Alternatives to virtuous vegetation

Paul Epp

I hate kale.

I realize that that’s not very politically-correct of me. Kale is overfull of virtue and its consumption will undoubtedly keep me cancer-free and wholesome in every way. But I don’t like it. I kind of wish I did, but I don’t and the vague social compulsion I feel to embrace it actually has the opposite effect. I don’t want to offend it, but I’m offended by the need to avoid offence.

How can anyone imagine that we live in a world where complete offence-avoidance is possible? I have a lot of strong feelings, as we all do, and although some may find some of these offensive, that doesn’t change them or diminish my feelings of my right to own them. I am what I am.

Avoiding offense is laudable and most of us try to achieve this, most of the time. Where it gets trickier is when we are proscribed from giving offence. I prefer to be a nice guy but if there is a risk of being punished if I’m not, my reflex to be nice kind of goes into reverse. I don’t think I’m so unique in this way. Political correctness appears to be about avoiding offence, but I think it’s also about adopting the prevailing values of the moment, as dictated by one assertive group or another.

So, what does this have to do with design? Quite a bit, in my way of looking at things. We designers are in the business of proposing alternatives. These are optional ways of doing things, making things, using things and even thinking about things. Designing products, which is what I’m the most familiar with, isn’t usually in the business of avoiding offence, but with furniture, a large part of what we do is provide utility and comfort, and maybe even joy, to a wide variety of furniture users. We make chairs of different sizes, or make them adjustable, to accommodate different body sizes, as just one example. We make lighting that adjusts in position and intensity.

We provide choices and attempt to accommodate the diversity of users as fully as possible. And yes, it’s important that we avoid giving offence, which isn’t good for business.

One of the features of our socially responsible society is the obligation to provide equivalent opportunity to all citizens. There is a long history of designing and marketing to the largest part of the market, almost exclusively. This makes good business sense but may no longer make good social sense. Are all of us entitled to equal opportunities? And who pays for this? All of us, unequally, with the goal of another kind of equality? It’s an interesting problem that, in turn, raises many other problems. But I digress. Our society is composed of a wide range of body sizes (and genders?) and a wide range of body mobility, flexibility, strength and so on. It may be offensive to leave some of us less well provided for.

As designers, we choose materials and their associated technology. Even materials have the potential to offend, especially in terms of their comparative greenness, and the technologies applied to them only compound these considerations. We choose the sizes, the shapes and forms, the colours and most other aspects of the things that get made. Are we being fair to everyone?

As we become increasingly aware of problematic issues with what we make and how we make it, our responsibility as designers to provide alternative solutions is correspondingly increased. This is a good thing, in that the need for designers is enhanced and the needs of humankind are more fully addressed. And the flip side is that some of these problems are wicked and even good designers get stumped. Interestingly, even when the issues being addressed are not material, designers are increasingly being used and valued for their alternative-seeking skills in solving problems that may be more social than tangible. All that from thinking about kale.

Paul Epp is an emeritus professor at OCAD University, and former chair of its Industrial Design department.

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