The Art of Living

This fragment of the introduction to the book Design Does (for better and for worse) was written by Dani Pearson, founding partner of DDS, and edited by the Design Museum of Barcelona and Elisava School of Design and Engineering.

Have you ever looked into a baby’s sparkling eyes and wished you could see life through theirs?

There’s definitely something about the way they look at things that captivates us; the way that everything seems to be deserving of an in-depth analysis. They stop at every last detail with absolute patience and in a constant state of fascination, trying to figure out everything down to the smallest elements of their surroundings.

But that same look is easily disturbed. That’s us coming. Struggling to deal with life. Because when we are born, very little of what will become our selves is constructed. We could say that, although we have a life ahead of us which could develop into thousands of possible different futures, such as becoming a kind of genius-nerd or even a fully devoted and responsible parent, at that stage in our lives, we can’t even move on our own.

And that is quite something if you compare a baby with, let’s say, a horse. Which has almost full capacity to live from the moment it touches the ground. There’s certainly little to doubt regarding our innate survival skills: we humans need help. A lot of it.

From the very first moment we open our eyes we need our parents to basically watch over every single step we take. From our afternoon feed to cleaning our butts in the bathroom of a crowded Starbucks.

But as we make headway into life, we being to understand that we can’t take living for granted; that it’s a long and personal race for survival and we need to take an active role in it. Thankfully, we humans learn fast. And that is precisely our big advantage.

At as early as 5 months, we already have glimmers of consciousness and memory according to new research conducted by Cognitive neuroscientist Sid Kouider of CNRS.

This is a key moment in our lives as it is when our central commander, the brain, starts picking up on clues as to how we can succeed in life. And although we almost certainly remember nothing from those early months, this is precisely when all the magic starts to shine through; when we establish our first conscious connections with the world.

And this all coincides with that look in a baby’s eyes, when it seems nothing could be more astounding than what is right in front of them; whether this is nothing more than a plain white wall or Justin Bieber himself.

Although sight is not the only sense that plays a key role in our process of making sense of our surroundings, it is probably the most graphic example of what is going on in a baby’s little head.

And it is during these early stages of understanding when babies start to master their most powerful tool for coping with the world and making use of their parents: a long, loud cry, meant as a direct call to action. Ear-piercing and headache-inducing it may be, but its effectiveness is second to none.

And it is precisely this back and forth screaming that sparks a common language between the baby and their parents; one in which parents are deprived of sleep and have an 24–7 exhausted morning face, while babies, in return, get what they want.

During this arduous process, though, is when we start developing our earlybird design tools. We consciously observe our surroundings while as the same time testing our parents. It is all about getting feedback and of course, fed back.

From that point onwards nothing and no one can stop us. A bedtime cuddle, the need to be picked up from the cradle, screaming to stop a bath session, the eagerness to repeat for the 44th time that “amazing” sound made by our furry seal teddy bear, which we never tire of…

We soon become masters at controlling the minds of the people around us, which we do by shouting at any time, any place and under any circumstance, so that we can satisfy our need for immediate gratification.

Thankfully, parents are not always fighting a losing battle, and, as time goes by, they gain skills for dealing with their babies and meeting their needs without sacrificing every last ounce of energy.

In fact, for a long time there’s been quite a trend in thinking up ways to resolve the same issue: — What the hell do I need to do to keep that little devil quiet?

All sorts of gadgets have been created over the centuries, some of them quite dubious: from wetting the baby’s thumb with brandy to sooth them, to “sugar tits” — rags containing sugar or honey and tied up to make a bulb for babies to suck on.

After much trial and error, we ended up with the so-called “pacifier”, consisting of a rubber nipple attached to a plastic support and patented as a “baby comforter” back in 1900 by a Manhattan Pharmacist called Christian W. Meinecke. Brilliant isn’t it? At least from a point of view of keeping your baby shtum.

Some might call its effect pure magic. Or at least most of the time. And this is down to a carefully studied design that reproduces the mother’s nipple, which probably tops the list of a baby’s innate priorities. The resulting placebo effect seems able to calm a baby in the most desperate circumstances.

But let’s take some time to look more closely at this issue, as, believe it or not, it constitutes the black swan underlying the meaning of this book.

Without wanting to go into the pros and cons for deciding whether or not a dummy is the right thing for babies, this is, at least, a controversial yet convenient way to talk about humans and our struggle to grow up as individuals, and also as a society.

Pacifiers were designed to calm us. They are, essentially, a naïve solution to satisfying our individualities. Whatever the reason is for using them, they certainly keep us quiet. And that is precisely the reaction that is worth underlining.

Today we should be looking at the world around us with the very same critical eyes that a parent uses to analyse the possible negative effects of their baby sucking on a piece of rubber.

We have now reached the point where it is fundamental to our development as a society to ask ourselves the right questions, which will enable us to learn, not only what is best for us, but what is indispensable for the world we live in.

So, should we be talking so much about satisfying our own personal needs? It certainly shouldn’t be that problematic, despite the fact that today we live in a world of over 7.5 billion people, which consumes one and a half times its productive capacity every year, thus giving a whole new scale to the smallest and simplest detail.

Just to make it more graphic, this controversial life hack known as the pacifier is used by more than 75% of western babies. Which means at least 7 million pacifiers being used every year in western countries alone. And then there is the overproduction, material loss, energy waste and all the resources needed to end up with something as simple as an imitation nipple. In other words, each and every one of our actions, even sucking on a piece of rubber, has its global consequences.

Over the past 250 years, we have been modelling the world that surrounds us to satisfy not only our needs, but our wills, dreams and desires with a kind of “laissez-faire” faith, acting as if everything would eventually turn out for the best.

For better and for worse, in most of the cases, it has come down to a matter of resources, efforts and knowledge brought together to produce an extraordinarily diverse range of pacifiers of all types, shapes and colours, keeping us quiet and shaping us, both as babies and grown-ups.

But have these pacifiers, in the guise of all kinds of products, consumables, innovations and services, helped us to learn how to live better, despite accomplishing their main goals to perfection?

This book is intended to be a reflection of the narratives of design’s role in society today. We hope it will shed some light on the notion that we cannot just keep sucking on the Earth as if it was a never-ending pacifier.