Q: I had a professor in school who went on and on about how well the AK-47 was designed. He stressed that as designers we should be able to appreciate an object’s design on a purely aesthetic level. Do you agree?
A: Fuck no. Fuck him. Fuck the AK-47. Fuck all guns and the people who design them, but especially fuck Mikhail Kalashnikov, the designer of the AK-47.
But let’s look at the argument being made. The AK-47 is often cited as a well-designed object. And this case is usually made by pointing out that the AK-47 is easy to use, maintain, take-apart, modify, and manufacture. It’s a model of simplicity. And the original design, introduced in 1948, is still in use, even as the AK family has continued evolving.
…the model and its variants remain the most popular and widely used assault rifles in the world because of their substantial reliability under harsh conditions, low production costs compared to contemporary Western weapons, availability in virtually every geographic region and ease of use.— Wikipedia
Any of us would be proud to design something with that kind of legacy. Ease of use. Ease of manufacturing. Adaptability. Simplicity. Aren’t these the cornerstones of design?
So where is the problem? Surely, a designer’s job is to design something to the best of their ability. As a designer, you are required to do your best work. And we’ve all had to design something we weren’t too crazy about. In which case your responsibility is to improve the design. How do you improve an object that’s designed to kill without making it more efficient at killing?
A gun’s only purpose is to kill. When it kills it is working as designed. And a gun is designed to be fired. The trigger yearns to be pulled. It is designed to shoot a bullet into a human body at a force that creates the maximum amount of damage. Which is technical way of saying its job is to kill you.
But while someone can certainly make the case that an AK-47, or any other kind of gun or rifle is designed, nothing whose primary purpose is to take away life can be said to be designed well. And that attempting to separate an object from its function in order to appreciate it for purely aesthetic reasons, or to be impressed by its minimal elegance, is a coward’s way of justifying the death they’ve designed into the world, and the money with which they’re lining their pockets.
And yes, there are many objects that kill. Cars come to mind. And they’re the gun enthusiasts favorite straw man. And while I agree that cars definitely have the potential to kill, you can’t really argue that they’re designed to do so. Car deaths — and I hesitate to call them “accidents” because I do believe there are too many of them—are a very unfortunate by-product of car usage, but not the main goal. Every year steps are taken to make cars safer, to improve the design of cars to reduce the amount of deaths. (Along with other, more marketable, goals.) But, by definition, improving the design of guns can only result in them becoming better killing machines.
If a thing is designed to kill you, it is, by definition, bad design.
So what is the designer’s role in this? Design is an ethical trade. And yes, it is a trade done for money. But we have a choice in how we make that money. A designer possesses a set of skills necessary to get something made. And needs to properly assess how they are putting those skills to use. But, won’t someone else just design it?
Possibly. If Kalashnikov hadn’t designed the AK-47 wouldn’t someone else just have designed another rifle? Most assuredly. And they did. There are as many types of rifles out there shooting up our villages, our churches, and our Marine recruiting stations as there is cereal in the cereal aisle. And they all have a designer’s name attached to them. The shit we design carries our name.
Your role as a designer is to leave the world in a better state than you found it. You have a responsibility to design work that helps move humanity forward and helps us, as a species, to not only enjoy our time on Earth, but to evolve.
And to design is to take purpose into account — as my friend Jared Spool says: design is the rendering of intent. You can’t separate an object’s function from its intent. You cannot critique it, you cannot understand it, and you cannot appreciate something without thinking about its intent.
You are responsible for what you put into the world. And how it affects the world.
You are responsible for what you put into the world. And you are responsible for how what you’ve designed affects the world. Mikhail Kalashnikov is responsible for as many deaths as the people who pulled those triggers.
Obviously, firearms design is an extreme example of this. I doubt many of you will go on to become firearms designers, and fuck all of you that do. But how many of us are asked to design things that have the potential of causing harm to the people who come into contact with our work? How many of us will work on privacy settings for large social networks at some point? Will we think of how those settings affect those who interact with them? How many of us will design user interfaces for drop cams? Will we think of the privacy violations they might cause? How many of us will design products that put people in strangers’ cars? Will we consider those passengers’ safety as we design our solution? And will we see it as our responsibility to make sure these products are as safe as possible?
And if we come to the conclusion that these products cannot be made safe, how many of us will see it as our responsibility to raise our hands and say “I’m not making this.”
Because we have to.