top of page

Design, Purpose & Ecology


The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence.


                                                                                                                                      David Hume                


Prologue: Chicken Little was right, right on the money. The sky is not literally falling, but Earth’s atmosphere is now a sinkhole brimming with toxic flatulence. Marine environs of all shapes, sizes and descriptions soak up accumulating load upon load of reeking swill. On terra firma, cauterized landscapes splatter across receding views of horizons.


As the gyre widens, Cultures of every cast cling to a disparate range of vestigial certainties or, lacking such,

wade into an embrace of novel, perforated, prophylactic maneuvers to avoid a reality which brooks no quarter while evading any compliment. Hard-line and irrevocable, such reality simply prevails over all comers. Meanwhile, the key hard-core feature of this reality is and remains implacably

interchangeable with Earth’s ecology. Avoid it at your peril.






Cutting to the chase, we appear to be on a teetering threshold of designing machines to produce designing machines. All real varieties considered, such technologies would detach the function and attribute of human-centered emotion in the role of design, and re-couple it with a speculation toasted over its own rationale in service to means, mechanisms and assemblies well beyond our touch.


This tempting surrender to an out-of-reach controlling apparatus inter-linked with and entwined within ecological corruption, in its wide drift and echo is, in particular, the crucial strategic problem in industrial design.         


Desire generates design. The no small feat of logistics aside, desire for an end by any possible means is thus the core issue in play. What exactly are these desires? Control emerges first to mind. While control, efficiency, and stability are the triad of forces (or principles) which propel the urge to make a distinct and particular something. However, an anecdotal but robust corpus of evidence suggests complexifying overlays of motive to this triad. Marketing success, maximum profit, celebrity, and general self-aggrandizement have become and are now present and salient features in the intentional mix of designing anything from a banal or infectious consumer product, to a video installation, to an orbiting space-station.


Arching above all of this, consider the stupefying intricacy of earth-ecology’s role; while this role in any final assessment of the value of a specific design, for virtually anything (from a Styrofoam cup to oil-tankers), is increasingly oblivious and acute. Meanwhile, the earth’s fate is, io ipso, also within the reach and clinging grasp of egregious designs attempting to outwit while displacing nature’s limits.


Nothing encompassed within these unmovable limits is beyond the cast and kin of ecological demand and its budget of flexibility. Nothing within the domain of design is exempt from its harsh, unforgiving, permanent reality. Hence, any criteria whatever evaluating the status of any given design is perforce engaged with an accommodation to ecological demand, and this is bound to be as it should be. Within this glacial light, the task of designers, of each and every type, is to embrace their existential responsibility for re-enchanting the natural world. Of making significant objects or infrastructures that reflect, manifest and enhance the natural equipoise resident in the received order of processes and things.


With a deep bow to Gregory Bateson, the notion of ecology’s budget of flexibility is both central and critical in the present argument with its case. Very simply stated, laws and verdicts dictated by the natural realm operate within parameters queer to typical human judgment--specifically, the judgment of typical designers.


Ecological demand (anonymously coined in the late 1960’s) is closely related to and is supported by Wittgenstein’s: “The World is all that is the case...”. With a wee stretch, it also has not a few of its seminal roots in Leibniz’s “Monadology”.


The gist of ecological demand is essentially this: any artifact humans design and implement has a maddening, dilapidating, and finally, toxic effect upon the webs of inter-relation which guide, steer, and manifest nature’s order--unless of course they are a virtual structural-fit reflecting that order.


The budget of flexibility is just that. To a point it can soak up and even neutralize distorting misinformation and its gathering putrescence. But at an uncertain exhausted juncture its budget is spent, it’s running a deficit, and then stark rigidity sets in. At which point the ecosystem, local or universal, is driven crazy, and things unravel to the level where even designing humans take belated notice…All ecosystems absorb only so much deviance and no more, they have firm, unforgiving limits. And, for our universal ecosystem this brink is undoubtedly upon us.


The great monk, Thomas Berry, stated it bluntly: “The extraordinary rate at which we are destroying the planet makes clear the unsustainability and undesirability of our culture…We must respond adequately to this problem; it is the most significant humankind has ever faced.”    


Any amelioration of this Earth shaking condition of anthropocentrism run amok with predatory existence

sits squarely in the laps of present and future designers. Designers, engineers, and implementers of every specialty will be (or will fail to be) the foundation of realignment with the natural, non-human world. The perpetual stream of details waiting to be harmonized with ecological reality may very well be mind-boggling, but they are hardly avoidable. To paraphrase Dr. Johnson, nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of being hanged.


The tenacious intensity of purpose required for accomplishing this death-defying task is undeniably awesome. However, it is and will forever continue to be the cruel if not unforgiving case. Idling in a well-appointed wing meanwhile, retro-forces nonetheless proceed apace. Use of things and processes for exclusive self-serving purpose appears to be governing the actual implementer’s rules, clouding most else out.


A mercurial contronymn if ever there was one, the word and subsequent profligate notion of design harbors a wide spray of inference, chronic to predictable to acute. The chronic is obvious. In-your-face ubiquitous renditions of repetitions of copies of vague stereotypes occupy every nick and haunt in civic space, cyberspace included. Indulging their feint, parry and joust gambit to seriously vulgar extremes. For example, the drum-roll of corporate logos peeling off in civic, personal, and cyber space. Entertain this specter: the mise-en-scene of a chosen design of a logo is expected to be selectively located everywhere! Glance in any direction in any urban-scape and behold an iconic swoosh or a pair of yellow arches or a vibrating neon umbrella. Priapic corporate icons are seared into public domains like a florid brand seared on the neck of a steer.


Predictable design is not nearly as obvious. It is instead a stealthy penetration into substructures governing the realms of instinctual and unintentional response. Take the design of a car’s alarm system as exemplary. Intended as an obstruction to theft it is more often enough an unexpected wake-up call for interrupted dreamers. Another example: the collateral effects of telemarketing’s designs far outweigh the effects on any intended target. Interrupting moods while generating dismay and hostility toward the source of an unwanted call. Another example: Aquaculture, shrimp and salmon farms especially, once touted as a solution to food shortages, has destroyed and displaced indispensable ecosystems. The mangrove estuaries of South East Asia (re: Thailand) have been ravaged into near oblivion. Singular effects of eco-alteration become multiple and plangent, over and again.


Ravage and then “efficiently” eliminate a swampy mangrove enclave and you will very well be reverberating consequences into a virtual infinity of negative, destructive influence, to state the very least. The specific, in this case, is generalized to the quick. Simply put: destroy the mangrove and its environs and you take out as well the adjacent local ecology which drives once removed adjacent local ecologies mad, on and on



In a plunge, Acute design is stretched out on a spectrum. At one end is physical, concretized infrastructure: Sewerage systems, highways and railways, power grids, urban planing, air routes, et al. At the other end resides visual information systems…Maps, data-flow charts, geographic models, statistically based predictive models (re: future climate shifts), demographic and economic displays, et al.


In point of fact these two extremities of acute design’s spectrum are mutually dependent. An inter-flow of well-lubricated streaming data sloshes back and forth, back again. Model making is pragmatically informed by what’s already on the ground, what’s in place, what’s apparently real. And when repositioned, this actual ground absorbs every such model. Practically impervious to any changes suggested by such models, in-the-metal certainty proceeds, longing for a gaze backwards. Such models are thus disruptive, at a disadvantage. Inertia, entropy, decay are inherent on the ground. While designers…





“ Confusion and clutter are failures of design, not attributes of information. And so the point is to find design strategies that reveal detail and complexity--rather than to fault the data for an excess of complication.”


“ Many information displays report on the world’s workaday reality of three-space and time. Painting four-variable narrations of space-time onto flatland combines two familiar designs, the map and the time series. Our strategy for understanding these narrative graphics is to hold constant the underlying information and then to watch how various designs and designers cope with the common data.”                 


                                                                                                                              Edward Tufte


“ Seek simplicity and then distrust it.”     


                                             A. N. Whitehead



Designers coping with the common data? The thin edge of a wedge is this: Who’s common data? What version of flatland?


Which returns us back to the chase. The design, engineering and implementation of designing machines. And in the not too distant future, designing machines designing designing machines. A likely prospect embraced by technotopians everywhere as inevitable and desirable. Nonetheless, there is necessary and sufficient evidence, coherent conjecture, and nascent theories to assume the designers of  and for Technotopia are either deluded, rhapsodized by, in abject submission to, or collaborating with a future-tense vision out of whack with those ways our natural world actually works. 


A yoke of necessity directs both motives and tactics driving such a world-view. Where ignorance and arrogance are a near perfect reinforcing match. Remake the world in the metaphorical mold of our current technology and trust it, because it is necessary and inevitable. Such is the polemic of erstwhile cheerleaders for a grave new order. Computers now being designed to not merely calculate but to “think” (eventually possessing “self-consciousness”) suffice as the vanguard’s reach for this daunting future. There are also parallel phenomena like genetic engineering, the design, creation, and implementation of dreaded Cyborgs, as well as sweeping techno-manipulation of eco-systems. All of which provide nurture with safe harbor for any expected emergence of this daunting future.


So where’s the problem? It’s crux is just this. In sum, all of the above developments dovetail into a brutal calculus of relations. Each of which operates outside the ecological context--local, universal, and intimate. Meanwhile, a backdrop of unsustainable short-term gain in position, and its profit, prevails, trumping all other vital considerations. The combination of these two anthropocentric dynamics, short-term gain with technotopian schemes, inevitably merges into a gurgling witch’s brew of self-serving motive and blind-sided intent. 


It scarcely matters to this entrenched position that its effluvia, its toxic byproducts, its ham-fisted intrusions into the delicacy of natural webs transforms the natural world into a state of hyperventilating rage.






“ Physical reality seems to reduce in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances. Instead of dealing with the things themselves man is in a sense constantly conversing with himself. He has so enveloped himself in linguistic forms, in artistic images, in mythical symbols…that he cannot see or know anything except by the interposition of this artificial medium.”


                                                                                                                              Ernst Cassier


So, through this vale of tears the habitues of design emerge. From flatland and time-flow charts, to computer screens to 3-D models, the world is to be remade, once and over again. This time, however, the stakes are now a difference making the difference.


The severe to calamitous conditions which circumscribe any acute infra-structural make-over compel designers to vastly widen their scope. To include in their measure of merit, their criteria, the probable to certain effects of unintended consequences is now the unremitting central issue. The encompassing arc from intention to manifest results will henceforth necessarily include the unaccustomed position of accommodating the unforgiving dictates issuing from sovereign nature, or will fail to. And, such  failures will perforce accelerate a downward spiral culminating in ecological disintegration.


In the end manifest results will be calibrated with ecological demand in such ways as to rejuvenate an approximate harmony between designing human desire and an unforgiving hard-core reality. If not, Earth will surely snap back with an ascending crescendo of multiple, unpredictable, relentless, chaotic ways and means.



Frank Gillette


New York / East Hampton / August 2002

bottom of page