The Nature of College by James Farrell


Designing Minds

We live in designs we don’t notice. We live in designs that don’t fulfill us or re-fill the planet. With our big brains and cultural heritage, we are designed to design. We can change “the good life” into a better life by design.  That’s the essential argument of David Orr’s provocative essay, “Designing Minds,” which contends that colleges should challenge students to understand the designs in their lives, and to create better designs—for artifacts, technologies, buildings, and product chains, as well as for our individual lives and institutional structures. In short, he suggests, culture is a human design, and because we’re humans, we can change it if we want to.

Usually, when we think about designs, we think about professional designers—people like fashion designers or tech designers, web designers or visual artists. We think about expensive stuff, like designer jeans and architectural designs. We think about electronic attractions, like iPhones and iPods, custom cars and sleek notebook computers. But that’s just the surface of design. Right now, I’m sitting in several designs—in a chair in a room that’s designed to be an office, and that’s heated and cooled—by design.  My desk is littered with books and paper and pens and pencils—all designer goods because they’re designed. I woke up at 5:22, brushed my teeth, made some coffee, and booted up the computer—regular routines of the design I call my life. And I’m institutionally implicated—by design—with all of the companies that produced my stuff, with Google and Microsoft and Dakota Electric and Minnesota Power.

We make design choices all the time, usually without thinking about them. At the store, when I buy stuff, I’m endorsing the design of supermarkets or shopping malls, as well as the design of all the systems contrived to get distant stuff to me. At the car dealer, I opt for a well-designed car, but also for a transportation design that privileges cars and marginalizes mass transit. At the gas station, I tell BP and other corporations to keep designing deepwater drilling platforms.

But as David Orr suggests, we don’t have to accept the designs of the past. We can re-design our lives, and we can re-design the designs in our lives—architectural and technological, but also ideological and institutional. We can invent and implement designs—of stuff and infrastructure, but also of family and friendship and education and spirituality—that are kinder to human beings, to more-than-human beings, and to the planet we all inhabit.