September 16, 2014 | 10 Comments

“How to Kill People” (George Nelson)

From the curators: “Today we are going to explore a problem in design… killing occupies so much of our attention.” These words open architect and industrial designer George Nelson’s 20-minute lecture on the evolution of weaponry. Made as a one-off short film for the humanities-focused Camera 3 program, which aired on CBS from the mid-1950s to the late 1970s, Nelson’s history of the relationship between design and violence was made all the more devastating for its calm and measured delivery. Against the backdrop of the Cold War arms race and the postwar fetishization of conspicuous consumption, Nelson traced a chronology of violent objects from prehistory to his present. The program begins with a description of the handheld prehistoric rock weapon and the need for physical proximity between attacker and victim; Nelson ends by addressing rocket launchers and post-Hiroshima fears of the atom bomb and nuclear attack, observing succinctly the very great distance these weapons effect between those who operate them and those who suffer their consequences. Nelson (1908–86) had a wide-ranging and prolific career that encompassed architecture and design criticism, curatorial work, and teaching as much as it did architectural, product, graphic, and industrial design. “How to Kill People” was billed as the chapter Nelson did not include in his 1957 publication Problems of Design. In light of today’s drone-operated missile attacks and distant, mediated warfare, it’s the topic that remains most profoundly prescient and should continue to concern designers—and us all—in the present.

There are many reasons to admire George Nelson. For a pillar of the mid-20th-century U.S. design establishment, he had an unusually enlightened interest in the social, environmental, and human impact of design. He championed the work of more gifted friends, like the Eameses and Buckminster Fuller, and lent the latter a desk in his New York studio whenever he needed one. I even quite like his Bubble lights.

But Nelson also had his flaws, and his 1960 short film “How to Kill People” is among them. It consists of a 24-minute soliloquy, which he begins by arguing that devising lethal weapons is one of the three roles in which design enjoys the “unquestioning support” of society—the others being homemaking and fashion. Nelson then delivers a lively potted history of weaponry design, illustrating his points by brandishing a rock, a club, and other suitably menacing props.

Not that his arguments are wholly wrong. Weapons have indeed played a pivotal part in design history, starting with the prehistoric men and women who attached sharpened stones to sticks to defend their caves against predators. Designing ever deadlier armaments has since been essential to the success of fearsome warlords through the ages, and pioneered new models of manufacturing. Thomas Jefferson was so impressed by the ingenuity with which the late-18th-century French armorer Le Blanc standardized the design of its muskets that he submitted a report on its methods to the U.S. government.

Nor does the film founder solely because of Nelson’s antediluvian views, like his infuriating presumption that designers are invariably male, or that their greatest aspiration is to produce “works of art.” Such gaffes date his film as indelibly as his Mad Men smoker’s cough, but the most troubling aspect of “How to Kill People” is its morality.

One problem is Nelson’s apparently unquestioning conviction that governments are entitled to go to war, and that society will support them. Equally disturbing is his insistence on distinguishing between what he calls “the respectable kind of killing” (his euphemism for government-sanctioned warfare) and “murder.” He seems so dazzled by the colossal investment in the design of military gizmos that he assumes everyone else is too. And he fails dismally to address one of the most important, albeit tortuous aspects of the design of weaponry or anything else: the designer’s moral responsibility towards the outcome of his or her work.

At no point does Nelson question whether so many designers should invest so much of their time and energy on armaments. The answer will be determined by each individual’s beliefs. If, like him, you consider war—and the slaughter it can cause—to be justifiable, why would you object to designing the most efficient means of ensuring victory? But if you are opposed to warfare, surely you will feel the same about designing its tools, even those that are intended for conflicts whose objectives you may deem to be laudable, like the overthrow of vicious tyrants. Given the virulence of the illegal arms trade, what’s to stop them from subsequently being used malignly?

The same question of conscience applies to every area of design whose outcome is potentially damaging, from health, to the environment. Not that designers should automatically be held responsible for the unintended consequences of their work unless they could reasonably be expected to have anticipated them. And how could they not in the case of a combat drone, assault rifle or supercavitating torpedo?

One positive point Nelson might have made in defense of weaponry design is that some militaristic innovations are subsequently put to benevolent use. The leaps in computer technology in the years after World War II were fueled by the wartime investment in devising new systems of code-breaking and theoretical bomb testing; just as millions of people have benefited from the advances in the design of wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs, originally intended to assist military veterans. Do the benefits justify the suffering and destruction caused by earlier incarnations of the same technologies? Again, the answer is a matter of individual conscience, and is as complex as every other judgment relating to the design politics of warfare.

Nor does Nelson ask whether it would be more productive to focus the design resources currently expended on “How to Kill People” on “How to Stop Killing People.” The answer to that question is an unambiguous “yes,” or would be if society could be persuaded to see design differently. Public perceptions of design have evolved since Nelson made his film in 1960, but are still prone to muddles, clichés, and the irritatingly pernicious presumption that design is primarily a styling tool.

Not until there is a consensus that design has much more to offer—by applying the design process strategically to help to develop more effective alternatives to military conflict, for example, or to create fairer, more productive societies whose citizens are less likely to fall prey to tyranny—will we derive the full benefit of design’s power to save lives, rather than to destroy them.


Design for war and weapons often spurs further innovations and adaptions for the greater good. Can this perverse relationship ever be reconciled? Do the benefits justify the suffering and destruction caused by earlier incarnations of the same technologies?

  1. September 18, 2014, 2:22 pm

    YO Charles

    Perhaps missing the Point?

    The Toy Section makes the video a little more subversive than the article author presents it. I suggest not taking my word for it, though.

  2. September 19, 2014, 8:23 pm

    Julie Lasky

    George Would Be George

    Alice, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki only 15 years behind them, I believe the TV audience of 1960 found the title of this program as shocking as we do today.They, too, I am certain, were poised between disbelief (“He can’t be serious!”) and indignation (“Or is he?”). And I think, with his deadpan drone and smoker’s hack, Nelson, that old fox, was playing to their outrage.

    One giveaway is at the beginning when he enunciates three categories of design: fashion, housewares and tools for killing people (as if he didn’t participate himself in a much more nuanced universe). But the real ironic clobber comes at the end with his discussion of advances in weapons of warfare:

    “We have designed war and its instruments to the point where we have not only recreated the boredom and the tedium of peace, we have also made the weapons incomprehensible. Is it any wonder that in every medium of entertainment we have shifted from the respectable kind of killing to stories of murder? How else can we reintroduce the personal element into the activity that has been man’s favorite throughout all history?

    “If legalized killing should ever be brought to an end, the newest designs tell us why: it’s become too impersonal to be interesting and too complex to be comprehensible.”

    He concludes with the hope that designers brought to such a pass would turn to other pursuits. “Personally,” he says, “I think it would be nice if that something else has to do with people.”

    Can we doubt that everything that leads to that final invocation of humanity is a very dark joke?

  3. September 20, 2014, 7:51 pm


    Battle of Orreaga

    The stained glass showed at the beginning of the video depicts the Battle of Orreaga (Roncesvalles), August 15 778, a very important battle where us the Basques defeated the troops of Charlemagne and constituted the State of Navarre, which represents our will for democracy.

    “This State remains ours, because we have never accepted or recognised any other.”

  4. September 25, 2014, 12:10 pm

    […] this 20-minute program, a straight faced George Nelson presented a cultural history of weapon technology, which was at the same time a scathing commentary […]

  5. September 25, 2014, 5:19 pm

    William LIpton


    We should not forget the context in which Mr. Nelson formulated his thoughts. America was locked in the Cold War. We had an innocence about propaganda that made the threat of war seem imminent. This was still the “duck and cover” era.

    Finally I wonder if all the people who design armaments think of themselves as engineers, not designers. We have only come to recognize the interdependence of these two skills in recent years.

  6. November 15, 2014, 7:10 pm

    […] we doubt that everything that leads to that final invocation of humanity is a very dark joke? (Lasky, […]

  7. March 3, 2016, 5:06 pm

    Mark Daverson


    Murder evolves with the evolution of humans… 2000 years ago they did murder with stones and knifes, 100 years ago with guns, now they use drones with guns attached… hitmen and murder for hire expanded from streets to Deep Web on Internet.. ex Besa Mafia. They have crazy folks and hitmen for hire that takes hit orders on Deep Web, payment with Bitcoin usually for $5000 after job is done; they go with hooded jacket and hand gun to shoot people on street or parking lots. Anyone who knows to google for them can find assassins for hire, Police or FBI should close down their site.

  8. September 7, 2016, 12:29 pm

    […] A problem of design avait été mis en ligne sur YouTube dans le cadre d’une exposition au MOMA en 2014. Faisant jouer ses droits sur le programme, la chaine américaine CBS, vouée corps et âme […]

  9. February 9, 2017, 1:42 am


    December 9, 20;21nbs

    December 9, 20;21nbsp;&nbsp1&2:01 pm by Chauncy Talon Infiltration is one of the best. He has a ton of notes on every player. That’s the reason why he looks at his phone before each match.