Design in Society
Unpublished, written in collaboration with Kaya Úzel, 2011
My personal idea of design is one of public empowerment and skill sharing. I see the role of the designer grounded in an in-depth analysis of the dynamics inherent in social arrangements and material cultures. Being committed to the democratization of the design process, it appears to me that, in contrast to the great utopist/ reformist art and design movements of the last century, design should not disruptively intervene into people’s patterns of use, however imperfect they may be. Charles Jenkins claimed that architecture has turned from overpowering to empowering human agency on 15 July 1972 with the dynamiting of Prutt-Igoe. In design, this process has been of a more gradual nature; it is claimed that a series of epithets, ranging from “social” to “critical” or “contextual”, have effected a similar change, entailing, among other things, the reassessment of the role of the designer and of the structure of her research agenda.
For design to create sustainable outcomes, it appears crucial to incorporate into its solutions, the idiosyncrasies of any given network-relation, paying attention to both its human and non-human actors. What this approach, which could be dubbed symbiotic, does not entail is a strange reluctance to improve things but the awareness that, when doing so, it is important to anticipate the very concrete and real ways in which design affects people’s social interactions. By building upon people’s experiences of usage we can make sure that they embrace proposed solutions, as these solutions are more likely to correspond to actual needs. This, of course, implicates that research takes the form of a prolonged dialog between all social actors involved.
Ideas on Design/ Production/ Environment
Overproduction occurs not only on a quantitative level but also on a qualitative level. Human needs, demands and desires are fluctuating and short-lived. Still, objects are designed with eternity in mind; they are rigid, static, inert, monumentalist in their own modest ways.
Institutions and industries are, very much like rocks, structures moulded and hardened over time, reified abstractions made possible by the politics and economics of scale. Good design reminds us of this in multiple ways; for instance, through novel configurations of usages, materials and contexts, the demystification of production processes or the challenging of their internal logics.
Bad design, on the contrary, is complicit in pitting the forces of planned obsolescence and creative destruction against each other. One counteracts the other in a catastrophic power struggle that entrenches the status quo and perpetuates a constant state of environmental, psychological and social crisis.
Design's immediate entanglement in these processes has caused its practitioners to be unable to take a deep breath and a reflexive step back from what it is that they are doing, day in, day out. Fueled by the prospect of 15 minutes of fame which translates into the 4-hour time window granted by the culture of private views, this seemingly agentless process proceeds in precipitate fashion until it spirals completely out of control. Our understanding of design has consequently become self-referential. Design has come to be seen as a goal in itself.
Further, the term 'Design' itself has long outlived its usefulness. Some might say that it has done so from just after its very inception. The term Design represents a conceptualization of creative practice as a two-stage process, consisting of, first, the mental blueprinting of the Idea, and, secondly, its material realization. That is, essence comes before existence. This utterly unrealistic vision of the design process which is often described as the rational model is distinctly modernist in its embeddedness in cartesian ontology. It continues to be hegemonic in today's design education, yet, seemingly paradoxically, most of the people/products it turns out are infantile or superflat*.
What follows from adherence to the rational model is that we perpetuate the doctrinal view of human culture acting, and imposing itself, upon organic non-human nature. Such thinking is far from universal; much indigenous ontology has no place to accommodate any such distinction between Art/Design and ecology. In animistic societies, for instance, where the attribution of sociality extends beyond the realm of the human, Art/Design are seen as modes of direct engagement with the World, not different from mundane subsistence activities like hunting or gathering. This allows for a meaningful revisiting of Jospeh Beuys' credo that “Everyone is an artist”, since what we call artistic skills are, like all skills, acquired through practice and training within an environment. This has three direct implications.
First, it does away with the myth of the designer as creative genius, which in light of the prevalence of open source software and never looked more out of place than today. What open source illustrates is that humans are mimetic animals and that creative processes are inherently cumulative and co-operational in nature. We have witnessed in the last 20 years or so that in a service-based economy, the emphasis has continuously been shifting away from pre-designed static and finished products towards highly customized, individual and interactive services. It is no coincidence that all Web 2.0 giants from Google over Facebook subscribe to the open source paradigm. The extent to which they benefit from the creativity of other simply outweighs the benefit that they would get from the protection of their developments.
Second, moving away from Cartesian thought enables us to consider the potential agency of non-human objects afresh. Neo-animist approaches in Sociology and Design Theory have softened the taboo on openly discussing the emotional entanglements that occur between humans and their objects. Following the sociology of the only very recently resurrected 19th French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, Design Research should resemble an epidemiology of ideas, forms, smells, sounds, tastes. What we are dealing with today is not the Semiotics of Objects, each neatly functioning as a sign in an even neater overall system, but what my teacher Betti Marenko calls “semio-chemio-neuro capitalism”. We thus need to bring back the body into Design, which the rational model has so successfully marginalized. In this regard, Design can learn from Phenomenology which knows that it is through the body that we are in the world. We are “organisms-plus-environment”: no clean line can be drawn to determine where We end and the Environment begins.
Thirdly, the extension of sociality to nature will obliterate the rhetoric of Environmentalism. There is no need to get caught up in the fallacious mathematics of sustainability which are so selective as to what factors are to feature in their equations and as to what is left out that it borders the arbitrary. By not a priori ruling out the possibility of non-human agency, a new relational paradigm of environmental knowledge can change our attitudes towards our most pressing problems more substantially. It seems inevitable that our ontology has met its internal limits. In synthetic biology, we have witnessed for the last 5 years how scientists have succeeded with the de novo creation of life, by programming genetic sequences that function like source-code and develop functional properties.