Category Archives: Design Theory

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:

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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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What are Objects?

If we are to really understand Design culture, should we not spend some time thinking about what objects mean to us in our everyday life? Seemingly a simple question with a simple answer: we use objects, they are helpful, perhaps we derive pleasure from them, they can be gifts, and so on. But this is not all that they do, objects tell us much more about ourselves as humans than perhaps we do with one another. Even the earliest philosophy has dealt with objects, giving it a proper place within society. Plato in The Republic viewed objects as representations of knowledge. An object was a representation of what it actually was but never was the thing itself. As early as 375 BC when Plato presumably began writing The Republic, there is a distinction made between the world known through sensuous experience versus the ultimate reality of the world that is only known through enlightenment (the cave simile). Since Plato, philosophy has bracketed objects as representations. Though they may speak to being, serve as modes in knowing the real, or in their making tell us about the world, they are always reduced to representations as felt by our senses.

I would venture to say that in the twenty-first century as many critics have claimed, modern man’s most profound interactions are not between men but with objects (just think of the social meaning of the IPhone or Blackberry). As Elaine Scarry describes in The Body in Pain, creating objects first arises from the imagination, the human interior works on the object, then follows a projection of the live body into the matter, thus the object must be self-aware. Take this passage that it in itself is enough inspiration to call for a reconsideration of objects:

A lightbulb transforms the human being from a creature who would spend approximately a third of each day groping in the dark, to one who sees simply by wanting to see: its impossibly fragile , upright-then-folding filament of wire is the materialization of neither retina, nor pupil, nor day-seeing, nor night-seeing; it is the materialization of a counterfactual perception about the dependence of human sight on the rhythm of the earth’s rotation; no wonder it is in its form so beautiful. (Scarry 1985).

Its design must anticipate how it will be used and be aware of what it is relieving. In this sense, objects are not just representations, but are much more exalted. They are in fact being. They are our own self-being mirrored back to us. So while the human creating includes the creating of the object, the object is also creating the human being. It may have been at one time that objects were easily understood as never crossing the line of representation, but when the individual begins to create narrative and define identity using the objects in the everyday environment, in some sense these objects are absorbed in the very meaning of what it is to be human. In a type of evolutionary unfolding, objects not only give us a human world but they indeed help shape us. They simultaneously recognize our sentient desires and intimate needs, while also projecting a concrete reality for our experience.

Still there is more clarification and criticism needed in how we live with objects. For considering all of the “junk” produced today, certainly not all objects are things as Martin Heidegger suggest in The Thing. There is as he suggests, a phenomenological aspect of perceiving objects from things, from the nearness which is a thing thinging. What does it mean for our being when indiscriminately objects are mass-produced and put out into the world? What happens when objects are disposable and no longer cherished? Of course to say that the human being equates his being from objects that are themselves not only projections of our interiority, but are things self-aware so therefore mirroring back to us being means that we must be more careful in what we produce and allow to dictate our everyday life. As a civilization that includes objects, if we don’t care about the objects essentially we are saying we don’t care about civilization. If we can ask an ethics for persons, Design can ask an ethics of its objects.

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LAMP: Literature, Art, Music, Philosophy: Where Does Design Fit?

When studying Design what can art, literature, philosophy, and even music tell us? What metaphors are inherent in LAMP and contrastively what can it not say about Design? My group- Jacquie, Sarah, and I sought to pull our expertise together to arrive at a few core questions that could get at design’s place within these disciplines. Jacquie having a philosophy background assigned the class The Origin of the Work of Art by Heidegger, but realizing its depth opted for the translation and summary by David Bret. Sarah assigned a reading from Alfred North Whitehead a mathematician turned philosopher. And I, with my art historical background assigned the class Rosalind Krauss’ essay “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. Seemingly disparate pieces of writing incidentally connected us to a key theme: Categories. For what all of these readings when read together taught us, was how great the malleability, influence, and affinity for Categories (as a subject) are and has been . The way in which history has defined art, literature, music, and philosophy has much to do with how the fields themselves are viewed, as well as the problematization of them.

Rosalind Krauss, writing in 1978, at the height of post-modernism delivers extremely logical and insightful criticism on the state of Sculpture at the time. The main question concerning her criticism is that art history essentially did not know how to define or discuss sculpture as it rapidly changed, breaking the boundaries of context that critics had placed it in. In our inclination to historicize, because we believe history mitigates difference, the term ‘sculpture’ became obscured to the extreme. She writes, “…but the category itself has been forced to cover such a range of heterogeneity that it is, itself, in danger of collapsing. And so we stare at the pit in the earth and think we both do and don’t know what sculpture is.” The problem of what to do with an expanding field, is what Design is dealing with now, as instead of looking at the output of its work and deciding how to define it, it often looks to past models in moving forward. We are not sure what to call it if a designed object blurs into art (Boym’s pieces, Ai Wei Wei, Tobias Wong, etc) nor what to call it if Design is used to organize systems and create businesses (Design Thinking?), or even what Design for social innovation might mean for the term ‘Design’. In an attempt to more appropriately address the capabilities of an expanded field, Krauss constructs a Klein group starting with the neutered form of sculpture resting between the problematization of two opposites- “not-landscape” and “not-architecture”. By virtue of the fact that these things themselves had certain interests, as well as the expanding use of mediums in the 1960s, these terms then became expanded.

Because of ruptures in the field of sculpture caused by artists such as Robert Morris, Robert Smithson, Richard Serra, Sol LeWitt, and Bruce Nauman, new ways of defining the work were needed. Design might benefit from an analysis such as Krauss’.

Alfred North Whitehead, writing much early in the 1920s also dealt with the lack of complexity in modern thought. In his “Lowell Lectures” he called for the inclusion of an aesthetic education into the modern curriculum. He believed aesthetic apprehension spoke to a metaphysical doctrine, which increased the depth of one’s individuality. Because of the increase importance in ‘specialization’ in modern society, Whitehead believed we as a culture got lost of our wisdom, believing our attachment to materiality over values had led society to disastrous oversights. He writes, “…Art concerns more than sunsets. A factory, with its machinery, its community of operatives, its social service to the general population, its dependence upon organising and designing genius, its potentialities as a source of wealth to the holders of its stock is an organism exhibiting a variety of vivid values. What we want to train is the habit of apprehending such an organism in its completeness. It is very arguable that the science of the political economy as studied in its first period after the death of Adam Smith, did more harm than good.” Whitehead is picking up on the limiting nature of ‘categories’ on modern mentalities and its consequent failures. A prescient thought as contemporary society seems also to be too caught in the specialization of a field rather than complex relationships of multi-disciplinary fields.

On a deeper level and aligned with Heidegger’s thinking, Whitehead believed art to be necessary for the “fertilisation of the soul” and this brings us to why reading The Origin of the Work of Art can be helpful in understanding design as well. Heidegger views the ‘work’ of the work of art as the mode in which the human can realize truth. It is the opening between ‘the world’ we inhabit and ‘the earth’ (or materiality) that the world rests upon. Within the work, there is a rift, an opening where one can know truth. Art is not simply an act taken up, but it is the knowing bringing forth of Being into unconcealment. Rather than reflecting on the mere materiality of art, a work actually only functions as a work when we remove ourselves from our commonplace routine and move into what is disclosed by the work. It is an opening up that should be valued in art more so than its other qualities. Van Gogh’s often cited work, A Pair of Shoes from 1886 was viewed by Heidegger in Amsterdam in 1930 and for him was the type of work that can reveal truth, the essence of “shoeness” seen in the painting of shoes.

“On the leather lie the dampness and richness of the soil. Under the soles slides the loneliness of the field-path as evening falls. In the shoes vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening grain and its unexplained self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintery field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth, and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-within-itself.”

Of course much can be said about Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art. In comparison to the other writings by Krauss and Whitehead, it brings up the restrains of relying too heavily on ‘categories’ of what a thing should be (in terms of philosophy). Art is not just simply using tools to manipulate materials, but can be a way in which the human can know and represent the world as well as reflect on being in it. When reading all of these authors together we wondered about the category of Design and if it could in fact be an umbrella for LAMP. If Design becomes integrated into LAMP, we have to ask what is it that is lost by looking through this lens in addressing Design? Is there a uniqueness to Design that cannot be captured through these disciplines?

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Designerly Ways of Knowing

Can a “Designtific Method” be formed using the established Scientific Method, but in a designerly way of knowing? Emphatically I say No. After trying it out in seminar last Wednesday, I became frustrated at the task. Using the following model:

My group tried to construct a method for design. The first problem my group ran into was that instead of accepting the problem at hand, we immediately begin to think about what is possible. While in science the researcher might ask questions that are restricted within the given laws commonly accepted within the field of Science, Design does not deal with such laws. Virtually anything is possible, whether it be a redefinition of questions, an approximation, or a reshaping of context. As we study the scientific method process we realized the reason a Design method could not be fit into the same type of structure is that there are knowledge areas that are just not represented within the scientific method process. Designers not only deal with the body of knowledge embodied in a thing, but also with a wide range of contexts. Science deals in truths and Design deals with complexity. As we went through each step we roughly translated what each step might mean in a designerly way of knowing:

Research ——–> Understanding of conditions, constraints, as well as opportunity. Defining the contexts and get to know it

Hypothesis ——> Proposition, prototype (which might be conceptual), ways of understanding particular situation, objective innovation (taking away, yet giving something back that is better)

Test with an experiment ——–> Fit to a context, compromise, negotiation

Analysis results ———–> Understand complexity, making something that resonates, an understanding of the features and capabilities of a person and a thing, fit psychologically

Report Results ————–> Can never fully know effects of results, can not repeat because artifacts come out of particular contexts, may arrive at multiple answers, a redefinition of a situation

Largely the reason that it is difficult to equate Design with Science is that there are many ambiguities that design deals with. Science is arriving at an understanding of facts, of truth in existence a priori. Design deals with imagining new ways of existence that might not have ever been. While we can roughly outline some steps involved in a designerly way of knowing, these steps will inevitably change or even be pushed aside dependent on the particular context a designer is working with. Perhaps one doesn’t even need steps. The knowledge that is inherent in design is one that is experimental (this might be its connection to science), but also one that is about creating options, trying new things, and approximating. It is an acute apprehension of the human situation and the psychology of this where as a scientific way of knowing is about fact, laws, and a faith in the consistency of them.

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