Liberal: Capital L or lowercase?

I was called a liberal recently. And I wanted to reply threateningly as the Virginian said: “Smile when you call me that.”

Paul Epp

I knew I wasn’t being flattered, even though my only known flaw at the time was that I was from Toronto.But my accuser wasn’t completely wrong. I’m a designer too, and that kind of makes me a liberal, regardless of where I’m from.

Being open to new ideas is the very essence of what most designers are. In fact, designers are generally or even specifically in the business of generating unexpected ideas. This is the social role that we play and it’s our gift to society. However, that doesn’t preclude us from being fiscally or even socially conservative. We all are complex individuals with complicated histories. But being in the ‘new idea’ business tends to form us in many interrelated ways.

One of the pleasures of travel is, for me, the chances to meet other designers in other countries.

And it’s a reoccurring observation that we are more similar than our various ethnic and national identities might predict. In fact, I often feel closer to these foreign individuals than I do to some members of my own family; I’m more like them. We share a respect for innovation. And we often have similar social and even political values. That may not be a coincidence.

Being a designer entails a certain way of looking at the world. What if? How would it be if we tried this idea instead? How many different ways could we do something? Could we change that? What if something was bigger, or smaller, or…? A discipline we learn is to open our minds and this leaves us open-minded. And I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. It’s an approach that suits me.

Like all orientations, this one comes with a variety of consequences. Change has its risks. Not all new ideas are good — in fact most of them are not, as all of us have learned — the hard way. But being a designer seems to entail a commitment to exploring and accepting that this approach has its costs. One complication is that our clients are often more conservative, as generally suits business. They don’t like to be surprised and that itself is no surprise. We perform different roles.

If we are industrial designers, and most of us are, whether we are designing products or graphics, or user experiences, we are contributing to the vast and pervasive capitalistic culture that is based on industry and which is the bedrock of our economy.

We collude with and support it, as it supports us. Our work makes it work better. Our output is grist for its mill. And the reality of capitalism is that its benefits are not equally distributed or achieved without some unwelcome costs. That may even make us a bit uncomfortable. As happy as I am that my designs have provided many employment opportunities and financial rewards, they have also consumed a lot of resources and contributed to the generation of a lot of waste. There are no free rides.

It has been said that if you are not a socialist when you are young, you lack a heart. It is also said that if you are still a socialist when you are mature, you lack a brain. Being at least nominally mature now myself, I appreciate that observation. Being liberal doesn’t necessarily make one a Liberal. Liberality, as classically conceived, is a form of liberty. I want to be free to pursue my potential as an individual and in my case that is as a designer.

I’ve been lucky to be able to. I have utilized my liberty to be a creative person and I remain committed to the idea that improvement is possible.

If I’ve done my work well, I have contributed to our culture in such a way that there is more that is worth conserving. I think that is how it works.

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

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