Interventions in Things as Ethics

(First Published in NAVAQuarterly, June 2009)

Cameron Tonkinwise once noted with just a little irony that ‘a culture that can, and needs to, have ‘ethics’ as the theme for the issue of a journal for example, is in trouble’.1 And yes, it is becoming increasingly evident, in a profoundly unsustainable world defined by short-term gain and long-term ‘defuturing’ 2, that we are, indeed, in trouble. How to build pathways out of that trouble, towards sustainable (and ethical) futures, is something that Tonkinwise and other design philosophers have long been discussing in forums such as the online journal Design Philosophy Papers.3 What the above quote suggests is that ethics are embodied in lived experience and not a function of behaviour or rule-following, that to seek their conscious application is proof they are not inherent. As Tonkinwise points out, a growing knowledge of sustainability in our own society has not translated into sustainable ways of doing and being in the world. The problem here is one of embedding a cultural ethos that both produces ethical behaviour and negates the need for it to be taught or more or less superficially espoused.

At the core of this argument is an ethics of things – the idea that designed artefacts and environments are not only symbolic or inert instruments of social meaning, but a constituent part and shaping force of culture itself, that a viable ethos is in fact ‘not only sustained by a material culture, but exists in that materiality’. By beginning to understand how designed things have the capacity to be ‘already ethical’, directing us towards specific ethical behaviours and ways of being, 4 we can see all sorts of possibilities for those who engage in the practice of designing (at any level) to generate and sustain a materialised ethos. Interestingly, such an approach towards sustainability goes far beyond eco-impact reductions in how a product is made or used, and, through being embedded in the semi-conscious rituals of everyday material culture (rather than reliant on didactic moralisations), ethics by/in design is literally ‘the only sustainable form of ethics, the only form of ethics that can sustain itself’. 5

This theoretical landscape is explored further in Tony Fry’s compact new book, Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice, which posits ‘sustain-ability’ as an ongoing process of securing qualitative being or viable human futures, requiring fundamental change in how we ‘think and act in the way we make our world and as we impose it on the world in general’. Preferring the term ‘the Sustainment’ to distinguish this larger project from the simplistic environmental and political rhetoric of sustainability, Fry argues for directional change that involves redirecting those practices that act to maintain the unsustainable trajectory of the status quo, and applying these redirected practices towards establishing the rise and dominance of ‘agents of futuring’.6

Since first encountering these ideas through the EcoDesign Foundation, 7 we’ve been intrigued by the ways in which redirective practice could be deployed imaginatively and pragmatically in our own cross-disciplinary work. One of our first collaborative projects in this vein was Open Office for an Editorial Committee, a nomadic, open-air magazine production office staged in a park for the 2007 National Young Writers’ Festival.8 Staffed by an editorial team that included curious passers-by, the dematerialised ‘office’ was an experiment in new forms of social interaction and in making do with less (only so much could be carried; powerpoints were in short supply), eliminating that part our workplace responsible for most of its resource consumption: the building itself. Each day the office was assembled from a collection of hybrid, modified objects (suitcases, a BBQ, trolleys etc.), shifting configuration and function in response to weather patterns, sprinklers turning on, or the inclinations of its users.


As designed artefact, Open Office put forward a proposition for unexpected and lighter ways of using our urban public spaces, enabling these practices within a real-time ‘scenario of design’. Fry describes scenarios of design as ‘an exploration of how design could be other than it is’, able to open up debate on ‘objects of common and critical focus’ and to provide a space in which ‘ideas can be given a concrete form and dialogues or narratives of change can be rehearsed in ways that enable participants to re-educate themselves via critical confrontations with things as they are versus how they could be’. 9 That is, such performative, exploratory practices (the terrain of artists as much as designers) can be a platform from which to envision alternative, ethical futures and enact them in the present, as materialised ethos, or things with ethics.


– Tessa Rapaport & Karl Logge



Tessa Rapaport & Karl Logge, Open Office for an Editorial Committee, 2007. Photo by Tessa Rapaport & Karl Logge

  1. Cameron Tonkinwise ‘Ethics by design, or the ethos of things’ in Design Philosophy Papers No. 2, 2004. See (last accessed 9 May 2009).
  2. Tony Fry uses the term defuturing to describe ‘the essence of any material condition of unsustainability as it acts to take futures away from ourselves and other living species’. See Tony Fry, Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice (2009) Sydney, UNSW Press, p. 1.
  3. Much of our understanding of what it means to practice ethically has come from this or related sources. See (last accessed 9 May 2009).
  4. Tonkinwise and Fry both point out that designed things go on designing ‘intentions, actions, understandings and relations’ once they enter the world, according to what their designers intended (and what they did not) and how their users deploy them. See Cameron Tonkinwise, ‘Ethics by Design, or the Ethos of Things’ in Design Philosophy Papers No. 2, 2004.
  5. ibid
  6. Tony Fry, Design Futuring: Sustainability, Ethics and New Practice (2009) Sydney, UNSW Press, p. 47.
  7. At its demise, Tonkinwise was CEO of the EDF and Fry was a committee member. See archived site at
  8. See Open Office here
  9. Fry provides a set of prefigurations necessary for ‘scenarios of design’ to be effective in this way, including a coherent change agenda, a deconstructive methodology and structuring modes of cooperation. See Fry ibid. pp. 152-155.

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