When I came to college, I enrolled in five engineering classes along with a Great Books seminar that was required for all Honors College students. It was taught by a tough professor that introduced me to the incredible world of English, Philosophy, and Political Science. He suggested that I take on the Honors College minor in Politics and Ethics (or officially the “Phronesis minor”), but I adamantly refused. I wanted to stay focused on my major; I didn’t need any extra classes.
Fast forward three semesters: I was looking at the Honors College Coursebook to figure out which of the required Honors classes fit my busy schedule. There’s a single one: Public Law in Political Theory – a course that would examine the varying positions on executive power taken by U.S. presidents from Jefferson to Lincoln. I took it simply because it met a requirement for one of the Honors College core curriculum courses. To my surprise, I hungrily read through American historical documents and several secondary sources on executive power, and I wrote a 12-page essay on a novel political system for the presidential war power. It was at the end of that semester that I decided to switch to two new fields of study: Industrial Design and a minor in Political Theory.
Industrial Design was an easy choice for my major. I had learned in my high school drawing and painting classes that I had a keen eye for the aesthetics of visual art compositions, and in addition, I always maintained an interest for business and problem-solving.
My decision to pair Industrial Design with Political Theory may sound a little odd. One semester, when I had two classes for my major and two for my minor, I would be sanding models all morning from 10am to noon, and at noon, I would switch gears by taking out my books and reading for several hours at a time to prepare for reading political theory seminars. Although these disciplines are quite different, I believe that my passion for both has informed my Design ability.
I had the opportunity to merge my interests in Design and Political theory for a term paper in a class on Design History. I wrote on the 20th century American designer George Nelson, who, along with being an iconic designer in the modernist tradition, wrote extensively as a Design Theorist. Using his book as support, I argued that modernist design in America was heavily influenced by cold-war era political trends. Nelson’s most ambitious design project – an American National Exhibition is Mocow – communicated a stark political message to the Soviet Union: capitalism produced good design whereas Communism did not. President Richard Nixon even pointed out Nelson’s American home designs to Secretary Nikita Kruschev as an indicator that American designers demonstrated initiative and offered innovative and unique but also practical design for American citizens.
I believe that these lessons in National American Design are vastly important because they can inform our design practice in the present day. Disputes concerning American politics, both domestically and internationally, are responsible for the notion that we as designers are driven to produce a product that’s better than any other. In America, our right to choose a product from any designer is in part because of the political freedoms which are implicit within our very way of life, whereas in the case of the Soviet Union, to refer to my above example, a government designer may design the same house or refrigerator for everyone without room for much creativity or nuance. Moreover, these innovation-driven and multi-option design trends result in mass waste, and designers are still grappling with the pollution problem.
To put it simply, Political Theory informs my craft as a Designer, and it has transformed the way I think about Design. Many years of reflection and introspection have taught me that since Design is an interdisciplinary discipline, any one of your passions can influence how you understand design. My advice: Allow yourself to learn outside of the studio. As a result, you’ll watch yourself return to your sketches and foam models with an open mind and you’ll view the entire discipline of design in a brand new way.