Design Through the Lens of the Human Condition

On the transformation of design from a product to a process oriented activity and the consequences thereof

All definitions of the term “design” that I have ever encountered are written from a universalist point of view, that is, they all assume that there is only one true definition of the term. They assume this because their authors subconsciously accept that human nature is universal, and thus that the nature of human activities can be generalized. While the universality of human nature is debatable, humanity does not live under the same condition. Separated by time and place, the people living under various civilizations differ from each other in the very fundamental way in how they perceive and experience the world. Our condition shapes the meaning of our activities, just as our activities in turn shape and condition us. To understand an activity like design we must first examine the underlying human condition within which it takes place.

For the following examination I will use Hannah Arendt’s famous work, The Human Condition, in which Arendt interprets the transition of the human condition from classical antiquity to modernity. One of the key ideas presented is the distinction between the activities of work and labor. Unlike labor, the word “work” can be used as both a verb and a noun, being something that is not only an activity but also the product of one. Work is something that has a beginning and an end, the end being the finished “work”. In contrast, labor is a consumptive activity, that is, its product is consumed at the end of the labor. Arendt calls the worker homo faber—literally “man as fabricator”—and the laborer animal laborans—the laboring animal, a term taken from Marx, for whom labor distinguished man from animal. Where the homo faber can be represented by craftsmen who produce use objects, animal laborans can be represented by farmers, cooks and cleaners who nourish life and maintain its vital processes.

What is most interesting in Arendt’s work is not the classifications of human activities, but the analysis of the changing human condition throughout the ages. In classical antiquity, man’s highest activities were action and contemplation. Labor and work were despised. To labor, that is, to sustain and maintain life, meant submitting to the forces of necessity. This took one’s time away from the political realm of action—great words and deeds—and from the philosophical realm of contemplation. Slavery in the ancient world was a means to relieve the free man from necessity and to allow him to dedicate himself fully to action and contemplation. According to Arendt, slavery was justified precisely because it relieved the free man from necessity, and not because it could bring the slave owner wealth and comforts. The Spartans, who relied wholly on their slaves to sustain themselves, are perhaps the best example of a people who, despite their position as slave owners, were of little need of wealth and comforts.

Work, too, was despised, though not to the same degree. Although craftsmen were free citizens, their activity of fabrication of objects was not deemed of the same importance as action and contemplation. The activity of fabrication was also a private activity. The craftsmen would work away in their workshops and only appear in public when they had finished goods to present. This privacy meant that the craftsman spent most of his time away from the public, away from the political realm, the life of the polis. The modern word “idiot” is derived from the Greek “idios”, meaning private. To the Greeks, to remain private as a free citizen was a foolish thing to do.

Throughout the centuries that followed, the importance of the craftsman grew. In the Middle Ages, guilds of craftsmen grew so rich that membership became sought after. Classical modernity in turn saw a reversal of action and fabrication. Action, with its inherent unpredictability of results, became something undesired. With action removed, the political realm turned into the bureaucratic realm of public administration. The exchange market became the public arena of the homo faber as he ascended to the throne with the bourgeois revolution.

Action demoted and banished from the public realm, fabrication became the chief human activity, and it was this activity of the creation of objects of the homo faber that defined the dawn of Western capitalism, crowned perhaps by The Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, which brought the fruits of industry and design to the capital of all exchange markets of the world. In the condition of homo faber, action is uncertain and dangerous, best replaced by a comprehensive system of administrative procedures. Man can, however, control what he makes, and can thus fashion himself and his future through his work. More so, man’s creations outlive the short years of his life, and in this way give him a way to leave a mark on the world that will not perish when he does. Homo faber accepts that even the most durable of works will eventually perish, either through the destructive forces of nature or man, but this to him remains the only activity through which he can outlive himself, so to speak, and make his stay in the world a little longer.

Late modernity saw another, more fundamental shift. After the two brutal wars of the last century, it is not homo faber that defines the human condition, but animal laborans. The last century saw the emancipation of the working class and its integration into society—one “mass society” that differs from the classical realms of the private and the public by being neither private nor public, but rather “social”. As Arendt points out, Marx’s mistake was thinking that given free time, animal laborans would “fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner”, but as we see, what actually happened was that not only do the labor requirements keep up with technological change—since demand for a standard of living rises in tandem with the technology that affords it—any free time the animal laborans has is filled up with the only activity he knows, namely: consumption.

What we have today is not a world of objects of the homo faber, but a “consumer market” of the animal laborans. Through devices like planned obsolescence and fashion, objects that were traditionally durable and long lasting are now objects of consumption, to be used and discarded in a very short span of time. Clothes, cars, furniture, and even houses (one must keep changing one’s house by climbing a “housing ladder”) are now no longer use objects, to be used for a certain purpose until they no longer function, but objects of consumption, to be used and discarded when the new model comes out or when the owner has the means to purchase something more expensive. The animal laborans spends all of his time on consumption, either creating objects of consumption for the consumer market, or consuming his time through the various entertainment technologies. Only in the world of animal laborans do we have a distinction between “work” and “play”, with his slew of non-work activities called “hobbies”. To the mind of animal laborans, work cannot have any meaning or place outside of the workplace.

If we look at design from the perspective of the two human conditions, of the condition of homo faber and the animal laborans, we can see two distinct interpretations of the same activity. Design, like work, is both a noun and a verb, and, in the case of Arendt’s Human Condition, can be substituted for the word “work” while retaining the same meaning. The craftsman is, for all intents and purposes, a designer, someone who plans and builds an object of his conception. Design is, in this sense, an activity of homo faber.

But we can go further. We can look at design from the standpoint of animal laborans. Arendt defines labor as an activity that does not produce something tangible as its outcome, being wholly consumed at its completion. A farmer needs to sow the field of crops again after he reaps the last harvest, a cook needs to cook the next meal as his previous one is consumed, a cleaner needs to dust the shelves and wash the floor as the forces of dust and dirt once again invade his domain. Where a product of craft is defined by its durability and permanence, the product of labor is consumed as quickly as it is done, restarting the process from the beginning.

Modern design, especially in the realm of technology—specifically Web and software—is today perceived not from the standpoint of homo faber, but from the standpoint of animal laborans. This is quite evident by the shift in focus of design from product to process. Where work is seen as a linear path from beginning to completion, with the end being the realization of the plan in the finished product, a process does not necessarily need to have a beginning and an end, only inputs and outputs, the outputs potentially becoming once again the inputs, leading to an endless recurrence.

The mindset of animal laborans—the mindset of endless consumption—has shifted the meaning of design onto its verb, onto the process. Startup entrepreneurs have created a concept known as the MVP, the minimum viable product, which is the most basic product that can be shipped that the customer will be happy to pay for. The MVP is typically defined by its rough edges and its lack of features. The concept of the MVP is driven by rapid evolution. Once the product is in the marketplace, it can be evolved to provide features that meet market needs much better than if they were developed in the isolation of the workshop. Put another way, placing the product in the hands of the customers as early as possible allows you to use their feedback to guide its direction.

The entrepreneur, seeking success, has unconsciously altered his perception and understanding of the nature of products. Where a traditional product is a result of a linear progression, a material implementation of an ideal form in the mind of its designers, the MVP is a process with a beginning but without end. It is also a process created without first being contemplated in its entirety by its designers, that is, it’s created without the existence of an ideal form, only a rough sketch. As the MVP evolves, the original sketch may become obsolete altogether as the company “pivots” to provide a wholly different product built on the same foundation. Indeed, the mantra of the startup entrepreneur to fail fast and fail often underlines the non-existence of the perfect form.

Along with startup culture, the transition of software from physical media to the “cloud” has also helped redefine the nature of software products in terms of processes. Since a website or a software delivered via the Internet can be constantly updated, developers take the opportunity to fix bugs and introduce new features. This change in the nature of software, from something unchangeable to something wholly fluid, meant that the idea of software also changed from a finished product to something that is “never finished”. This unfinished, never-ending, quality means that software and websites become akin not to traditional products, but to processes. They have a beginning, but no end. More important, people who work on them, their developers and designers, assume work akin to that of labor, to the never ending chores of animal laborans. The more features they implement, the more bugs they have to fix, and as user needs change, the more features they have to implement.

In the modern world of design, especially that of software and Web design, the role of the designer shifts from that of homo faber, with his conception of the final thing in its perfection, to that of animal laborans, a skilled knowledge worker who performs the labor of evolving and servicing a never ending process. Product design becomes a thing directed not by an ideal form of the mind, but by forces outside of the designer—focus groups, A/B testing, market trends, and so on. Design processes are externalized and outside data is fed into the system to guide and direct the evolution of the product.

The shift from understanding design as a product activity to a process activity carries with it many consequences. The first, and most obvious, is that the designer is no longer in control of his work. Only in very few, rare cases of homo faber dominated companies does the designer maintain full control over the end product. Generally, the process of design is consciously externalized in order to invite other “stakeholders” to the process. These can be other designers, but it is typically the management and marketing teams who begin to direct the process. Additionally, “objective” methods like A/B testing and other activities that produce data are used to direct design. Replacing subjective decision making by “objective” data is used not only as a way to optimize consumption, but to relieve tension between the various “stakeholders” for whom the judgement of “data” is indisputable.

The loss of the final ideal form in the mind’s eye of the designer leads to a loss of concern regarding the product’s place in the world. Without a final form, the product cannot be adequately placed in relation to the world, cannot be adequately contemplated. Additionally, because there is no “end” product as such, since all software is “unfinished”, there can be no “perfect” form for contemplation. This, in turn, means that perfection is not contemplated as such, and thus man’s values that used to direct his work in the past—his conceptions of the ideal—have little place in the process of modern design. Further, we have a loss of accountability. In a large process, nobody is “responsible” for the final product, so when the product results in unintended outcomes, there is nobody to blame. This allows for carelessness, for when the work is broken up between enough parties, nobody will hold anyone responsible, especially when the process is directed from outside forces like market trends or other “data”.

With the transition from product to process we experience a loss in permanence. Historically, man built a world of objects more durable than himself, through which he was able to outlive his mortal years. An ever evolving design that changes yearly, and not even for reasons of need, but for reasons of fashion—for today software “feels” old when the design of it has not been updated for a year—has no such permanence. The nature of physical goods prevents them evolving as fast as the digital media, but the transition in the understanding of design from the standpoint of the condition of animal laborans means that the expectation is to speed up the process of change rather than to preserve what we have, to evolve rather than to reinforce; an expectation that is reflected across all fields of design. This loss of permanence in turn further throws the designer into the condition of animal laborans, for his work becomes a never ending labor of servicing and maintenance rather than beginning and completion.

Finally, we experience a shift in the mind of the designer from objectivity to subjectivity. For the modern designer, the essence of a product no longer resides in the thing itself, in the object, but in the nature of the audience, the subject, for whom it is built. And with that, the objective world of things recedes, replaced by subjective extensions of the endless process of consumption, the endless process of life’s metabolism with nature, directed no longer by the contemplative eye of the craftsman’s mind but the faceless forces of consumption trends and usage data.

Share on Twitter Facebook Email

“For even falsehood, uttered by the tongue of man, seemed like truth and light before this hopelessly-deaf and unresponsive silence.”

My new book: a translation of selected short stories by Leonid Andreyev, the father of Russian Expressionism from the Silver Age of Russian literature. A piercing, pitiless glance into the heart of the human condition.

☛ Read online

Further Reading

Proust wrote that the true voyage of discovery is not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to behold a hundred universes that each of them beholds. Thus, in the words of Ruskin, what good books give us is not mere knowledge, but sight.

Sign up to my email newsletter to receive regular recommendations to exceptional books on a wide range of topics including design, art, history and philosophy. A summary of latest site updates will also be included. Sign up below: