I am not really interested in design itself, I am interested in its implications, in the expanded more political field of design. I’m interested in how we are talking to each other now – via screens and cameras and that makes us behave and act differently.
Because all of this is design, which continues to evolve, it defies a simplistic definition. Design has leapt ahead from the days when form, function and industry were all that really mattered. Of course we will always need what functional design does best, which is to create pragmatic solutions to make lives better. But better and happier is no longer limited to just quality of life, today it is just as much about quality of understanding.
I think this realization marks the end of the era when design acted as a sort of carrot that we were always running towards in search of an instant dose of happiness. But it was a trap – we all knew this, but we kept on running.
Now it feels like we are in between eras – in a moment when reconnecting to the earth, to each other, and even to time itself feels important. Because more than just things, design should foster better intellectual connections, and more meaningful social interactions. Design in this sense is a core component of happiness.
I think all designers want to do good things. They all have good intentions that often start with lots of Post-it notes stuck to the wall. The Post-its become stories and narratives that are later narrowed down to issues and the issues are changing – economy, technology, politics, and well-being. For what we know is that design needs to be at the forefront of this shift to help to shape its outcome.
If all my years at Design Academy Eindhoven, Z33 (Belgium) and Luma Arles (France) have taught me one thing it is that mess is more, not less is more. I am always encouraging designers to get more in amongst it; to get their hands dirty.
To me design gets really interesting when the associated research focuses on longer term more imaginative and speculative approaches. Something that refers to the future.
But for this to really take hold, the design discipline must first acknowledge that it’s their solutions-based creative environment that is responsible for creating the very depressed times we are stuck in. It’s the same environment that created what I like to call an imagination crisis.
At Z33 I always favoured this approach to design-thinking. There I tried to blur the design/art divide with more poetic, less pragmatic design exhibitions. I was interested in exploring how we might sustain hope in a time of crisis and found the most interesting ideas about this in the more speculative and experimental work.
For the exhibition Atelier à Habiter (2014) – a title that references Le Corbusier’s famous line, “A house is a machine for living in” – we showed a project that is eerily relevant today – a work-at-home concept by Studio Makkink & Bey for PROOFFLAB. The project is a speculation on breaking normal workplace environments, imagining alternatives, and embracing a more ad hoc use of space by working within the legal building rules.
Research like this acutely reveals how we are all designed by design itself. Norms, standards, rules and legislation determine the design environment.
Mark Henning, Normaal, 2017
Two projects that explore this well from my time as head of the social design department at Design Academy Eindhoven are by South African designer Mark Henning and Australian designer Gabriel A. Maher.
It seems odd to be mentioning handshaking in this era of enforced 1.5 metres social distancing, but Henning was thinking in a moment when Trump’s handshake was making headlines and the Dutch prime minister made an absurd claim that immigrants should adopt the Dutch handshake if they are to properly fit in with normal Dutch behaviour. Henning created a foreign office where newcomers to Holland could train in the details of proper handshaking. He constructed a whole choreography, which was as much about the act of greeting as it was an ironic take on what defines ‘normal’.
This idea of norms and standards is also explored by Maher who specializes in how designers design gender, how we all unveil our bodies, share our bodies and stand, how that is perceived by others, and then perpetuated by the media. Her work shows how stereotypes lead to a standard we then unconsciously fall in line with. Maher deconstructs these signifiers of gender to explore how new gender identities might be possible.
Elisa Otañez, Yellow Spot, 2018, photo: Elisa Otanez + Iris Rijskamp
Another critical design project by Mexican designer Elisa Otañez comments on the absurd difficulty women face when trying to go to the toilet in public spaces. In Yellow Spot she looked at the power relations in space and infrastructure and who is in charge of taking decisions.
In projects like these design takes a critical, political, relational and speculative stance. It brings to both the designer and the audience a sense of not happiness, but a contentedness borne from being responsible, aware and connected to the future.
These projects also show how the demarcation between material and social design is fading. The stuff of social design – people, interactions, media – is the material with which designers try to shape the world. The function is to exert social consequences.
Marco Federico, Plastic Culture, 2018
In Plastic Culture Marco Federico Cagnoni researches bioplastics as a material alternative. He designed a huge factory of plants that is managed by a robot. The point is to avoid using agricultural resources only for bioplastic production and instead use the top half of the plants for human consumption and only the roots for bioplastics. The project lays out the design for a large-scale automated vertical farm organized collectively by local communities.
In Striptopia Maggie Laylon Saunders explores the harsh and precarious reality of sex workers. She designed a cooperative and a related app which helps with everything from healthcare to self-organization. The app is ready to launch, but has been delayed due to Covid-19 so she extended her project into a Peepshow on Wheels to protest the precarious position sex workers have been placed in during this crisis. The government does not recognize sex work as a contact profession like it does hairdressers, masseurs or acupuncturists, leaving them with no income, or protection. Peepshow on Wheels is designed to find them some financial security and visibility.
It is new economic models like these that connect people, technology and their professional lives. They show how new systems and networks can impact not only on how people live, but also how they work, make money and achieve satisfaction or fulfilment on both an individual and community level. I really believe that work like this serves an important purpose – it is what can influence more traditional forms of design, so using design to redesign design.
At the experimental cultural centre Atelier Luma, which I have been directing since 2016, we act more like a think tank, experimenting with how to use design as a tool for transition. We look at the immediate environment, the biotope, and consider how a cultural space can be more involved in it as a producer, a processor, and a school that ties all the knowledge together.
Studio Makkink & Bey, PROOFFLab at Home. Work at Home #3, 2013, Ateliera Habiter, Z33, photo © Kristof Vrancken
Our work with both algae at the Algae Platform – run by Studio Klarenbeek & Dros – and bio-matter at the Sunflower Enterprise, run by Studio Thomas Vailly, is focused on creating matter via sustainable production systems, but equally about experimenting with this same idea of new economic systems. These projects attempt to build a type of cooperative economy that is disconnected from existing industry and rather rewrites a local commercial model with craftspeople and scientists.
These are all attempts to break the capitalism cycle. It matters because even when a designer has the best intentions, if they don’t control the means of production their influence is minimized. And if we can redesign objects in a different way, then we can also redesign our way of decision making, our economic systems, our political processes. We can shape our freedoms.
It’s the only way to survive.