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A World Without Thought, Without Design

The following is an excerpt from William Coperthwaite’s book, A Handmade Life: In Search of Simplicity. It has been adapted for the web.

Society by Design / Design by Society

For all too long we have had a society designed by Happenstance. There are simply too many losers, which is inefficient and uneconomical from any point of view.

We need to build a society in which everyone wins. Losers are not good for business. The cost of having so many losers is tremendous in terms of happiness; in dollars for health care, famine relief, and prisons; in suffering and in wars—in wasted human potential.

We have the knowledge and resources to raise the well-being of all to unheard-of heights. We have in our hands the potential to create a blossoming of human culture—an Eden on earth and in the minds of human beings. Will we be able to do it? Can we find the will to do it? For me, this is a design problem.

Eden, Here and Now

When I was a child, the word “design” meant to me something far off in a world where artists lived. Growing older, the word slipped a notch in my regard, as I came to think of design as a surface treatment—superficial, often cosmetic—cheap and gaudy, the dazzle aimed at conning a buyer. I was no longer in awe of the word but disdained it.

Then, observing the world more closely, I began to feel that this sense of the word was a misuse of the term by the commercial world. Design gradually came to mean to me that certain quality whereby a well-shaped spoon works. I began to find good design in quality work everywhere —in Finnish log houses, Dutch windmills, Eskimo fishhooks, Indian moccasins, Swampscot dories.

Here was a joyous discovery. One of the most important qualities of life, that conscious shaping toward perfection, now had a name: design.

Still, the word’s connotations clung to the world of things. But as my concern for society and my understanding of its needs grew, I found myself reaching out for a phrase to convey the concept of a new form of education, and I began to think in terms of educational design. This idea grew into broader thoughts of family design, community design, and eventually life design, meaning the logical shaping of one’s own life. All this thinking finally knit itself together under one term-social design.

“Design” had now come full circle from my childhood, when I had associated the word with something especially beautiful, wondrous, marvelous. So “design,” as used here, implies not only beauty, well formed for use, but includes also the aspect of active human shaping for positive ends.

Good design is one of the most critical needs at this point in human history, not only practiced by those who are called designers but by society as a whole. We need a wider awareness of the need for good design in all elements of life, and we need to encourage all people to take part. The finest design for society will not be one worked up by specialists but a design created by the people themselves to fit their needs. Planners and designers are needed, but to help, not to preempt, the democratic work of creating a new society.

Only as all members of society become aware of their right and obligation to take part in designing the world of the future-and comprehend the need for everyone to take part, knowing that their efforts are truly welcome and necessary-only then can a genuine democracy exist.

Everyday Adventure

For many in our society life is pallid, dull, and insipid, lacking in any sense of adventure. How can we develop in our young the sense of wonder, of magical beauty in living and learning? A sense of excitement and eagerness to learn is natural in all children, yet we have found ways to stifle these enthusiasms in a very effective manner.

If we could be as efficient in supporting a child’s eagerness to learn as we have been in stifling this eagerness, this would revolutionize life as we know it.

This is one of the key questions pertaining to the improvement of human welfare: How can we build excitement and meaning into daily life-not with motorcycles, tennis, and tv, but with socially valid action?

Seldom are the young people in our society helped to see the ways in which they can be useful, experiencing the joys of working together. The Outward Bound movement takes its motto, “To seek, to serve, and not to yield,” from Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses”: Outward Bound has demonstrated some very positive approaches to this problem in programs that get young people sailing, climbing, canoeing, and desert trekking. Yet one drawback of these programs is that they are only a three-to-four-week exception from the norm. What we need is to increase the sense of adventure in daily life, all year long.

To seek, to serve and be a little yielding . . .

Photograph by Peter Forbes.


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