The emergence of design as a professional discipline in the 1950’s heralded a new age of consumption and individualism. In response to the traumas of two world wars, design brought the promise of new utopias and a stable world. Being tied to industrial mass production the design of this Modernist utopia was built on “problem-solving”, “form follows function”, “less is more” and a conviction that the evils of society could, and should, be eradicated. This 20th century view of a virtuous world was shattered by 21st century communications technologies. Here the tools of centralised authorities were replaced by social networks with their decentralised cacophonies of voices and avalanches of information. But, if an old world order has receded then a new kind of order still needs designing to meet these contemporary conditions and prevent societies from slipping back into anarchy, mob rule or tribalism. Indeed, we seem to have liberated ourselves from the industrialised tyrannies of one-over-many to inhabit a new extreme in which the many are starting to dominate the few and information overload works like anaesthetic. We seem to have oscillated from one polarity, “problem, solving” to its antithesis, “wicked problems” – ones that cannot be solved due to the complexity of their conditions.
This, in itself, forces binary options to be adopted so that paralysis is avoided and decisions made. If the existence of such polarities is to be managed then the multifarious differences of a messy world must be embraced and structured for a new order to emerge. As the relentless march of industrialisation forced people to migrate from countryside to city so did the word “virtue” assume a new meaning. Setting itself against the vices of inner city existence (prostitution and crime) virtue became associated with chastity and innocence (as we still know it today). But, its original meaning was different – virtue being the soundness of judgment to find points of equilibrium between opposing vices (e.g. between excess or deficiency, heaven or hell, sex or love, rich or poor, fast or slow). In other words, to embrace (not neutralise) difference as a key to finding new ways of making the world in which we want to live. This is the virtue of design in meeting our challenge.