Value is a word that is worth reflecting on. In fact, it’s more central to our lives than we are generally aware. Usually, we use this word in reference to economics. When it comes to buying or selling things, there is a possibility that cost can be accurately established. The seller determines the price, however arbitrary it might be.
But value remains the possession of the buyer. If something is valuable enough to you, you will try to get it. Conversely, if the value isn’t there, for you, then you pass by. For designers, engaged in the production of things, or even services, this equation is critical. Great attention can be paid to controlling cost and great care can be exercised in determining a price, but if the designer has not created value, then the whole enterprise is futile. And determining what might be valuable to another is an interesting challenge, and a target that is easily missed.
During my work as an educator, I had plenty of opportunities to consider value. In fact, I eventually concluded that teaching is essentially an exercise in the transmission of values. We, the teachers, engage in all sorts of stratagems to convince our students, however subtly, that certain knowledge is valuable, certain facts are valuable, certain skills are valuable. We set up certain things as being good (correct) and others as being less so. We reinforce this with exercises and eventually examinations where we have the opportunity for an ultimate reinforcement of our claims. Seeing it this way makes it feel, to me, as a very weighty responsibility, and I guess it is. The students go on to use their newly acquired distinction of values as a guide for their lives, and eventually, to pass along to others. Whew!
Designers learn a hierarchy of values, whether at school, or just by bumbling along, making mistakes and learning from them. Even though I went to school, most of what I learned I acquired the other way, variously known as the school of hard knocks. And I’m not knocking that school either. One of my favourite observations about teaching (or learning) is that which hurts, teaches (it sounds better in Latin). We value the absence of hurt a lot, and learn to avoid it, if we can. Our mistakes are part of the foundation of the structure we make of our values. And this is one reason that experience is valuable to designers and is a critical component of what makes them valuable to others.
When we design, we are constantly making decisions and we base our decisions on what we consider to be valuable. When I was only teaching part-time and concurrently running a design studio, a former student who was now an employee made the observation that he was learning a lot more working for me and more quickly than when he was a student. And I think that was because he was observing a value structure in action. I would guide his work based on what I considered to be good, or accurate, or valuable, and I would do this quickly and with confidence. A problem with schools is that the work is theoretical. It is different when there are real consequences and there is less room for argument.
A second way we use the word value, is in the realm of philosophy and, in particular, ethical philosophy. Here it is concerned with the right course of action and with regard to the eventual outcomes. Actions are treated a bit like objects, with values attached to them. This may concern the avoidance of pain, or the increase of pleasure, or joy, or peace or any of the other abstracts we value. Values may even be concerned with the benefit to others. Sometimes our ethical structure of values will be described as the underpinnings of our character.
In fact, these two ways of using the word value, or values, are not that dissimilar. We make our decisions based on what we value, what we find to be valuable. Our values are who we are. This may be especially true of teachers and designers, but it holds for all of us regardless. An important reflection of our values is our sense of gratitude. The more we find to be valuable, the more opportunities we have to be grateful. And as I’ve learned, a grateful life is better.
Paul Epp is professor emeritus at OCAD University in Toronto, Ont., and former chair of its Industrial Design department.