attitude toward eating because of the noisy inappropriate inhumane place to eat. 

How should the eating place in a home be designed? We can design for social interaction, for quiet contemplation, or for noisy sensory stimulation during mealtime. When good design is applied to eating we change mealtime from the animal level of biological feeding to the esthetic experience of dining and conversation. Mealtime changes from stuffing the face to a holistic fulfilling experience including the social, sensory, and aesthetic experiences unique to the best our cultures have to offer. 

Think about a diner party with half dozen or so close friends eating in a fine dining room. Compare it with a typical school or even many family mealtime routines. Should a family eat around a table at a sit-down meal, or should they grab food on the run or sit at a bar for a few minutes while viewing the television? House design relates to family values. Designers can point out the effect of various choices. Multiple use spaces often can be effectively designed, but it is easier to make a single use space aesthetically appropriate and effective for an intended use. 

Question FIVE - Should we use materials honestly?

Today there is a serious integrity problem with much of our constructed and manufactured design. We live in a plasticland of contradictory and untruthful visual relationships. We can easily purchase Early American or Colonial furniture finished with plastic laminates that are so realistic that some can't be recognized as fake. How can we expect children to value honesty when their schools, homes, and churches are being furnished and built out of visual lies? Children growing up in an environment of pretense are being conditioned to excuse and rationalize fakery as quality. What they live with, has a quality surface appearance while its heart is actually sawdust covered with plastic pretending to be something it is not. 

Plastic can be given good design that does not need to look like another material to be beautiful. No matter how humble the material, honesty should always be considered more beautiful than pretense. Just as a piece of pine does not need to look like walnut to be beautiful, plastic does not need to look like ceramics or wood.  However, since plastic does not assert a certain color or a certain texture in the way that other materials do, some consumers and designers feel free to give it fake color and texture from nature.  On the other hand, there are products made from plastic that are honest in the sense that they could not be made from any product.  An iMac computer housing makes no attempt to look like another material, but many people find it very attractive.  With the help of capable designers, plastic as plastic can be aesthetically pleasing.  

Question SIX - Can we leave a place better than we found it?

Every person ultimately wants to leave the world a better place for having lived. What better philosophy of life could one imagine? 

Is the place more beautiful or uglier? If it is more beautiful, how sustainable is it? We know that nature sustains itself beautifully. What then can we design that is as beautiful and sustainable as nature? How much are we willing to commit to maintenance and preservation of constructed beauty? 

How can our creations motivate others to become involved in caring for things and protecting the beauty of things? Can we ask our employers and clients to consider the both the downstream and upstream costs and benefits of what they are building?  

Upstream refers to all the inputs required to create the product in the first place.  For example, if we make a concrete foundation from new cement, how much nonrenewable energy was used to process to mine and activate the cement and gravel used?  Is the strip mine area being reclaimed?  What if we would incorporate old broken sidewalks in our foundations and footers?  

Downstream refers to the effects of the disposal effects of what design. Nothing lasts forever. Ultimately, how is our building or product trashed, reused, recycled, remodeled, refinished, and so on?  When the components of some products decompose, hazardous byproducts result.  To what extent can designers make it easier to avoid damage to the world when their products and buildings are no longer used?

What about signage options? Can good design refrain from inflicting huge identity signs in the face of the community? Should we actively articulate and support laws in our communities to protect aesthetics from profiteering at the expense of quality of life concerns?  Clutter takes many forms.  The viewscape is a valuable part of the commons shared freely by all.  What gives a property owner have the right to destroy or devalue it?

Question SEVEN - Who cares and how is caring learned?

We often hear that we should use things and care for people. This is only half true. If we furnish our houses and schools with only indestructible, childproof, throwaway, and/or disposable objects; it teaches children to be careless in the use of things. On the other hand, if they use beautiful objects and something of value is damaged, a teachable moment occurs. Grief is expressed and real values are learned. Children learn about caring. When children learn to care for things, caring becomes habitual. It is extended to people. It fosters an attitude of caring. 

Old things, well made, accumulate the marks of use and maintenance. They get glued back together because they are made of the stuff that matters. These marks tell the stories and experiences of former users. New things need to be designed to wear well. To give and take the hard knocks of caring use and maintenance. Too much of what we make or buy is aesthetically too thin. It does not wear well. It is not worth fixing. It is passed to the landfill before another generation has a chance to learn from it. 

Question EIGHT - How important is aesthetics compared to function?

Christians familiar with the Gospels will recognize a beautiful example of caring for Christ when Mary broke the expensive perfume in Christ's honor. It was an aesthetic experience unappreciated as a waste of resources by the disciples, but clearly endorsed and blessed by Christ. It is clear that all our needs are not met by bread (practical things and function) alone. Caring is often expressed through aesthetic means. Without the arts, our vocabulary of care and affection would be severely limited. 

Houses built purely for the sake of placing shelter over the maximum number of people will ultimately fail to meet their needs. If our life doesn't include the arts, we are but animals. Even animals often contrive shelters more beautiful than the design of some low-cost housing developments. Many high cost housing developments have oversized houses that boast about their size while only having skin deep beauty. 

Beauty cannot by itself make bad people into good people, but it is one of the positive influences on us. The universal love of beauty bears witness to the conviction universal goodness, and all people are basically good. On the other hand, we have seen countless examples of badly designed (not beautiful) "form follows function" public housing projects being demolished, first by their own inhabitants, and finally by carefully designed explosives. Design that is insensitive and uncaring does not work.

Design needs to reflect compassion, collaboration, empathy, and hope--not mere subsistence. Art gives a measure of self worth, identity, and hope, even where little else exists. Art sets us apart as special. Art is a part of our aware experience that only humans are privileged to have. To deny aesthetics for economic reasons or for practical considerations, does not make a better world. To affirm beauty and truth, even for the poorest of the poor points in the direction of value and  hope. In the end, design works best when every person participates in the design of their own places and products. Perhaps those of us learning design must observe, must listen, must respond, and must question what is bad when we can, but we must not impose. 


Additional reading:   Some the ideas discussed in this essay come from: 

  • Laura Chapman. Approaches to Art in Education, 1978. © Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, NY. Chapter 5. "Understanding the Role of Art in Contemporary Society. pp 92-116"
  • Charles Jencks. Architecture 2000: Predictions and Methods 1971 © Praeger, NY.

  Marvin Bartel, Ed. D. Emertius Professor of Art, Goshen College 1999 all rights reserved
updated June 13, 2011
ALL RIGHT RESERVED: For permission to print, or reproduce this essay, you must contact the author 
Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Emeritus Professor of Art
Goshen College, 1700 South Main St., Goshen IN 46526

Another version of this essay.
Art and Learning to Think and Feel - dedicated to leaving no mind behind.
This page has a large collection of essays, lessons, and ideas written by Marvin Bartel for teachers and parents.


 

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