“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.