A mature state of design culture, one that is self-knowing, reflexive, critical and productive — in terms of its stable but dynamic structures and elements — would be totally beautiful.
Let me list what this might mean.
- All-round public understanding of how material and immaterial parts of any system, service or institution function.
- A corresponding understanding of how artefacts are both public and private — that they engage individual consumer behaviour but are networked to and contingent on wider systems of finance, politics, energy production and environmental impact.
- That those artefacts that help to constitute systems, services and institutions are transparent in that they are objects of use, but they are also rendered ‘readable’ in terms of their functions and contingencies (1 + 2).
- That using those understandings, civic actors (i.e. everyone) are engaged in the collective generation of scenarios, modifications and innovations.
So that’s my utopic opener for this blog, inspired by spending a day with Francois Jégou and various colleagues at SDU and from further afield, to explore the relationship of aesthetics to sustainability.
Before Francois Jégou spoke, I gave a short talk in which I asked whether we can link sustainable product design thinking to how we design places and practices therein.
In my critique of American design critic Donald Norman’s work, I suggested how he usefully attends to a wide range of cognitive encounter when discussing products and interfaces, but that the relationality of these tends to get ignored. By this, I mean that these artefacts are considered in isolation — as singularized objects. Conversely, an Actor-Network Theory or Practice Theory approach would seek out all those other things, and all those other people, all that other knowledge, skills and states of emotion — and the links between them — that allow that object to exist in the first place. A version of what I talked about is available to read here (my closing remarks on ‘co-articulation’ that I have derived from the work of sociologist Noortje Marres are not in this paper, however).
As someone with a background in design history, perhaps my intuition is to look back or around and try and make sense of what has happened or what is happening. This is where my enthusiasm for ‘making things public’ that Bruno Latour has expounded comes from. How can we build stronger understandings and thus a more politicized everyday life through our knowledge and insight into what we use and where we go in our day-to-day lives?
So the next step, which is more future-oriented, is how can we, using this, imagine and implement improvements that are kinder in their carbon footprints, more equitable in the distribution of resources and more appreciative of the assets available to us?
This is where the work of Francois Jégou and his organization, Strategic Design Scenarios comes in.
In his lecture, Francois explained that his studio looks more like a movie set than a traditional design consultancy. Here they produce video sketches that develop and explore possible future scenarios of human action. In so doing, new practices can be prototyped. And through these sketches they can also be communicated to be made understandable and usable. They actually show new things in use. This requires paying close attention to the detail while allowing non-specialists a role in seeking solutions. But this cannot be standardized as a process.
We are, by now, very used to the many versions of participatory design and co-design that are available. In a recent paper, Ramia Mazé argues that, far from being a blunt instrument, social innovation is nuanced by all kinds of factors as to the ‘when, where and who’ it takes place with. Design and social innovation are messy and contingent in themselves, producing varying patina.
It seems that just as football followers can read and articulate the subtleties of various games, teams, formations, points in the sporting season and so on, so we need to be alive and analytical when it comes to design culture. And if the trophy to be lifted is a more sustainable and equitable life, then we need to improve our participatory game.
This also means, as we agreed in our afternoon discussion, that we can re-invent the ways by which designers interact with publics. Does this mean that the designer can also become expert commentator, blogger, pundit, fan-club organizer, trainer, coach as well as player? This might be where design culture graduates have a role in the future as well.
Finally, then, we can also attend to the settings of design education. ‘Schools do not represent themselves as strong social actors’, Francois argued. Design schools have enormous power to be civically engaged, innovation labs. I would add, that we could also be talking more about other third spaces, such as libraries and museums as civic environments where these discussion can take place, an issue that emerged at another SDU design culture event.
It seems, at least to me, that plenty of ways for Design Culture to move from being an analytical tool to being a practice that itself produces new, beautiful ways of living and being are emerging through the course of our research events. I hope that our Design Culture: Object, Discipline and Practice international conference in Kolding in September 2014 can reveal even more.