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Bucky Fuller and Me: Value systems and life as iterative design

In May, I am to give a gallery lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago on Bucky Fuller: Success and Failure. Actually, I am co-piloting the lecture with artist Michael Rakowitz. Over the weekend, I have immersed myself in his 80-minute documentary, which was a long long series of lectures on his ideas. I heard his daughter talk about him on Saturday. I got an informed tour through the exhibit yesterday. I am reading his books and outlining his quotes all to gain a better understanding of this iconic figure.

I think my aspect of the talk will focus on his avowal of failure by approaching life as in iterative process for the next evolution. The irony is that we live life iteratively, but we plan life and convince others with more structure. What can be seen as his failures or what I'd call his "incomplete life prototypes" is the gap between his value systems and those of general society.

Elizabeth Pasztory's Thinking with Things (U. of Texas-Austin Press 2005) is helpful here. In her chapter on (non-evolutionary) levels of social integration, she discusses the existense of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states. (pp. 32-33). She then decodes the aesthetic value systems for each level. 

  • Band aesthetic values are represented in things that are small and portable, marked perishable objects, two-dimensional, superimposed images, both naturalistic and abstract by choice, and multivalent. Things serve as maps of cosmological thought for storytelling. (pp. 44-51)
  • Tribal aesthetic values are represented in things that are often semi-permanent (like wood) three-dimensional, masking images that mediate between people and spirits, balance the abstract and realism, and embody visual symbols of group identity. Things serve as technologies for controlling human and natural forces.(pp. 52-59)
  • Chiefdom aesthetic values are represented in things that are often make status visible. They can be variable in size and shape, but consists of the nonperishale and elaborate environments, precious "glittery" materals, complex and intricate forms (virtuosity), and portraiture. (pp. 60-65)
  • State aesthetic values are represented in things that are gigantic and monumental (requiring the management of large resources and labor), made of non-perishable materials (stone, broze, glass, ceramics), documentaries, anthropomorphism is variable, and materiality is centered "things rule." Things are mimetic as they serve to create a new and artificial nature. (pp. 66-73)

General society in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and 60s has always been a mixture of tribal, chiefdom, and state aesthetic values. Things were important visual symbols of group identities, but the group was that of the nation. Commercialism made economic chiefdoms important and possible, with each company seeking to out "glitter" one another in status and power. But the main aesthetic value system was that of the state where particularly modernist ideas sought to create a new and artificial nature with momumental pubic works of glass, concrete, and steel.

Now, Bucky rejected the values of tribalism and chiefdom in favor of a global perspective on the universal connection among all things (nature and humankind). This is found in his earliest thinking and takes best form in the Dymaxion Air-Ocean World Map (1943) and World Games.

800px-Fuller_projection copy

He did not consider one human being to be better than other, which is the basis of his concepts of failure and success. In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, he states, "Take the initiative. Go to work, and above all co-operate and don't hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short-lived. These are the synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us." His ambitions for omni-success clashed against the prevailing tribal and chiefdom values in society.

The tangible designs that could not address the tribal and chiefdom values were never widely accepted by society. His housing proposals-- the Dymaxion 4-D housing (1929), Dymaxion Deployment Units (1945), and Dymaxion Dwelling Machine or Wichita House (1945) never left the ground because his emphasis on lightness and efficiency ignored tribal aesthetic values related to comfort through control of the environment (including privacy) and to group identification with its impersonal metalic moderist ethos. The Dymaxion Car (1933) was a victim of systems of Chiefdom, when an accident caused by a high ranking politician killed the driver of the car during a demo. This resulted in a media turn against the car and the reluctance of car companies to manufacture it.

When Bucky Fuller's tangible designs align with State "momumental" aesthetic values, they are widely accepted by society. The Geodesic Dome (1953) is probably one of Bucky's most "successful" designs. The U.S. Government used it for emergency and equipment shelters, at least two World Expo Pavillions-- in Afghanistan in 1956 and his most famous in Montreal in 1967, and it is a feature of most municipal departments of parks and recreation. Because the State itself was the client, the State's aesthetic values were not mixed with that of Tribal and Chiefdom ones, thus the alignment with Bucky's own state-tist and post-state-ist values were perfect.

So what does this mean for iteration? It has been well established that Bucky saw life as an experiment: Experiment B. The incompletion of his iterative life prototypes (made tangible through his designs) and their lack of wide disemmination and adoption by wider society is tied to the fact that people are less willing to invest confidence in someone who is likely to change his or her mind. It places one in the context of the tribal fear of lack of control over human and natural forces, for which we use things.  While Bucky may have been the master of himself, his housing experiements did not always allow for the same mastery by others. You cannot iterate with other people's lives. Again, it is interesting that Bucky finds wide acceptance as non-habital structures (i.e. Exposition domes, equipment silos, and jungle jims) by the State, which can directly enforce its will and mitigate the necessity for iterative processes by eliminating Tribal and Chiefdom value systems' dissention.

As an anthropologist, even a design anthropologist, I struggle with the idea of designer's iterating with people's lives as some kind of hubris, but at the same time, one wonders how much data one needs before one has to act. In this sense, I am pragmatic, but Bucky's life and works provides an interesting study.

One week to USNDP Initiative viral video campaign

 As you all know, I am the organizer of the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative and have been very busy pushing forward the efforts of the group. The challenge of this Initiative is ensuring popular participation and excitement, while we work on the design organizational and governmental efforts. We had the endorsement campaign in January with the release of Redesigning America's Future. Our latest venture is a viral video campaign. (Note: We are looking for an exceptional video editor willing to offer his or her skills pro-bono for this engagement.)

The U.S. National Design Policy Initiative wants you to share a short video (less than 2 minutes) of your thoughts about the role design plays in US economic competitiveness and democratic governance, how a national design policy would help, and your personal pledge to support the efforts.

Between March 15, 2009 and April 15, 2009, the Initiative will collect videos via our YouTube group page and FaceBook Event page. Select videos will be included in our Design CEO's videos communicating the same message and to be presented at national design conferences, to government officials, and other promotional venues.


1. Art Direction
Film yourself on a plain white background (with semi-decent lighting). I've found that setting up a white board or wall behind me as I face the window during early sunrise or sunset creates beautiful light.

See Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s I Pledge Video for inspiration.

2. Script
Provide your name and identifier. Your answers to the four following questions:

  1. What role does design play in US economic competitiveness?
  2. What role does design play in the US democratic governance?
  3. In what specific ways, would a national design policy further enable design to play those roles?
  4. What would you pledge to do to help design play that role?

Example script from Dori’s soon to be video
(I'll be the first to post next Sunday).

NAME: I’m Dori Tunstall
IDENTIFIER: Organizer of the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative, design anthropologist, design educator, and optimistic American citizen

COMPETIVENESS:  Economic competitiveness is about providing products and services that have greater “human” value than that of your competitors for less cost to yourself.  Design is what transforms human values such as sustainability, delight, innovation, efficiency, ease of use, even sublime beauty into things and experiences that people can see, hear, touch, smell, and taste. With approximately 70–80% of the cost of a product determined in the design phase, “design twice and build once” should be the mantra for U.S. economic competitiveness.

DEMOCRACY: Through my former work with the organization Design for Democracy, I’ve seen first hand how everyday people experience democracy not as abstract laws but through designed things. A poorly designed ballot can disenfranchise citizens. Yet, the redesign of election ballots can lead to higher rates of completion. It is through designed things, communications, environments, and experiences that we in the words of former President Jimmy Carter, “Reaffirm our concern for the human side of government.” This is the heart of American democracy.

DESIGN POLICY: There are already many grassroots and design associations’ initiatives that have used design promotion, innovation policy, design standards, and the policy as designed to improve the economic competitiveness and democratic governance of towns, cities, counties, states, and regions. The challenge is to scale those efforts in a country that has 50 States, covers an area of 3.79 million square miles, and is home to 305 million people. It is through the support of a U.S. National Design Policy that the benefits of these efforts can be experienced everywhere nationally.

PLEDGE: I, Dori Tunstall, pledge to help organize and structure an American Design Council to act as a forum that brings together the heads of design organizations, design education bodies, and Federal design studios with high ranking U.S. Government officials to partner in solving the U.S.’s economic and democratic challenges of today and tomorrow. 

3. Upload
Upload your video to the U.S. National Design Policy YouTube Group Page AND to you viral video Star Search Event Facebook page.

4. Share
Share your favorite videos with your friends, family, colleagues, and politicians.

Questions: Feel free to contact me at

Disclaimer: By participating in the event -- through uploading videos and leaving comments, you hereby grant the U.S. National Design Policy Initiative and its affiliated organizations the free use of your edited and unedited image, sounds, and words for non-commercial promotional purposes.