Victor Margolin on What A Design Studies Program Should Be

This evening Victor Margolin came to our seminar to discuss the state of design research, specifically the possibility of a doctorates degree of Design Studies. After a brief summary of the evolution of the design research field since is rough beginning in Great Britain around the 1950’s, Margolin concluded with the call for a need to require collective standards within the university system that would demarcate a specific Design Studies field. Grounded in canonical texts, history, theory, and an interdisciplinary approach, the study would then become legitimate as a doctoral program. Unlike the various ‘studies’ that came into being after the Civil Rights movement, such as ‘Black Studies’, ‘Chicano Studies’, ‘Gender Studies’ etc, which sought to develop clear roots and a visible subject matter for study, the burgeoning discipline of Design Studies would have to constantly “keep up” with the field of design practice by consistently changing its program of study with the evolving subject matter of practice. Why has Design Studies lagged behind in becoming a commonly accepted field, such as art history or sociology? Across the board there is the alarming view that in a sense, Design is still invisible. The  most important ways in which Margolin believes this can be combatted is through 1) acknowledgment of the array of applications Design carries 2) creation of a sense of shared problematics 3) an openness of the Design Research Committee to the interdisciplinary nature of Design, as well as the establishment of collective standards grounding the expanding field.

Margolin holds an optimistic hope for the future of doctoral pursuits in Design Studies, however, one striking comment was his belief that it should be a field that is definitely not practice as Design Studies is not about the making of the objects so much as it is about the reflection in combination with history and theory. However, I believe that while it is easy to believe that Design Studies gives an ethics to practice, elucidates themes in work, or as Clive says, “tweaks” it (it certainly does all of this), there is a very important agency within it as well. Obviously you would have to ask WHY Design Studies at all if not for the objects created? Design Studies is the unique field that deals with the future, and if situated carefully within academics can be the mediation between theory and practice (also technology) that can lead to imaginative design. A huge question is what else will Design Studies need besides formative texts that can elevate what it imagines design to be from mere representation to performative realities? Also if the University were to have its way, how much of an ‘expanded field’ would Design Studies be allowed? Think of Buckminster Fuller’s projects with students in Carbondale, Illinois. Fuller’s entire notion of what a designer should be or what a study of Design should do was cross disciplinary, even describing himself as a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist”. His design philosophy sought to solve global crisis such as poverty, ecological destruction, education, and energy among others. Most importantly Fuller understood the relationship and significance Design had to the future. Without digressing into an entire new topic on the prodigious production of works and projects by Fuller, let say that what is interesting about Fuller’s new teaching approach at Carbondale was that, as early as the late 1950s Fuller viewed Design as a type of expanded Design Studies field.

Ultimately his work with students in Carbondale was abandoned and largely forgotten (last semester Mark Wigley gave a fascinating lecture about the possibility of imagination in architecture and concluded it was not quite possible after reviewing the demise of Fuller’s work in Carbondale). Is the reality that the experimentation allowed within academics will largely only remain within academia? Considering our state of hyper-Capitalism, where the University now functions as a business, would having the gusto of Fuller even be able to create a unique program of Design Studies? The paralysis of how to move forward with the growing discipline of Design Studies springs from our inability to see it as a comprehensive study that deals with the making of things, the future making of things, and the human reflection and reaction towards those things. It cannot be divorced from practice nor from the humanistic tendencies of its sister disciplines such as, sociology, history, psychology, or cultural studies. What makes Design Studies unique from other ‘studies’ is the very fact that it is the type of study that has the potential to create a new vernacular for modern, responsible living in the twenty-first century.


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Filed under Bibliography, Design Studies, Design Theory

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