Paper 2: Write a Design Manifesto

Personal Design Principles: An Approach to Future Design Projects and Work


In the fall of 2008, I began a very promising career on Wall Street. Fresh out of graduate school from an Ivy League university, armed with statistical models and naïve optimism, I was ready to conquer the financial world. I started my job on Monday, September 15th, 2008—one of the most historical days in modern times—the same day that the investment bank Lehman Brothers defaulted. The Lehman default, much like the Crash of 1929, radically changed the course of American history. It also changed my course; beginning a career in finance when the very institutions I was working for were, literally and figuratively, “on trial”, gave me great pause. I became hyper aware of the interconnectedness of the financial markets to our everyday lives and increasingly critical of the practices that govern these markets.  As the years went on, the crisis reached a global scale: the Euro-Zone Financial Crisis in 2009, the Greek protests and strikes and the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2010, the Egyptian Revolution and the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011. I realized I could no longer contribute to the economic engines that were creating such global unrest. I was called by an internal sense of responsibility to contribute to positive change in the world.         

I saw first hand how our global economic, financial, and technological systems, by virtue of their design and the values upon which they were crafted, not only control how we live, but inherently determine our future. But I also saw how we, humanity, by banding together as one with a common vision, have the power to change our future. It is within this context that I will outline a set of principles that govern my approach to design. In the words of the great designers Dunne and Raby: “[W]e need to move beyond designing for the way things are now and begin to design for how things could be, imagining alternative possibilities and different ways of being, and giving tangible form to new values and priorities.[1]


Ecology Above All Else


In his paper, Reasons to be Cheerful, Clive Dilnot outlines human history as it relates to the artificial, and breaks it into three distinct epochs. Most notably is the “Age of the Artificial,[2]” the period that we are currently living in, that Dilnot describes as the time when “the artificial and not nature is now the horizon, medium and determining condition of the world” (Dilnot, pg.5). He describes climate change, namely global warming, as one of the “destructive historical markers” of the “Age of the Artificial” and suggests that we are now defined by the Anthropocene Age[3]—the era where humans begin to impact the environment to such a degree that even the Earth’s geology is forever altered. This idea that our increasing dependency on and obsession with the artifice has directly resulted in a fundamental change of our planet’s ecosystem must dictate the direction that humanity moves toward into the 21st century. Thus, the primary axiom in the guiding principles of my design ideology is that, above all else, the ecology of the planet must be protected and sustained.

In 2013, after we surpassed a critical threshold[4] of atmospheric CO2, Martin Wolf published a series of articles[5] in the Financial Times (that, in fact, Dilnot references). Wolf suggested eight implementations for both G-10 and emerging countries to reduce our collective planetary C02 emissions. His ideas ranged in scope from simply implementing a global carbon tax to a wide spread shift (from coal and oil) to nuclear power plants. While his approach to addressing climate change is pragmatic, Wolf’s thinking is too narrow. His suggestions fall disappointingly within the constraints of a now archaic 20th century industrial-military-complex system. As designers—literally building the framework for our future society—we have to think more broadly and creatively.

On the other side of the spectrum from Wolf sits Jeremy Rifkin, who, in his essay about the Third Industrial Revolution, proposes a radical alternative:

The emerging Third Industrial Revolution…is organized around distributed renewable energies that are found everywhere and are, for the most part, free—sun, wind, hydro, geothermal heat, biomass, and ocean waves and tides. These dispersed energies will be collected at millions of local sites and then bundled and shared with others over a continental green electricity internet to achieve optimum energy levels and maintain a high-performing, sustainable economy. The distributed nature of renewable energies necessitates collaborative rather than hierarchical command and control mechanisms.[6]


While Rifkin does little to help us understand, practically speaking, how these new technologies will usher in a new age, his vision of a democratized future—based on distributed renewable energy and decentralized manufacturing powered by 3D printing—is one that has become fundamental to my design practice. He paints a picture of a future in which I very much want to live. It is this kind of thinking about “shifting the fulcrum of power from centralized global companies to distributed … enterprise networks…to arrive at a sustainable post-carbon era” (Rifkin, pg. 9) that I believe must be central to a set of 21st century design principles.


Do No Digital (or Otherwise) Harm


In stark contrast to Rifkin’s concept of “lateral scaling” that transfers power from mega-corporations to individuals is, from his book Who Owns the Future?, Jaron Lanier’s bleak notion that in the future

the biggest and best-connected computers [will] provide the settings in which information turns into money. Meanwhile trinkets tossed into the crowd spread the illusions and false hopes that the emerging information economy is benefiting the majority of those who provide the information that drives it.{C}[7]{C}


Lanier’s words are chillingly prescient when we examine the city of Songdo presented by Orit (et al) as a case study in the essay Test-Bed Urbanism[8]. As Lanier writes, “the problem is not the technology, but the way we think abut the technology” (Lanier, pg. 15). In Songdo, we have a real-life example of what is perhaps the epitome of everything that is wrong with our use of technology and the way we think about our future. While the problems with Songdo are too numerous to list in the context of this paper, one in particular is relevant: the view that people can/should be reduced to the data they provide. Orit observes:

For Cisco—like Facebook, Google, and other companies that attempt to link user behavior at the interface with consumer behavior in order to monetize their vast data sets—data are the currency of this new realm, a realm envisioned as an interface for inserting and extending the sensorium (Halpern, 282).


Corporations making profits from mining their customers’ data is a relatively new phenomenon, and, I believe, one for which we may not fully understand the broader implications. I cannot help but be reminded of 1984’s ”Big Brother” who was forever watching and controlling the population of Oceania. As a technology designer, I think it is imperative to think critically about our projects and to understand the implications of one’s own involvement. As Lanier writes in his book You Are Not a Gadget[9]:

[Technologists] make up extensions to your being, like remote eyes and ears (web-cams and mobile phones) and expanded memory (the world of details you can search for online). These become the structures by which you connect to the world and other people. These structures in turn can change how you conceive of yourself and the world… It takes a tiny group of engineers to create technology that can shape the entire future of human experience with incredible speed (Lanier, pg.5).


Thus, fundamental to my design principles is the idea that in building our designs or propagating an ideology with our work, we have a great responsibility to, like the physician code of non-maleficence, do no digital (or otherwise) harm. We cannot be motivated solely by profits. We have a duty to the future of mankind to ask questions. How will this work change human behavior? Will this work cause unforeseen social risks? Or as Bill Joy writes about nanotech in Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, am I “working to create tools which will enable the construction of the technology that may replace our species. How do I feel about that?[10]” Failure to consider the broader implications of our projects could result in, dare I say, a world full of Songdos whose inhabitants are merely “monetized” versions of our former human selves.


Design to Inspire


Critical thinking and analysis, specifically as it relates to the social and cultural landscape of users, must be the cornerstone of a designer’s work. In his essay Prototyping the Social: Temporality and Speculative Futures at the Intersection of Design and Culture[11] Jamer Hunt writes that critical design is a practice that “adopt[s] a more ideologically driven position in relation to design’s place in the world, and that work begins to point to a fruitful conjoining of critical social analysis and design” (Clarke, pg. 39).  Instead of, as Hunt suggests, innovating for innovation’s sake or developing useless products that just add to “the vast amount of dreck” (Clarke, pg. 39) in the world, we must design to compel users to think. As the project A/B, from the critical design pioneers Dunne and Raby, suggests (see Figure 1), rather than “design for production,” we should “design for debate.” Instead of designing a project that “makes us buy” we should design something that “makes us think.”

It is in this vein that Hunt discusses a series of critical design projects such as Synthetic Reux that explores our “cultural fixation” on brands, Is this your Future? that looks at the energy crisis, and Neugenics that deals with genetic modification. Hunt argues that while these projects are compelling, they will not “…effect large-scale social change. They are more speculative than interventionist” (Clarke, 41). I disagree that critical design projects lack the ability to effect large-scale change. Critical design, as a genre, has the ability, and in fact by definition should, inspire humanity. One of the biggest problems with many critical design projects is that they instill fear through their largely dystopian vision for the future. While they do, through their designed artifacts and designed futures, encourage users to think critically about our current social values and practices, they only show the user where not to go but do little to direct users toward an alternative route. As Hunt says, the practice is inherently “speculative” not “interventionist.” There are many designers today taking a different approach to critical design. For example, in 2014 the MOMA’s PS1 featured a piece called Hy-Fi by the The Living[12]. Hy-Fi was a tower built from organic bricks that “harness the incredible ‘biological algorithm’ of mushroom roots and tune it to manufacture a new building material that grows in five days, with no waste, no input of energy, and no carbon emissions.[13]” The Living is designing a future where “[b]iology, rather than machining, … emerg[es] as a leading contender to assemble our future environment.[14]” Through their brick artifacts, they ask the user to question, reflect and perhaps take action. This is critical design that inspires! This is the kind of critical design practice that I will try to emulate: one that leads users, through hope, towards a vision of the future that will mobilize us all to want to create lasting social change.

Figure 1: Dunne & Raby’s A/B Project. Described as a manifesto for their work. Source:

Astrophysics as Aesthetic


If Shannon Mattern[15] is correct that in knowing our infrastructure we have a better understanding of our environment, then we must, if not know, then at least recognize our cosmic infrastructure: the building blocks of life, that which connects us all together. As a former astrophysicist, I cannot help but see the world as but a small part of a vast and expansive realm, made up of the cosmic dust resulting from an explosion billions of years ago.

Today, as I design new technologies, contemplate the artifice and our connection to it, and imagine our possible futures, I often think of the great physicists like James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, and Albert Einstein whose contributions to science not only shaped our understanding of ourselves but very much the technology in our hands. Thinking about the aesthetic as a set of principles underlying my work, then, it is astrophysics as aesthetic that makes up the foundation of all I do. At the core of my work there is always an underlying message that, in the words of Planck:

There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.


As we leap into the 21st century, with technologies that have the power to literally shape the future of humanity and planetary ecology, we must realize that we, humans, are fundamentally linked to all that surrounds us at both the most microscopic and macroscopic levels.

So, as I embark on this new career in design I will shape my ideas and the work that I produce based on these four fundamental design principles. I take the responsibility of bearing the title designer very seriously. I can only hope that I may, through my work, in some small way create environmentally sustainable solutions, effect broad social change, develop projects that inspire, or build to help us understand ourselves. I hope that I may contribute to a creation of a better future. I can’t help but think back to my time on Wall Street at the social movements that defined our century so far and that inspired me to choose an alternative career. It is evident, as in Tahrir Square, that when we band together we can manifest a revolution. It is up to us as a global collective to decide the future of humanity. I have faith we will chose the right path.  






{C}[1]{C} Dunne & Raby. “Between Reality and the Impossible”. Text from the exhibition at the Graphic Design Museum. Amsterdam, 2011.

{C}[2]{C} Dilnot, Clive. “Reasons to be cheerful, 1, 2, 3… (Or why the Artificial may yet save us)”. Unpublished.

{C}[3]{C} “A Man Made World.” The Economist. May 26, 2011.

{C}[4]{C} Wolf writes that “[o[n the present course, it could be 800 parts per million by the end of the century.”

{C}[5]{C} Wolf, Martin. “We will watch the rise in greenhouse gases until it is too late to do anything about it”. Financial Times. May 14th, 2103.

“Global inaction shows that the climate sceptics have already won”. Financial Times. May 21st, 2103.

Wolf, Martin. "The Climate Change Skeptics Have Won". Financial Times. May 21st, 2013. 

{C}[6]{C} Rifkin, Jeremy. “The Third Industrial Revolution: How the Internet, Green Electricity, and 3-D Printing are Ushering in a Sustainable Era of Distributed Capitalism.” The World Financial Review. March 3rd, 2012.

{C}[7]{C} Lanier, Jaron. Who Owns the Future? New York: Simon & Schuster. 2013.

{C}[8]{C} Halpern, Orit. Et Al. “Test-Bed Urbanism.” Public Culture. 2013. Volume 25, Number 2. 70: 272-306

{C}[9]{C} Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. New York: Vintage Books. 2010.

{C}[10]{C} Joy, Bill. “Why the future doesn’t need us.” Wired Magazine. April 2000.

{C}[11]{C} Hunt, Jamer. “Prototyping the Social: Temporality and Speculative Futures at the Intersection of Design and Culture.” Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. Alison J. Clarke. New York: Springer Wein. 2011. 

{C}[12]{C} Link to actual piece from MOMA:

{C}[13]{C} Rajagopal, Avinash. “Behind The Living's "100% Organic" Pavilion for MoMA PS1.” Metropolis Mag. Feb 2014.

{C}[14]{C} COREN, MICHAEL J. “How We'll Grow The Next Generation Of Buildings With Bacteria.” Fast Company. August 2013.

{C}[15]{C} Mattern, Shannon. “Infrastructural Tourism.” Places Journal. July 2013.