Huffpost Arts
Soren Petersen Headshot

Is Design the New Opiate for the Intelligentsia?

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Food, exercise, sex and novel experiences produce endorphins that make us feel happy, sometimes even ecstatic. In much the same way, the creative economy caters to and exploits our need for novelty by constantly supplying exciting new art, architecture, design, fashion, film and music. We stay enthralled within the matrix.

Has design become untenable by pushing a frantic succession of escalating needs for endorphin highs rather than serving as a model for a sustainable life? How many smart devices and new upgrades does one really need? Are we fueling the economy by hoarding relics, and eventually just "shopping-till-we-drop?"

For thousands of generations, visionary people in authority consolidated their power by using stories, ceremonies and traditions to control the dreams, values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors of others.

To help their message come alive, design has been commissioned to provide powerful philosophies expressed in spaces, objects, images and symbols. Think of mystical Stonehenge, the opulently gilded horse carriages of royalty, the paintings of the Madonna and the ubiquitous heart shape (h).

Originally spearheaded by rulers and religions, these powerful design messages were eventually adopted by guilds, corporations and political parties. Industry designed products have risen in esteem over the past decades and are now worshiped in museums, magazines and the news media. Where before it was only available in cosmopolitan high-end stores, high-design has proliferated and is now accessible in any mall and box store.

While few would disagree that access to well-designed products is a good thing, is it in effect, the worship of graven images? Isn't it about time to call a spade, a spade instead of fueling the propaganda campaign for an even higher-design religion?

Today, the use of design for personal propaganda has spread to such an extent that even ordinary people can produce their own virtual content, attracting thousands of viewers and gathering tens of thousands of devoted followers.

Democratizing knowledge and tools by making these items widely available is seen as a good thing but is any of this self-aggrandizement really making our lives better? Could it be time to examine some of the more important internal facets of life rather than just the building of one's personal brand?

Sustainable progress is rooted in a well-balanced diversity, not blind worship and the lemming-like streaming of egoic desires. Compare the architecture in a neighborhood produced in a mechanistic cookie-cutter fashion, with that of a quaint village of eccentric, organically grown homes that have unique additions and extensions. In which template would you rather live and bring up your children?

While visionary design has been a significant contributor to our progress and we are better off than we were a couple of generations ago, we still have a lot to learn. One opportunity might be taking the time to design our own dreams, values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors instead of simply inheriting them. By unquestioningly adopting beliefs from powerful authorities in our society, we effectively let other agendas; ceremonies and traditions continue to dictate our lives and, in effect, will eventually default to "drinking the cool-aid."