Friday 08.12.17
Plausible—Impossible
Beauty of Disaster
The Anthropocene is currently challenging our deeply held beliefs. What is the future of humanity about? If mass-extinction is affecting not just animals and plant, but humans, how might a future world look like? These are hardly imaginable thoughts. Victor Papanek was criticising mass-production in the early seventies. By just changing two words, his quote fits perfectly to nowadays time. “In an age of mass [extinction] when everything [is] planned and designed, design has become the most powerful tool with which man shapes his tools and environments (and, by extension, society and himself)” (Papanek 1972).

Our society is experiencing natural catastrophes in exponential repetition. The current political and neoliberal system is not ready yet, to think of future terms and conditions to radically prepare us for future living. Large-scale complexity is sometimes paralysing action. Designers are seen as problem-solvers, masters of material and visual culture and their practice is constantly drafting plausible futures. In an epoch of technological and smart solutions, how might we develop speculative scenarios and artificial worlds to foster societal transformation? Has design enough agency to engage deeply within ecological, political and social context, beyond human-centred design? Why don’t we think firstly of “all [human as] designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity. The planning and patterning of any act towards a desired, foreseeable end constitutes the design process (Papanek 1972). Out of that I’ll propose that everyone has the capacity to imagine a possible future.

Speculative Design
In the debate of Transdisciplinary Seminar, we discussed, how might we challenge our deeply held beliefs, and if “design speculations [are seen … ] as thought experiments—constructions, crafted from ideas expressed through design.” In the beginning of our discussion we, as a class, already struggled to define what believes are: religion, trust, relationships, justice, honesty, … We mostly thought of Speculative Design as “narratives or coherent “worlds”, rather than critical thinking (Dunne and Raby 2013:80).

Speculative Design tries to argue for change, but can’t foster it, since it’s focusing on the momentum and is not leading into further action—it is (just) proposing alternative world views. “Rather than giving up altogether, though, there are other possibilities for design: one is to use design as a means of speculating how things could be—speculative design. This form of design thrives on imagination and aims to open up new perspectives on what are sometimes called wicked problems, to create spaces for discussion and debate about alternative ways of being, and to inspire and encourage people’s imaginations to flow freely. Design speculations can act as a catalyst for collectively redefining our relationship to reality” (Dunne and Raby, 2013:2). The act of course-correction or even change, is left as the responsibility of the spectator.

But haven’t we all been in situations, where someone told us a story, from where we took action? Aren’t conversation leading to change, too? As an example, I became vegetarian, because many people told me, which negative contributions meat-consumption has to climate change. I created my personal alternative world-view. Wolf argues that “our own Primary World has become a highly mediated one, with much of what we know about it coming through media rather than just direct experience, an understanding of how secondary worlds are experienced and imagined by people may also tell us something about the way in which we form a mental image of the world we live in, and the way we experience it and see our own lives intersecting with it” (Wolf 2012).

Act of Violence
The assumption that emotions are more closer to our body than the mind leads me to the question: How are we able to trigger the unconsciousness of people to change behaviour? If problem solving leads to problem creating, problem creating is designing problems to solve. Critical Design instead, is provoking and not solving any problems. But isn’t provocation an act of violence, since it might challenges a deeply held belief and one might react emotionally or even defensive? “Design functions as symbolic violence when it is involved with the creation and reproduction of ideas, practices, products and tools that result in structural and other types of violence (including ecocide)” (Boehnert and Onafuwa 2016). After the confrontation follows a stage of shock, since one reflect their current worldview upon the just experienced one. It then mostly (and hopefully) leads to a discussion and discourse around the context.

Matt Malpass recently talked about his book “Critical Design in Context: History, Theory, and Practices” and argued, that this sub-genre of design is fooling with idiots. “An idiot is someone who doesn’t know, but is capable of knowing.” Critical Design is constructing the public, it’s creating public infrastructure through boundary objects. And these things and design as medium are treading the line between wit and humour. “This potential to use the language of design to pose questions, provoke, and inspire is conceptual design’s defining feature. It is different from social and humanitarian design, and design thinking too, which, although also often rejecting market-driven design, still operate within the limits of reality as it is” (Dunne and Raby 2013:12). 

︎ Dunne and Raby, The Many Worlds Working Group (MWWG), 2017.

I am currently visiting the Designed Realities Lab at The New School, taught by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. They recently invited Paolo Cardini, Associate Professor in Industrial Design at Rhode Island School of Design, to talk about authenticity versus fake. He argued, that culture often is the result of transplantation. It is the creation of hybrids, between identity and authenticity. But are our ideas of the future really original or mostly suggested? He was criticising global-scale design projects, without local context. Paolo said, we have to be aware of other places, where our future ideologies might already be realities. “It helps to contextualise design projects.” Furthermore, Quilian Riano points out that “design becomes imperialist when it preempts the voices of those it seeks to help, or compresses them into happy soundbites to convince curators, clients and donors of the design’s success. And — most importantly — designers, like humanitarians, should never try to be more native than the natives themselves” (Design Observer 2010). Is humanitarian (speculative) design on local-scale supporting violence or is still somehow justifiable?
Decolonize Design
I assume that every design is Social Design or even Humanitarian Design. If design is a result of the “White Savior Industrial Complex [as] a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage” (Cole 2012), how can we make sure, “that design theory and history, [… which is] predominantly Eurocentric […]” is valuing aesthetics, and beliefs of other parts of our world, as Margaret Andersen argues in “Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education?” Boehnert and Onafuwa summarise that designers try to “address the needs and desires of their audiences and users […], designers can also perpetuate symbolic violence by embedding racist, sexist, classist and ecoist assumptions into design” (Boehnert and Onafuwa 2016). How can we make sure, that designers challenge their assumptions and don’t support existing stereotypes?

Cardini went further in his presentation: “Societies are facing problems that are not practical. They cannot be addressed by traditional design. Here is speculation more than useful.”
Speculative and Critical Design is not there to create solutions for religion, trust, relationships, justice, honesty, … but it is “more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a methodology. Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo” (Dunne and Raby 2013:34). How might we change from perceiving design through post-colonial eyes of colonialism? I hope that Speculative Design establishes as it’s trying to attempt critical thinking within the design discipline.



(Firstly published on the Transdisciplinary Design Blog as part of “Transdisciplinary Seminar 1“, durring my MFA at The New School)

Works Cited: Andersen, Margaret. “Why Can’t the U.S. Decolonize Its Design Education?” Last modified January 2, 2017. https://eyeondesign.aiga.org/why-cant-the-u-s-decolonize-its-design-education/.

Boehnert, Johanna and Onafuwa, Dimeji. Design as Symbolic Violence: Reproducing the ‘isms’ + A Framework for Allies. Intersectional Perspectives on Design, Politics and Power, School of Arts and Communication, Malmö University. 15 November 2016

Cole, Teju. “The White-Savior Industrial Complex.” The Atlantic. Last modified March 21, 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. “MANY WORLDS WORKING GROUP (MWWG).” Last modified 2017. http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/projects/863/0.

Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. MIT Press, 2013.

Papanek, Victor, and R. Buckminster Fuller. Design for the real world. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.

Design Observer. The Editors | Miscellaneous. “Humanitarian Design vs. Design Imperialism: Debate Summary.” Design Observer, Last modified 16 July 2010. designobserver.com/feature/humanitarian-design-vs-design-imperialism-debate-summary/14498/.

Schulz, Kathryn. “Fantastic Beasts and How to Rank Them.” The New Yorker, Last modified October 31, 2017. www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/is-bigfoot-likelier-than-the-loch-ness-monster.

Wolf, Mark JP. Building imaginary worlds: The theory and history of subcreation. Routledge, 2014.

Wilde, Oscar. The soul of man under socialism and selected critical prose. Penguin UK, 2007
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