In 1960, industrial designer George Nelson spoke out against society’s passive acceptance of violence and the designer’s role in creating weapons. He created a television episode for Camera Three titled A Problem of Design: How to Kill People. It is is one of the relatively few instances that a designer has publicly discussed weapons as designed objects.
When I first learned of the show, no copy was known to exist. However, the magazine Industrial Design published a transcript of the episode in its January issue of 1961. I have the great luck to be acquainted with Ralph Caplan who was editor of the magazine at that time. So one spring morning, I biked down to the Upper West Side apartment that he shares with his wife Judith. I left with their hardbound volume of Industrial Design issues from 1961 and also the impression that the television spot hadn’t been well received. Ralph didn’t consider the show to have been very good, I think.
But reading the transcript, many of Nelson’s points resonated with me. After giving a historical overview of weapons design (from rock to axe to spear to bow and arrow, etc) he brings out a revolver and describes it thus:
“Again we can see the close relationship between handsome form and superior functioning. The cylinder shows exactly what it is. The hammer, an interesting decorative accent, also explains its function without words. The shape is more sophisticated. There is even a smooth indentation in the handle to increase the user’s comfort. There are also carry-overs of traditional elements: the trigger is not new, (we saw it on the crossbow), the gun sight is not new (we can find it on primitive blow pipes). A great step forward, but esthetically we paid the price.
Never again will we have the glorious craftsmanship of the armorer. The exquisite detailing, the preoccupation with nature, the pride of ownership. The elegance of form and intricate decoration.
Firearms introduced a new tempo into design for killing.”
It is a little strange for Nelson to say that the invention of firearms killed the “exquisite detailing” of weaponry because any visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art will show that we had centuries of beautifully handcrafted and detailed guns. I think that Nelson’s point of aesthetic demarcation was the advent of mass produced firearms – the point when the technology for killing and the technology for manufacturing these tools for killing created a new class of weapons. This is the point when firearms became mass consumer products.
And the whole point of Nelson’s show is to critique society’s passive acceptance of war and violence and the role that designers play in making killing easy. He says:
“…to function successfully, to produce works of art, designers must have society’s approval of what they are doing. Design for killing is interesting because war occupies so much of our attention, and receives our unquestioning support. The great advantage of the designer in this area is that nobody cares what anything costs. This attitude has been prevalent from the siege of Troy to the bombing of Hiroshima. And it’s this kind of attitude towards money that has always attracted creative people. This is the reason, probably, that the design of beautiful and efficient weapons has progressed continuously, without serious interruption.”
One wonders what Nelson might have to say on the subject of drones—one of the more recent innovations in killing technology. I’m sure, also, that one could identify a sort of “drone aesthetic” to many of these new tools.
“Modern design has a sleek deadliness unmatched in all recorded history.”
Nelson, George. “How to Kill People: A Problem of Design.” Industrial Design. 8, no.1 (January 1961), pgs 45-53