Embracing Difference by Design: Virtues and Vices

In this Keynote Presentation from ACAH/ACSS2020, Professor Bruce Brown of the Royal College of Art, UK, speaks on “Embracing Difference by Design: Virtues and Vices”.

The emergence of design as a professional discipline in the 1950’s heralded a new age of consumption and individualism. In response to the traumas of two world wars, design brought the promise of new utopias and a stable world. Being tied to industrial mass production the design of this Modernist utopia was built on “problem-solving”, “form follows function”, “less is more” and a conviction that the evils of society could, and should, be eradicated. This 20th century view of a virtuous world was shattered by 21st century communications technologies. Here the tools of centralised authorities were replaced by social networks with their decentralised cacophonies of voices and avalanches of information. But, if an old world order has receded then a new kind of order still needs designing to meet these contemporary conditions and prevent societies from slipping back into anarchy, mob rule or tribalism. Indeed, we seem to have liberated ourselves from the industrialised tyrannies of one-over-many to inhabit a new extreme in which the many are starting to dominate the few and information overload works like anaesthetic. We seem to have oscillated from one polarity, “problem, solving” to its antithesis, “wicked problems” – ones that cannot be solved due to the complexity of their conditions.

This, in itself, forces binary options to be adopted so that paralysis is avoided and decisions made. If the existence of such polarities is to be managed then the multifarious differences of a messy world must be embraced and structured for a new order to emerge. As the relentless march of industrialisation forced people to migrate from countryside to city so did the word “virtue” assume a new meaning. Setting itself against the vices of inner city existence (prostitution and crime) virtue became associated with chastity and innocence (as we still know it today). But, its original meaning was different – virtue being the soundness of judgment to find points of equilibrium between opposing vices (e.g. between excess or deficiency, heaven or hell, sex or love, rich or poor, fast or slow). In other words, to embrace (not neutralise) difference as a key to finding new ways of making the world in which we want to live. This is the virtue of design in meeting our challenge.


Bruce Brown was educated at the Royal College of Art in London where he is currently Visiting Professor. Until 2016, Bruce was Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research) and Professor of Design at the University of Brighton. For twenty years previously he was Dean of the university’s Faculty of Arts & Architecture. In 2018 Bruce was appointed by the University Grants Committee of the Hong Kong Specialist Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China to Chair the assessment panels for Visual Arts, Design, Creative Media in the Hong Kong Research Assessment Exercise 2020. Prior to this he was appointed by the UK Funding Councils to Chair Main Panel D in the 2014 UK Research Excellence Framework. Prior to this he chaired Main Panel O in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. Bruce served as a member of the Advisory Board of the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council and has advised international organisations including the Hong Kong Council for Academic Accreditation and the Qatar National Research Fund. Bruce chaired the Portuguese Government’s Fundação para a Ciência ea Tecnologia Research Grants Panel [Arts] and was one of four people invited by the Portuguese Government to conduct an international review entitled Reforming Arts and Culture Higher Education in Portugal. He has served as Trustee and Governor of organisations such as the Art’s Council for England’s South East Arts Board, the Ditchling Museum and Shenkar College of Design and Engineering, Tel Aviv. Bruce is an Editor of Design Issues Research Journal (MIT), an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art and a Life Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.


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