Issue 6

Design as an Attitude

Alice Rawsthorn

Words by Alice Rawsthorn
























Essay by Alice Rawsthorn


Prologue of
Design as an Attitude.




The new year did not start well. Having wrestled with financial crises and political conflicts in six years of struggling to establish a new design school in Chicago, László Moholy-Nagy found himself at loggerheads with the board again at the beginning of 1945: this time over the dearth of students. He also faced the challenge of finding new premises when the lease on the school’s building expired that spring. The first school that Moholy-Nagy opened in Chicago had closed after little more than a year, and the second was now threatened by the same fate. Eventually, he won over the board and the school survived, but the battle to save it took a brutal toll on Moholy-Nagy himself.


He had hoped that 1945, when he would turn fifty, would be the year when he could devote more time to writing the book on visual theory he had begun two years before. But the school’s problems proved so pernicious that Moholy-Nagy’s days were filled with teaching and administration and his evenings were swamped by the commercial design projects with which he supported his family financially, leaving him with a few snatched hours at weekends to work on the book. To make matters worse, -Moholy-Nagy fell seriously ill during the autumn of 1945, and was diagnosed with leukemia. Even after being admitted to hospital, he urged his wife Sibyl to bring portfolios of photographs, drawings and notes on her visits so he could work on layouts between blood transfusions, injections and X-rays.


Moholy-Nagy was discharged just before Christmas, and resumed his duties at the school the following month. He seized every free moment during the spring and summer to finish the book, but his condition deteriorated, and he died on 24 November 1946. His book, Vision in Motion, was published the following year. No one reading it then, or now, would be likely to guess what a dreadful ordeal its author had experienced while writing it. As a manifesto of Moholy-Nagy’s vision of design, art, technology, creative education and their roles in society, it distills the ideas and observations of a remarkably gifted and dynamic individual, who had experienced the birth of constructivism in his native Hungary after World War I, the heyday of the Bauhaus in 1920s Germany, and the emergence of modernism during the 1930s, first in Britain and then in the United States. Even though Moholy-Nagy was gravely ill while writing Vision in Motion, the book resounds with his energy and optimism, especially with regard to his belief in design’s power to build a better world.


This eclectic and empowering vision of design, and the passionate conviction that society could benefit from adopting a more open-minded and progressive approach to it is summed up in Chapter Two of Vision in Motion with the words: Designing is not a profession but an attitude. I have always loved that phrase, quaint though the reference to designing sounds today. The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community, Moholy-Nagy wrote. Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: ‘design for life’. In a healthy society, this design for life will encourage every profession and vocation to play its part since the degree of relatedness to all their work gives to any civilization its quality.


Liberating design from the constraints of the professional role it had occupied since the Industrial Revolution by redefining it as an improvisational medium rooted in instinct, ingenuity and resourcefulness, and open to everyone, was typical of Moholy-Nagy. Intrepid, generous, subversive and irrepressibly curious, he is one of my favorite characters in design history. Who could resist the émigré artist and intellectual, who wore a factory worker’s boiler suit to signify his zest for technology while teaching at the Bauhaus, where he allowed women to study whatever they wished, including subjects previously reserved for men? And who wouldn’t admire Moholy-Nagy’s courage after his arrival in the US? His new daily uniform was a business suit, yet he remained as radical as ever in his politics, notably by welcoming African-Americans to his Chicago design school in an era when the city’s education system was largely segregated. Wherever he was and regardless of his personal circumstances, Moholy-Nagy sustained his zest for experimentation: from pioneering the then-new media of film and photography; to investigating their impact on visual culture and every other aspect of daily life.


Moholy-Nagy’s concept of design as an attitude was rooted in his youthful commitment to the constructivist movement, which he encountered as a young artist in Budapest immediately after Word War I. Design played a pivotal role in the work of the original constructivists, the group of avant garde Russian artists, writers and intellectuals, who met to exchange ideas and plan social change in the final years of the war, and included Aleksandr Rodchenko, his wife Varvara Stepanova, and their friends, Aleksei Gan, El Lissitzky and Lyubov Popova. Their belief that artists, designers and scientists should work in collaboration with industry to build a better, fairer society, by creating new things for the new life as Popova put it, was shared by the constructivist sympathisers who Moholy-Nagy encountered while living in Vienna and Berlin during the early 1920s. 


This was the vision of design that Moholy-Nagy introduced to the -Bauhaus after his arrival in March 1923. Over the next five years, he emerged as the school’s most influential teacher and was instrumental in positioning it as a progressive and inclusive institution, steeped in experimentation. After leaving the Bauhaus in 1928, Moholy-Nagy imbued all of his new ventures, including the Chicago schools, with the same spirit, which he articulated brilliantly in the concept of attitudinal design described in Vision in Motion.



My new book is entitled Design as an Attitude partly in tribute to Moholy-Nagy, but also because those words sum up much of the work it describes. Design as an Attitude is based on the By Design columns I wrote from 2014 to 2017 for the art magazine frieze as a survey of what I consider to be the most important issues in contemporary design. My objective is to portray what, I believe, is an exhilarating, though intensely challenging period for design, when the discipline itself and its impact on our lives are changing dramatically.


As design has adopted so many different meanings at different times and in different contexts, and been prone to muddles and clichés, it seems sensible to begin by defining what I believe it is. In all of its manifold guises, design has always had one elemental role as an agent of change that interprets changes of any type—social, political, economic, scientific, technological, cultural, ecological, or whatever—to ensure that they will affect us positively, rather than negatively. Design as an Attitude explores how designers, professional and otherwise, are fulfilling this role at an extraordinarily turbulent, often perilous time when we face changes of unprecedented speed and scale on many fronts.


Among them are global challenges like the deepening environmental and refugee crises; the rise of poverty, prejudice, intolerance and extremism; the recognition that many of the systems and institutions, which organised our lives in the last century, are no longer effective; and the torrent of ever more complex and powerful technologies that promise to transform society, though not always for the better. Design as an Attitude describes how designers are responding by planning and executing projects to tackle climate change; to reinvent dysfunctional areas of health care and social services; to provide emergency support for the victims of man-made and natural disasters; to help asylum seekers to settle into new communities; and to champion social justice. It charts the evolution of design’s relationship to other disciplines, such as art and craft, and its role in the resurgence of interest in making, whether by hand, mechanically or digitally. The book also maps the recent shifts in design culture as it becomes more diverse and inclusive, not only in terms of gender, geography and ethnicity, but by embracing people from very different fields, who did not train to be designers, yet are eager to engage with design. 


Technological change is a recurrent theme. As well as assessing the successes and failures of design’s record in developing applications for once bafflingly futuristic, now ubiquitous technologies such as smartphones, social media, blockchains and biometric identification software, Design as an Attitude anticipates the impact of artificial intelligence, quantum computing, driverless cars, digital fabrication and the other advances that we know will affect us in the near future. How are such innovations changing what we need and want from design? And how will they affect our expectations of the level of choice and control we wish to exercise in different aspect of our lives, and our ability to express our increasingly fluid, nuanced and idiosyncratic personal identities?


Not all of the projects described in the book have been executed by the type of attitudinal designers described by Moholy-Nagy, but many of them were. In defining design as an attitude, Moholy-Nagy recognised its potential to become a more powerful force in society by acting as an efficient and ingenious an agent of change, free from commercial constraints. There have always been designers who have done this: Rodchenko, Stepanova, El Lissitzky, -Popova and Gan were among them, as was -Moholy-Nagy himself. So was the maverick US designer, engineer, architect and activist R. Buckminster Fuller, who inveighed against the environmental damage caused by industrialisation as early as the 1920s, and devoted his working life to assuaging it. Fuller also flung himself into designing practical solutions to the housing shortage during and after World War II, by developing prefabricated structures to be built swiftly and safely. During the 1960s and 1970s, he mounted a campaign to mobilize a global movement of comprehensive designers who, he hoped, would forsake commercialism to devote their skills to forging a better future, and sounded remarkably like Moholy-Nagy’s attitudinalists.

Alice Rawsthorn

Born in Manchester, Alice Rawsthorn graduated in art history from Cambridge University. From 1985 to 2001, she was an award-winning journalist for the Financial Times, working as a foreign correspondent in Paris and pioneering the FT’s coverage of the creative industries. Alice became design critic of the international edition of the New York Times in 2006, and wrote a weekly Design column, which was syndicated worldwide, for over a decade.

Alice Rawsthorn is an influential public speaker and social media influencer on design, Alice has participated in important global events including TED and the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her TED talk has been viewed by over a million people.

Design has also been deployed as an eloquent form of political protest. Young French artists and designers occupied the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the May 1968 student revolt to establish the Atelier Populaire, where they produced hundreds of posters as what they called weapons in the service of the struggle. Another cause benefited from the resourcefulness of the anonymous members of Gran Fury, a collective that designed banners, billboards, T-shirts and stickers to raise awareness of AIDS worldwide, and to challenge misconceptions about it, during the late 1980s and early 1990s. (Typical of Gran Fury’s work was a series of posters bearing the apt and memorable slogan: Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.)


Inspiring though such projects are, attitudinal design remained on the margins of the design community throughout the 20th century. Yet the last decade has seen a radical transformation of design into the fluid, open-ended medium described in Vision in Motion.

The chief catalyst—apart from the determination and vigor of the individuals concerned—is the plethora of digital tools that have transformed the practice and possibilities of design. Most of these technologies are fairly basic and inexpensive, but, if imaginatively applied, can be remarkably useful in helping designers to operate independently. The availability of crowdfunding platforms, for example, makes it possible for them to raise capital. (The possibility of securing grants from the growing number of charitable foundations that support social and humanitarian design projects, including Acumen, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and The Kendeda Fund, helps too.) Designers are also able to manage huge quantities of complex data on affordable computers, and to use social media to raise awareness of their work in order to flush out collaborators, suppliers and fabricators, and to clinch funding or generate media coverage. Individually, each of these changes would have had a positive impact on design culture, as they have in other areas, but collectively they have proved metamorphic. Today’s attitudinal designers also benefit from the growing recognition that established methodologies are no longer fit for purpose in acutely important fields, including social services, health care, economic development and disaster relief, making the specialists in those sectors increasingly amenable to trying new approaches. 


Not that every designer will turn attitudinal; nor should they. Many of them will continue to study and practise specialist disciplines—such as automotive, fashion, graphic, interior, product, software or user experience design—in the conventional way, and to work in commercial environments. The lucky ones will find this work enjoyable, challenging, productive and worthwhile. Some of them will contribute to the commercial design programs that are driving social and environmental progress, such as the development of more efficient systems of generating clean, renewable energy. Yet more and more designers will seize the opportunity to pursue their political, cultural and ecological concerns by operating independently. They will also seek to define their own idiosyncratic ways of working, often in collaboration with other specialists, such as artists, programmers, economists, politicians, anthropologists, social scientists, psychologists or statisticians. Conversely, those communities will be readier to engage with design, just as Moholy-Nagy envisaged.


What does attitudinal design mean in practise? One of the boldest, and most mediatized projects so far is The Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch non-profit which is dedicated to addressing one of the world’s biggest pollution problems, by clearing the mass of plastic trash that is poisoning the oceans. It was founded in 2013 by a 19 year-old design engineering student Boyan Slat, after he discovered more plastic bags in the water than fish on a diving holiday in Greece. The Ocean Cleanup began by raising $ 2.2 million from crowdfunding to devise a giant floating structure with which Slat hoped to collect, contain and clear plastic trash from the huge garbage patches that have congregated in the Pacific. His plans have been criticized by scientists and environmentalists alike, yet he succeeded in securing more than $ 30 million to complete the prototyping and initial testing of the system, and to start advanced trials in the Pacific Ocean in 2018.



Equally ambitious, though less conspicuous, is Sehat Kahani, a project that has already had a significant impact on the quality of health care for Pakistani women thanks to the instinctive design flair of two doctors, Sara Khurram and Iffat Zafar. Pakistan suffers from a severe shortage of women doctors, even though three out of four of the country’s medical graduates are female. Many of them marry shortly after graduation, and come under intense social and family pressure to stop working, as Khurram did when she was forced to leave her job after becoming pregnant. As a result, there is a grave scarcity of female doctors to care for Pakistani women, many of whom do not wish to be treated by men. Working with the Pakistani social entrepreneur, Asher Hasan, Khurram and Zafar developed a network of teleclinics to enable female doctors to practice from their homes by examining women patients on live video links. The doctors liaise with the female nurses and community health workers in the clinics, who arrange the patients’ treatment. The concept, originally named DoctHERS, was tested in the Sultanabad area of Karachi in 2014, before expanding into other urban areas and rural regions, where medical resources are even scarcer. Khurram, Zafar and their colleagues encountered many problems—ranging from inadequate electricity supplies in rural clinics, to convincing skeptical, technophobic patients that the doctor speaking to them on the screen was qualified to treat them—but managed to find solutions. They now plan to expand Sehat Kahani’s network throughout the country.


Design has not traditionally been seen as an obvious solution to health care shortages or plastic pollution. Nor were independent designers expected to raise as much start-up capital as $ 30 million to mount epic ecological ventures on the scale of The Ocean Cleanup, or doctors, like Khurram and Zafar, to recognize that design could prove useful to their work. Even now, more people are likely to perceive design as a styling device, or as a reason why so much plastic trash is poisoning the oceans, rather than as a means of clearing it away. If Moholy-Nagy’s vision of design for life is to be realized, those stereotypes must be squashed. The only way to do so is for design, attitudinal and otherwise, to prove its worth in other spheres. Why else would politicians, bureaucrats and NGOs consider it to be capable of helping the victims of war crimes to secure justice, or to develop more efficient global systems of managing digital waste? And why would doctors continue to experiment with it? Design will only be empowered to play a more prominent and potent role in our lives, if it demonstrates that it deserves to do so, by being deployed wisely and sensitively with the generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness described in Vision in Motion.

This text is an excerpt from Alice Rawsthorn’s book Design as an Attitude, published by JRP/Ringier, Zurich 2018.—–