Category Archives: Design Practice

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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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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Curious Boym- Can Irony Create Tangible Meaning?

Last Wednesday evening, Constantin Boym presented a survey of some of his most famed projects such as the “Buildings of Disaster” and some of his newer projects such as “Babel Blocks”, exhibited at the Design and the Elastic Mind exhibition at MOMA a couple years ago. Our seminar on “Thinking Contemporary Design”, came eager with questions on the meaning of ironic design, whether being an immigrant from Russia made it possible for him to form this type of critical design on consumer culture, and also on the fact that in many respects he was a lover of material culture and the everyday though commenting on it at the same time.

Interestingly, I found Boym indifferent towards consumerism itself and more concerned with his work being viewed specifically as product design as much of his work vacillates between design and fine art. Bringing up another interesting question: Why when design becomes a commentary, especially a critical one, does it become viewed as fine art and not design? This signals to just how narrow the design field has been in the last century. While Modern art brilliantly expanded its field by questioning the mundane everyday and also commenting on our perception of it (as the beauty of it is also easily forgotten) beginning with artists such as, Cézanne, design has been restricted by ‘form follows function’. Art, for reasons that would be interesting to research, has been able to flourish defining itself and evolving by the very work it creates. Design on the other hand has been both restricted by industry and the lack of knowledge about the capabilities of design. This is what Boym is successful at commenting on. Boym’s “Disaster” serious, while being dubbed ‘ironic’, by Paola Antonelli, also serves a function. And now we get to the reason that Boym is adamant about referring to his work as product design rather than fine art. Emotion, fun, satire, criticality, are all to Boym serving a function. His “Disaster” serious both met with vehement distaste and popular demand, spoke to a real underlying emotional need. Commentary on the everyday and in the ways in which we interact with objects serves the need of continuously stimulating our perception of the everyday realm, as well as creating an acute modern ability to be critical. In this light, ‘ironic’design expands the field of design to encompass more of what it really ought be considered to do.

There still remains, what I believe is a very valid question: If the main function of this type of work deals with perception, and perception is subjective while also relying on a significant trust on the visual realm as an arbiter truth, how does one not only gauge the effectiveness of the work, but hope that everyone is also as Jenny in class said “in on it”? While the OJ Simpson car chase souvenir speaks strongly to an ironic sentiment, the World Trade Center souvenirs, which Boym sold after demands from family and victims called in, speaks to an actual lived experience by a significant amount of the Western population. Does this still qualify as ironic? Does that no longer become the point? I also think of his “Searstyle” series, that comments on the American brand Sears and its success in creating a ‘very American’ middle-class vernacular style of interior design. Is this an embrace and nod to a familiar bygone American style or is it a joke on bad taste, suburbia, and banality from a non-American? The “Winged bedrest” is an armless loveseat with two “husbands” on its body, combined to make a single composition. Perhaps having a grandmother who most likely shopped at Sears, it was insulting or hard for me to imagine this as nostalgia. Perhaps, this is a sign of the own personal rethinking I must do with design, as I have clearly been affected by popular belief. I know I appreciate irony and I think it is one of the utmost priorities for the twenty-first century to expand the design field and truly consider it to encompass more than it has for the last century, however, with the “Searstyle” series though it did garner commissions I have trouble viewing it as anything more than contemporary art. When product design for the everyday verges on irony it becomes a delicate matter because if it is delving into something sentimentally experienced by many, the perception of it becomes muddled and its criticality soon becomes lost in a common insult or ignorance, often taken personally.  Not all of his work is victim to this. I think Constantin Boym is a brilliant designer with amazing insight, and I most like his work that deals with elevating material culture of the everyday itself (beaded chair, ceramic tea cup variations, and art history chair), allowing us to view it in a new light rather than as a direct confrontation with it, that for many was a highly personal experience. But maybe that’s because I’m too nice.

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