A Recipe for Design

Are you intentionally trying to nudge the system you are a part of in a certain direction? Are you eyeing opportunities for change and enlarging them? You might work for a brand, a factory, an NGO or the government, but as far as I am concerned all of us who answer these questions with a resounding YES are all designers. As designers we have to deal with intention (what we would like to see in the world) and emergence (what is actually happening). Systems teacher Fritjof Capra writes beautifully about the tension between these two forces:

“The creativity and adaptability of life expresses itself through the spontaneous emergence of novelty at critical points of instability. Every human organization contains both designed and emergent structures. The challenge is to find the right balance between the creativity of emergence and the stability of design.”

This might come as a surprise if you see design as a source of creativity and innovation. I find it refreshing to realise that the actual novelty does not spring from the drawings and mood boards of humans with a job title including the word “creative” or “design” -rather, it’s a function of life itself. Our job as designers (and once again I include you lobbyists, intrapreneurs and progressive merchandisers) is to channel this force.

All too often our man-made designs do the opposite: they stifle novelty and suppress rejuvenation. Sometimes this is obvious and we call it “bureaucracy”. Sometimes it’s counter-intuitive and the obstacles are unintended consequences of well meaning efforts to bring something new. In other threads we speak about audit fatigue leading to resentment against transparency, about stricter laws leading to malpractices going underground, the list goes on …. This industry if full of stories about good projects turned sour.

To me, mechanisation of garment manufacturing risks becoming another such a story. The robots that will replace the workers are owned by the same set of people who owned the factories, so all we are doing is placing more power in the hands of those already in charge. This might lead to increased economic efficiency, but is it truly innovative? Does it help the sector see itself and the world with new eyes? Or is it a disguised form of more of the same?

Capra advises us to “design for emergence”. What would that look like to you? How would you redesign the garment industry to allow for and encourage natural evolution and re-generation? To me the following 5 qualities jump out:

Of course no single actor is leading the shaping of the entire sector, but every time policies and practices are being documented by any of us these qualities could be included as a touchstone. “Does this new code of behaviour bring out these qualities? If no, let’s see how we can include them.” This way we can support fellow designers to notice opportunities for change and help give birth to the industry of the future.