02 January 2010

Harrison Ford might have something to say about Design Education

I know I said I'd start writing about my 12 notable learning moments this year but I couldn't resist posting about my experience of watching The Mosquito Coast today. In case you haven't already seen it, it's the story of a family that leaves America to move to an island called Geronimo in order to start a new life far from the trappings of the "first world." The 1986 film is based on Paul Theroux's novel of the same title and stars Harrison Ford. His character, Allie Fox, is a Harvard drop out - now inventor - with nine patents, six of them pending. His disgust for the commercialization of America (and ongoing commentary) could find itself well placed in our current discussions about the the what, why and hows of making.

We eat when we're not hungry, drink when we're not thirsty. We buy what we don't need and throw away everything that's useful. Why sell a man what he wants? Sell him what he doesn't need. Pretend he's got eight legs and two stomachs and money to burn. It's wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.  

In the early scenes of the film, Allie brings a small scale model of an innovative air conditioning system to a local asparagus farmer who only sees the mock up as tomfoolery and a waste of his money. This puts Allie over the edge and in no time, he's moving his family to Geronimo. Upon arrival, they work diligently to create a life for themselves and the "natives." Allie's optimism and inventions seems to sustain him; eventually claiming the title of Father. Life seems perfect on Geronimo until rogues arrive with guns and a desire to dominate the community. This leads to the destruction of the village when his full scale air conditioning/ice machine blows up from all the chemicals needed to make the thing work (that has obliterated the village and surrounding waterways). Because of this, Allie moves his family to another location and is seemingly invigorated by the conquest of another land.

Everything we need is here. Right here. We can live simply: gardening, beach combing. I'm a changed man, mother. No more chemicals or poisons. If what you want isn't washed up on this beach, you probably don't need it. 

While Avatar has a lot to say about nature and our relationship with the world, I would suggest that The Mosquito Coast could be postured as a tool to teach about design today. Design for development, sustainable design practice, design ethics and human-centered design are but a few topics this film (and book) could address. 

It's an absolute sin to accept the decadence of obsolescence. Why do things get worse and worse? They don't have to. They could get better and better. We accept that things fall apart. 

Design and development: Allie's ideas about reforming Geronimo offers a great case study of how one should be aware of the impact of design in another context and culture. Huge topic but valuable for the growing number of designers who wish to design cross-culturally.
Sustainable design: We'll give Allie points for using the resources he has (even though we're not sure how he got those chemicals to Geronimo). But we might also recommend that making an ice machine might not have been the best option?
Human-centered design: Allie initially acts in a very participatory manner so you're led to believe he's all about collaboration. But his ideas of how-it-ought-to-be win out over any kind of co-design session to plan their future community.
Design Ethics: We might suggest this as a catch-all topic. How you make things, why you make things, what you make, where and when you make it are all relevant questions that get exposed in Allie Fox's character.

Nature’s crooked. I wanted right angles. Straight lines.

By using this film as a catalyst for discussions, a myriad of projects could surface to counter or re-imagine the process that Allie Fox goes through. We are all searching for the value in design and want to be people who contribute appropriately. If the future of design requires a broader understanding of our world and its various systems, I think this film offers a creative means to discuss what it might look like to sustain something in the face of uncharted territory. We're thinking of calling it DESN 370: Design For Survival.

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