6/16 – Integral Design Leadership: “Be(com)ing Nonviolent Design”

Column / April - June 2015

Lisa Norton

Lisa Norton

Lisa Norton

“ How can one design or manufacture in a way that loves all of the children, of all species, for all time?” William McDonough and Michael Braungart

To understand the consciousness of violent designing, walk through any dollar store anywhere on the planet. Here, productive forces, harnessed for the sake of production itself, find their anticlimax. The conversion of finite resources into cheap commodities, worth less than the packaging they come in, is a pervasive type of violent design. Having lived immersed in worlds revealed by designed artifacts, we have acquired a familiarity with —and an expectation of — access to an extraordinary range of modern designed conveniences — including those cheap expendables priced to externalize their true costs of production.  Along with these expectations we also acquire something more unsettling — a tolerance for the neutral or indifferent equipmentality of designed things.  Because professional design tends to focus on external factors such as aesthetics and performance, it’s easy to forget the relational, sensorial and psycho-spiritual dimensions of reality that are also revealed by design.  Designed products and services that seek to elicit our participation in this full spectrum of factors might be called “nonviolent designing”.

dollar store

The Dollar Store

Although the dollar store is perhaps an extreme case, it may be useful to expand our concepts of violent designing agency from explicitly malevolent products and services such as weapons or malware to include seemingly innocuous everyday instances of violent designed artifacts such as disposable plastic water bottles. In fact, these quotidian forms of violence are much greater threats to our planetary future. For designers, just noticing our habituation to violent design in the form of say for example, needless production of entropy, is a creative thought experiment and a necessary first step to becoming more aware of how designed artifacts dispose us to a range of types of improvised choices and behaviors. Designed artifacts and services invite us into many possible enactments. They may inhibit full self-expression or actually encourage non-conformity. They may invite a propensity toward alertness or numbness. Disposable cameras for example lend social legitimacy to casual indifference toward the things we throw away after a single use. Although usually not intentional, these callous user-performative scripts are largely unconsidered by the designer or manufacturer. They arise as natural derivatives of our ways of being modern humans with needs for comfort, safety and connection.

In bringing the criterion of violence to the arena of product, system and service design we add another metric to the ways we frame and assess our intentions and our ability to actually deliver life-positive experiences via design.  As we develop more nuanced distinctions, things no longer look so black and white. There is more space from which to create designs for compassionate and caring human-product interactions. Assessing our designed environments from the perspective of the degree of potential harm can enhance a precautionary designing stance.  Although we can never predetermine all the possible consequences of a designed offering or innovation, we can learn to account upfront for contingencies.

As the crystallization of the form of consciousness that created them, designed artifacts operationalize an ethos. Designed artifacts are where the rubber meets the road— where our intentional manipulation of raw materials or pixels meets the needs and concerns of the world —or indifferently turns away. The tangible and intangible outcomes of our designing – the products, programs, and practices that are eventually distributed in ways far beyond our control— exist within narratives that teach us how to treat one another and how to relate to matter and to life. This simple and obvious –but usually neglected– fact means that designed artifacts also enfold the latent potential to bring moments of opportunity, care and compassion.  A nonviolent designing ethos stems from conscious awareness of objective metrics such as product lifecycles and service and manufacturing impacts, combined with an internalization of the felt sense that we, as the design team, are actually touching the lives of other beings.

What would a proactively peaceful or even “cruelty-free” designing ethos look like? Perhaps more sensitive to the kinds of experiences and interactions that we put into play as authors and users of designed artifacts.  Perhaps more fluent in the myriad ways that every day utilitarian design scripts may inadvertently elicit callous behaviors or defensive responses.  From a psychological perspective, we speak of projecting human traits upon inanimate objects.  A nonviolent designing practice would incorporate product semantics, yet would have to go much deeper. Mobilizing artifacts as extensions of our very ways of being demands a willingness to touch and be touched at the heart level. Quality of interaction will figure prominently in any nonviolent designing ethos, as a form of being-with or abiding. Industrial designer Tufan Orel has synthesized the interdisciplinary cutting edges of design, marketing, psychology and sociology in defining “…a new product category which he calls “vital self technologies” wherein care of the self and human well-being take precedence over convenience, speed or price point” (Buchanan). Likewise, Gianfranco Zaccai of Continuum design consultancy redirects our experience to the soul-deadening or soul- enlivening affordances of artifacts, spaces and protocols.

A qualitatively different agenda from postmodern approaches that bring justice to a world out there by means of design, design practices built upon nonviolent principles seek to establish inter-subjective repertoires by which care and concern are enacted as designing-in-action. Post-postmodern designed interactions both disclose and enhance the user’s available range of expression of relatedness with other beings.  As a platform for design practice, nonviolent designing would focus our awareness on the quotidian ways we enact violence to the self and to others. Although doing no harm is a superordinate goal that we aspire to, yet never reach, it serves as an aligning principal. Treating the world as worthy of care and respect, a nonviolent designing platform would go beyond meeting the minimum criteria of doing no conscious harm, to being of active benefit. Configured to invite the greatest benefit for the greatest number, nonviolent designing strategies broaden the range of choice architectures that our designed worlds give us the opportunity to enact.



Buchanan, R. and Margolin, V. Eds. (1995) Discovering Design: Explorations in Design Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 77-104

Braungart, M. and McDonough, W.. The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability –Designing for Abundance. 2013. New York: North Point Press. p. 9

Latour, B. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2007)

Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Author

Lisa Norton is a Professor in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She holds the B.F.A. from Cleveland Institute of Art and the M.F.A. from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. The engaging power of crafted objects led her from fine art, via human interaction, into integral design. Norton teaches, writes, facilitates and consults to designers and organizations on curricular development and other values driven and designed change processes. designbeing.org.

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