Design Karma

Design is tricky. It floats in a realm polluted by superficiality, greed, ego, insecurity, attachment and suffering. Design can be used to make the world a better place or be used to bolster weak self-esteem and set oneself up as better than others. Design can be a toy of the rich and seen as such by many others, when in fact it can be used for so much good. When seen as simply a toy, its importance in others’ lives is diminished.  It’s decadent, effeminate, unnecessary, a waste of resources.

How can I love design when it so often feels this way? Part of the problem is that there are vested interests keeping it that way. Making aesthetics seem part of the realm of above-mentioned greed, envy, decadence and so on keeps smart people from engaging in it. For many it feels dirty, such as Wall Street for many people.

But design has an impact on the way people feel. The material poverty of a place adds to the feeling of real poverty and aids in keeping people feeling hopeless.

Imagine a tree-lined street in a well-off neighborhood. Then imagine an intersection with a gas station on one corner, a tire store kitty-corner from that; the other corners are inhabited by an empty strip mall and an quick oil change place.

I live between these two extremes. Literally, as there are many beautiful tree-lined streets where professors live in this college town. I live on one of the last ones before the neighborhoods change.  A few blocks north is what I describe as hell – that corner. Go further up the street and there are more auto-related businesses such as a window tinter, a car alarm installer, a rental agency; then there are various fast food establishments and payday loan sharking operations.

The well-off demand, and can pay for, relative peace and quietude. The poor are faced with a material poverty that drains their souls. Every business is surrounded by its own parking lot and trees that would cool the area are absent completely. It may be economically mildly productive for the corporations that own the gas station and oil change place, but it is a barren soulless place with no shelter from the beating summer sun or the parching winter wind. Imagine taking a walk there. You wouldn’t unless you had to for work or were a teenager who lived nearby and had nowhere else to go.

But isn’t it just a little pretentious to talk of aesthetics in an area of poverty?  It shouldn’t be. Aesthetics plays a role in how one sees the world, as well as how the world returns that gaze.

But it’s still a difficult balance. Aesthetics can play a role in grace and aesthetics can play a role in vulgarity. And often it’s even difficult to distinguish between the two. The soul of a thing, a place, an object, can be tricky to ascertain sometimes. The same object in different situations can represent different things altogether. Part of it is determined by what has gone into the formation of the space, object, thing. This is what I think of as design karma. What is put in is what comes out.  Is it greed, ugliness, ego? Or is it care, love and compassion? The most beautiful object created for the ugliest of reasons carries with it that stigma. An object cannot of course carry it beyond the context of those who know and understand that situation, but so long as that context remains so does the stigma, so does the karma.


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