There’s a talk by Bruno Latour titled A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design that I find myself coming back to again and again. As with most academic presentations, the path it follows is winding and at times obscure, but it plunges into depths that few manage to obtain.

In the talk, Latour speaks of design as a practice and perspective that will be central to shaping the 21st century. In his view, the world is shifting away from what he calls “matters of fact” and towards “matters of concern.” Meaning those things we formerly viewed as objective facts which must be grimly accepted are now coming under our ability to control: disease, death, the traits of our children, the earth’s climate, and on and on. The world we inhabit will increasingly be one that is designed by humans.

The central portion of the talk outlines what Latour sees as the “five advantages of the concept of ‘design’”. The argument that runs through each is that design is a necessary antidote to certain perspectives that shaped the 20th century.

  1. Design implies humility

    As a concept, design implies a humility that seems absent from the word “construction” or “building”.

  2. Design pays attention to details

    “Go forward, break radically with the past and the consequences will take care of themselves!” This was the old way - to build, to construct, to destroy, to radically overhaul: “Après moi le déluge!” But that has never been the way of approaching a design project. A mad attention to the details has always been attached to the very definition of design skills.

  3. Design is open to interpretation and questions of meaning

    Wherever you think of something as being designed, you bring all of the tools, skills and crafts of interpretation to the analysis of that thing. It is thus of great import to witness the depths to which our daily surroundings, our most common artefacts are said to be designed.

  4. Design is always a redesign

    Design is a task that follows to make that something more lively, more commercial, more usable, more user friendly, more acceptable, more sustainable, and so on, depending on the various constraints to which the project has to answer.</p>

    [...]

    Designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.

  5. Design involves an ethical dimension

    No designer will be able to claim: “I am just stating what exists”, or “I am simply drawing the consequences of the laws of nature”, or “I am simply reading the bottom line”.

There is of course much more nuance and detail to be found within the talk on each of these points.

The talk ends with a challenge to designers:

Now here is the challenge: In its long history, design practice has done a marvellous job of inventing the practical skills for drawing objects, from architectural drawing, mechanic blueprints, scale models, prototyping etc. But what has always been missing from those marvellous drawings (designs in the literal sense) are an impression of the controversies and the many contradicting stake holders that are born within with these.

In short, if design is charged with responding to the negative externalities of 20th century technology – climate change, disease, increasing inequality – how can we avoid creating new (and perhaps even more devastating) unintended outcomes?