Good design is a human right, says Chicago Athenaeum president

Commemorating the 65-year Anniversary of the founding of Good Design in Chicago in 1950, Christian Narkiewicz-Laine, Museum president of The Chicago Athenaeum: Museum of Architecture and Design and advocate for peace and social justice, declared “Good Design a Human Right” in a lecture at BMW’s design headquarters in Munich, Germany.

In his lecture, Narkiewicz-Laine declared the following:

“If human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behavior, which are commonly understood as inalienable fundamental rights ‘to which a person is inherently entitled simply because she or he is a human being,’ Good Design should be considered one of those integral universal rights.

The idea of human rights suggests that ‘if the public discourse of peacetime global society can be said to have a common moral language, it is that of human rights.’ Design is one of those public discourses. Design is also a universal language. Be it city, building, or object, design translates the size, dimension, use, function, aesthetic of any object or building.

Design is the language in which designers and architects communicate any or all ideas. It is the tool or mechanism to arrive at a concept or idea in which a consumer can easily translate the concept or idea into their daily life. That said, consumers, vis-à-vis, the public, have the moral right to the best and most intelligent, most humanizing vocabulary of Good Design.

Good Design is the right to a city, the right to a shelter, the right to certain objects intended for human use; a design that is universal meaning that it subscribes to the concept of a design for all products and all built environments to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life.

Good Design is a design that is mindful of the designer’s role and responsibility in society; and the use of the design process to bring about social change, support democratic ideals, and add social stability for the common good.

The Human Right to Good Design coexists with other fundamental human rights: the right to privacy, education, healthcare, self-determination, liberty, law, thought, religion, expression, association, and assembly or the right for freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, as well as access to clean water, air, and environment, or the right to keep families together and the public right for shelter.

Good Design is integral to all of these fundamental human freedoms since it the vehicle that defines and embodies many of these recognized rights. There is no freedom of education without the design of schools; there is no freedom of peaceable assembly without the design of plazas, streets, and squares; there is no freedom of religion without the design of places for worship; there no freedom to parent children without the design of homes.

Good Design is a system of organization that is based on freedom and democracy, instead of fear and control. It’s a way of designing buildings and objects to amplify the possibilities of human potential.

The idea that beautiful and functional everyday objects should not only be affordable to the wealthy, but to all, is a core theme in the development of modernism and functionalism. This is probably most completely realized in post-WWII Scandinavian design. The ideological background was the emergence of a particular Scandinavian form of social democracy in the 1950s, as well as the increased availability of new low-cost materials and methods for mass production. In Scandinavia, Good Design often makes use of form-pressed wood, plastics, anodized or enameled aluminum or pressed steel.

That idea developed in the United States in the works of Charles and Ray Eames and Eero Saarinen and formed the philosophical basis for their Good Design program in 1950 by introducing good and democratic objects that could be easily mass-produced for the public masses.

Good Design is clear about why it exists (its purpose) and where it is headed and what it hopes to achieve (its vision).

Instead of the top-down monologue or dysfunctional silence that characterizes most workplaces and everyday objects, a democratic Good Design is committed to having conversations that bring out new levels of meaning and connection.

All Human rights, including Good Design, are ‘inherent in all human beings’ regardless of their nation, location, language, religion, ethnic origin or any other status. Good Design respects the human rights of others and is not used as a weapon or way that violates any of the basic human freedoms.

Ethics is a very important topic to understand what comprises Good Design. The process of being human-centered ensures that designers are truthful and open in their design practice. Good Design is equally pleasing and ethical because it enables the user to not only enjoy the product but it also ensures that it will not cause any harm to the public good. If a designer wants to act in an ethically responsible manner, it is imperative to put forth personal effort in understanding ethical conflicts rather than trying to follow any predefined safe rules. Ethics is a process of learning and reasoning, not a process of strict obedience to preordained codes or established rules.

There is an ethical concern about the design of guns and bombs that lead to warfare or guns that lead to violence in our communities; the use of materials that promote human trafficking or produce revenues to support totalitarian regimes; the design of objects that are intended for torture or to execute; or the design of jails and prisons that lead to unlawful imprisonment.

An ethical design policy excludes companies with poor human rights/exploitation or environmental records. Nestle, British Petroleum, etc. Cigarette or gambling branding for obvious ethical implications that lead to the illness of addiction. Oil/petrochemical, tobacco, companies with shady practices such as Monsanto, or any type of business taking advantage of slave labor in Third World countries.

Virtually any act can be considered moral and immoral. In design there are right and wrong solutions based on conscious choices. Good ethical design simply does not cause harm to anyone or anything.

Good Design is used for everything from advertising and lifestyle to entertainment. Good Design is at its best when it’s used to advocate. Designers have a responsibility to use their skills to advocate for social causes and social concerns. If a doctor has the responsibility to take care of those in critical condition, then one can reason that designers have a responsibility to create objects that motivate people to take action on critical issues, like the physical and spiritual condition of societies and our planet.

Good Design must be a catalyst for driving positive cultural and social change. It distills the four streams of sustainability—environment, people, economy and culture—into a roadmap that is understandable, integrated, and most importantly, actionable. Designers, business leaders, manufactures can use Good Design to guide every decision, every day.

The world’s population has the right to the best design that is sustainable; one that does not deplete the world’s resources or adds to the growing catastrophe of global pollution and climate change.

In order to create true, sweeping changes in providing basic objects and buildings for the betterment of humanity, we must begin to think about this human necessity as a basic human right. This is not something that families around the world can only wish to have, not something that only the luckiest can hope to realize, but something that everyone should have an opportunity to hold and achieve.

hen we understand the magnitude of human needs and their different forms in communities worldwide, we should recognize that as more fortunate people we are morally obligated to act. Once we view the issue of housing in these appropriately urgent terms, we will begin to act in concert more effectively.

The first step is to make sure designers are personally engaged in striving together to achieve specific goals. There are many unified and well-proven advocacy efforts that can support this effort. We need to raise awareness so that our fellow citizens will join us in providing solutions for those who are struggling to overcome the obstacles that prevent the misfortunate from having even the most simple, decent life and livelihoods.”

Narkiewicz-Laine went further in his essay to identify these Human Rights as:

  • Good Design is transparent and openly honest about its objectives, strategy, and agenda for the object or building.
  • Good Design is committed to fairness and dignity, not treating the final object for some people like “somebodies” and other people like “nobodies.”
  • Good Design points fingers, not in a blaming way but in a liberating way; crystal clear about whom is accountable to whom and for what.
  • For Good Design, the individual is just as important as the whole, meaning it values the individual contribution as well as for what they do to help achieve the collective goals of society as a whole.
  • For Good Design, integrity is the name of the game, and understands that freedom takes discipline and also doing what is morally and ethically right.
  • Good Design makes sure power is appropriately shared and distributed among people throughout the world.
  • Good Design thrives on giving society meaningful choices.
  • Good Design is committed to continuous feedback and development; the willingness to learn from the past and apply lessons to improve the future.