Re-Imagining Value

The recent scandal by the minions of Murdoch had me thinking about the value of honesty and if in fact, that was even a value to media moguls. We certainly know it was not important to the banking system, which still honest dutiful citizens are paying the price of. But now in the midst of seeing another industry fall fray to the question of honest work, more and more it seems a pervasive distrust in all of the bigger systems that run our world is warranted. Only now when Murdoch’s $12 billion takeover of British Sky Broadcasting is threatened do we see people act.

The NYTimes described New Corp as “once seen as such a powerful force that politicians and police officers walked in fear of it, fearing its disclosures and courting its support.” Frightening! It’s no surprise that this is the case with much of the corporations that dictate our economic system. Should any system be designed in such a way that civil leaders out of fear, fail to mitigate the greed and vanity of a few? The problem stems from systems put into place based on the assumptions (not truth) that: limitless growth is praise-worthy, consequences do not exist, and business leaders are immortal. It should not take rocket science to figure out that in an ever-changing world of complexity, effectiveness and efficiency are going to take more than relying on assumptions from a bygone era.

I do not think all of the onus should fall onto Design to “change the world!”, but I certainly think that specific methodologies can be learned from Design that can help to re-shape and reverse the fallacies of larger systems dependent on big-business industries. ‘Design thinking’ might be thought of as a sort of tactic for a bottom-up approach to demanding the creation of new-types of value, perhaps even honesty. Can we not think of honesty as a preferred mode of acting and use tools such as ‘prototyping’ to try to think of systems that act in this very way? Can we, as John Thackara points to, push the thousands of grassroots projects around the world to create a restorative economy? It is happening on the micro- level, but I wonder what type of systems thinking will be needed to push these initiatives to the macro-level. We need interventions on all levels of a system. No paradigm shift can occur from a single source. With all of the effort from the various bottom-up projects across the world, consultancies that are charmed by the idea of ‘design thinking’ could put it to use by not making better business for their clients, but better our world. Transformation is going to take a lot of re-imagining where we place value; and values change systems.

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Design and Sustainability

The meaning of Sustainability has bended and stretched in such an inclusive way that we are not sure how to even talk about it. We know it matters, but what is its relationship to Design and how will it be possible to create a political project around it? Is ‘sustainment’, as Tony Fry calls it, design’s specific project? It is a complex question that is impossible to tackle without first having an understanding of the capabilities of Design and to know what Sustainability is for the twenty-first century.

I tend to think that major system changes must occur to make sustainability a performative reality, but after listening to some of the ideas put forth by Cameron Tonkinwise, I’ve now begun to think about how we can reverse our values within the system. To root solutions back into our relationships with objects and each other. Objects have a pull on us, a powerful one, which tends to decide the concepts we value and the infrastructure of our culture. Think of the pull of ‘car culture’, the design of the car eventually deciding the infrastructure of our cities and therefore the behaviour of our culture. We are pulled into the objects we design. But many of us are not aware of this, we are in some ways inept in understanding human relations and our relations with things. If we want to change our culture into one that is considerate of the environment, of living well with one another, in many ways it will have to be through a change of social decisions. For example, giving more value and meaning to ‘borrowing’, ‘sharing’, or ‘lending’ of objects over the high valued notion of ‘brand new’. Part of the pull of objects is the momentum of the practices that are integrated into our everyday life. These practices are also built upon assumptions, including that humans are much more sustainable than we actually are.

If policy is slow to change, in the meantime Design can make a project of its own to create a critical consciousness, which will make a critical consumer,  ultimately changing policy. Could it be possible for the consumer to demand sustainment? It is not just a simple choice of buying organic at the supermarket or recycling your milk cartons, but making the choice to support sustainability, to support the policies that put it into place and to make a life choice to value sustainability. It is about questioning the social values that capitalism itself put into place: Is comfort really what we think it is? Are we really all that pleasure driven as we believe? Do we really prefer the private over the collective? These are the types of questions that begins to drive sustainability as a politics.

Sustainability for the twenty-first century needs to be about redirecting our value flows, to re-root them in the social and not in the abstract world of the economy. Design can help this process by reconfiguring our everyday practices. For example the idea of Zipcar for my professor made him realize his behavior towards the car. It made him aware of perhaps how little or how much you need a car. It can make something often thought of as a given, such as “I need a car,” feel like a luxury.  Or businesses, like Snapgoods, which allow consumers to borrow something that they might only need for a temporary amount of time, rather than buying a new one.

In many ways Design can be the change agent we need for sustainability. Instead of lobbying for the status quo, it should begin to ask why we place value on certain things. To not just put things in the world, but understand its sequence and growth in the world. It should begin to break down the quantifying systems that dictate our values and behaviors, which in essence mean it must be political. Sustainability is not going to just happen all of a sudden, it will have to be learned. We will have to learn a new way of making and doing that is sustainable.

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Conversations at DCRIT Conference

Some really interesting propositions at the “Present Tense: The 2011 D-Crit Conference” happening TODAY! I suggest going to check out not only all the interesting thesis presentations by the DCrit students, but the Rob Walker’s talk on “Imaginary Objects and Fictional Critiques” could be interesting. Some of his thoughts seem right up my ally, especially when he says, “Objects tell stories, and we all tell stories about our objects. But not all stories are equal, and not all stories are true. What role, then, might imagination, speculation, and outright fiction play in understanding, critiquing, and even influencing, our very real material culture? The answer is that these strategies are not merely useful, but vital.” Yes, I would have to agree. The imagination engages and like the art of the novel, fiction can reveal to us new ways of being. More about the conference here: http://dcrit.sva.edu/conference2011/#item_4740

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The Art of Post-Its

Never thought I’d use so many post-it notes when studying design….

Master’s Exam in 16 days!!

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Design and Change

What is the role of Change in Design or Design in Change?

Like ‘Synergy’ and the notion of ‘Sustainability’, ‘Design Thinking’ has fast become a new buzzword term. Unfortunately, with the market’s attraction to the potential money-value of these terms it has paralyzed ‘Design Thinking’ itself in becoming a viable force for change in our existing system. But, what is the actual change we are seeking? Within academia there is a general consensus, that our economy and politics, indeed even our dominant lifestyle needs revision if we our to sustain not only our population, but the fecundity of our Earth. Beyond imbuing change with such loaded requirements (not that I don’t think they are needed), I find the term ‘change’ itself interesting. My dictionary defines ‘change’ as:  to make the form, nature, content, future course, etc., of (something) different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone. The process of ‘what it is’ to ‘what it would be’ is, I believe key. Here we see that change is not inherent in any one thing, it is the multiple forces that energize a difference in the essence of a thing.

If we consider then  ‘change’ to be the working of multiple knowledge and action forces on a thing, we must consider how it might actually be possible to bring together these different forces towards an idea of betterment. I believe that we have to break out of our habitual modes of thinking and strive to think in a more active, plural, multi-layered way. Our modern sensibility, passed down from the Enlightenment, has engrained the need for outcomes and linearity, however, we are seeing in contemporary culture these systems don’t always hold up effectively. How can we make creative, multidimensional, global thought truly change the way we lead our lives and where we place value? I believe we can start by awakening our consciousness into understanding the structures and restricted domains of knowledge that press against us. This might be possible if we foreground ‘process’ over ‘outcome’, ask the question how over what, and consider other disciplines (the possible role of science in humanities). When we return the agency to people and things and away from the forces driving us (ones usually empathetic to capitalism), a change is fruitful. Drawing from the proposal of co-authorship by John Wood, the dualism between our Brain-Body network by William Connolly, and Tony Fry’s emphatic call for design as a politics, I see that there is an overall tendency to utilize creative modes of thinking in seeking larger paradigm changes. I created mind-maps in order to better understand the arguments posed by Connolly and Fry and my friend Jacquie made one for Wood below:

Connolly Brain-Body Network

Tony Fry Chapter 3

Synergy and Sympoieses

The reason I find it productive to look at these readings together is because all of them express a dissatisfaction in common perception, dense cultural processes not open to external influences, and structural boundaries drawn by institutions not open to complexity. If we consider: Connelly’s suggestion that  biology has an influence on the act of thinking and vise versa, as recent neuroscience and cultural theory has attempted to do, Fry’s total re-thinking of democracy as stated in his contemporary manifesto, and Wood’s proposal for partnerships and the mixing of specialized skills in creating a design proposal, we might gain a wider perspective by taking into consideration multiple insights. These unacknowledged influencescan be active in imagining change, and it is precisely the opening-up of imagination and the various articulations of change that makes the change.

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Design and Ethics

Some important questions come about when thinking about Design and Ethics. Are they two separate things? Would a Design ethic be different from the ethic between human interactions? Is Design inherently good? (As many designers are fast to claim that it is not, which brings up the interesting difference in perspective of what design is capable of doing from a practitioners point of view). First, I think it is important to understand what ethics really are in the contemporary age we live in. Modern ethics are less concerned with codified morals and more concerned with the immanent relationships, which are highly situational in our globalized world. Or according to Zigmunt Bauman, ethics are learning how to be uncertain; learning how to be in our complex world and learning how to act well. When considering ethics in this way, we must also consider sustainability and a revision of our economy to one based on ecology, as the utmost considerations to integrate into the way we are.

What is Design’s role in this? If Design wants to be valued the way our culture values for example, Knowledge, then according to Peter Miller it needs to step up to the plate. Design can be the translation or meditative force working between knowledge and its various outcomes, however, if it only does ‘design thinking’ it does not become a viable methodology for preferred situations. Design can play a didactic role in informing the way we are with one another and more importantly the way we treat the world we are creating, but it needs to change the conversations that are happening into reflexive ones. As Clive Dilnot suggests, an ethic can come out of this. Design, when it acts ethically makes its users critical through the objects they use. Not simply by being critical, but through the affirmation of the critical, which can facilitate a new kind of ethics, and which is imperative in leading sustainability. On the other side of this, an ethics for design might be about not just giving people ‘stuff’, but developing people’s capabilities with already existing ‘stuff’. Methods such as ‘retro-fitting’ or re-use of long lasting materials might teach us to be a more conservative people. How can designers maximize the capabilities of objects already in existence, as well as the capabilities of the human, becomes critical when thinking about the metabolic structure of our economy now. In order to push the sustainability project this might be even more important.

I think in order for Design to be a type of ethic in itself, we have to recognize the contextual nature of design, the larger systems it is a part of, and to think about it as a cultural construct, then I think its ethics will become more obvious. Crucial to this, will be reclaiming Design back into the social sphere and away from the dominating market sphere as it is in today. Several start-up companies have begun to do this be inverting the system, so that social values and relations dictate flows of capital rather than vice-versa. Some good examples are Snapgoods, Quirky, and crowd sourcing sites such as Kickstarter. Though we do not know where businesses like these might lead us, they do offer a proposition, which is a definite start. We will only achieve a change through the courage of this type of trial and error.

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Thinking Philosophy for Design

I have started ‘mapping’ thoughts from philosophy for design. In what way does Philosophy inform design, tell us about design, and also not tell us about design? When is philosophy not intelligent about design? An essential question for me is: why we are drawn to philosophy when we seek to explain Design? I started investigating insights from as early as Plato/Aristotle, moved to Kant, and continued on to reading some contemporary sociology and philosophy by Vattimo, Herbert Simon, among others. I tried to approach such dense questions, in a strategic way, so that I could connect reoccurring ideas and play around with the evolution of theories. A very messy timeline ensued.

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