Category Archives: Design Studies

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:


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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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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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