Some Thoughts on Purpose

I’ve been skimming a wonderful article written by Per Galle called Philosophy of Design: An Editorial Introduction. You can find it in Design Issues Volume 23. Put simply, Galle’s agenda is to explain what is the philosophy of design and what it’s good for. The section I’m about to (briefly) rant about does not in any way represent the whole of the article’s content. Beware of that. The article is wonderful and should be read by all burgeoning designers..

In the section detailing what the philosophy of design is good for, I came across the following snippet of text:

Would you be prepared to tell professional designers working for you, that understanding how to do their job is all they need, while understanding what they are doing is a waste of time? To me, that does not seem like the kind of thing to tell employees whom one hopes to motivate and enable to improve one’s products, increase one’s share of the market, or boost productivity in the industry. (217)

My reaction to it was immediate and more severe than I expected because on the one hand, I read this as a reminder of the importance of inculcating a sense of purpose in one’s workforce. Perhaps this makes the everyday experience in the workplace more productive and genial. Galle is right about that. Working for something (other than a paycheck) is rewarding and motivating. But there’s another (glaringly problematic) side of the coin.

I’m being packaged and sold a sense of purpose not because its important for me to have one, but because my employer wants me to be more productive… wants me to spend more time at the desk… wants me to improve her products or the company’s market share. I don’t think it’s wise to take this point for granted.

Do a brief thought exercise with me and imagine what it might be like to work in a company where sense of purpose (outside of a paycheck) isn’t discussed and where we’re still expected to do all the things Galle mentions (e.g. improve products, increase market share, etc.). It would suck, I’m sure. But does it suck more than being lied to everyday? Maybe. Maybe not. The purpose of a business–any business–is to make money and grow market share. Is it ethical to attain such ends by telling employees that they’re there for a different purpose? Maybe. Maybe not.

EDIT: Maybe I could frame this in terms of the Matrix. We’re plugged into the Matrix when we’re being packaged and sold purpose in order to be more productive workers. The real world is grimy and disgusting, but hey, at least we’re free!

EDIT II: Who am I to say which is the reality: (1) working for a paycheck, or (2) working to make the world a better place. Perhaps it’s a matter of framing. If I calibrate my expectations for work such that I believe I am working because doing so fulfills the sense of purpose defined by my company (or, heck, even by the profession itself) then who’s to say that isn’t my purpose? The paycheck is a necessary part of it. Perhaps so too is being more productive and increasing my company’s market share. But maybe these are just necessary tradeoffs one has to make in order to attain/fulfill a sense of purpose. Am I beholden only to those structures to which I subjugate myself? Or am I fettered within structures from the outset?

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