Basking in the sun of an Indian summer, its triangular shape caught the light and the imagination. The multi-decked interior provides a wonderful space for continuing the discussion after plenary sessions and specialist strands.
Opening the conference, I suggested that it provided an opportunity for us to discuss:
- what this ‘design culture’ thing might be;
- how it operates in different ways and different contexts;
- how it might be taught;
- its points of reference with regards to other academic disciplines;
- how it operates as a form of practice for professionals, activists, citizens, teachers and students.
We were well provisioned with perspectives coming from at least three participants holding the title of Professor of Design Culture, the editor of the Design Culture Reader, course leaders of Design Culture(s) degree programmes from three European universities and the editor of a new Hungarian language journal of Design Culture. Further, all the other participants were using this concept in their research, practice and teaching with countries represented including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, South Africa, Lebanon, India, USA and most European countries. The programme promised and delivered diverse approaches and sensibilities.
Rather than give a blow-by-blow account of the conference, I’d like to summarize some personal thoughts on the conference outcomes here.
It was refreshing that we didn’t get stuck on defining and redefining the term ‘design culture’. Some delegates argued for talking about design cultures to emphasize the plurality and multiplicity of its processes. Clearly there is an acceptance that design cultures are situated, that they are contingent on the specific sets of skills, knowledge, resources, understandings and so on in different contexts, that give rise to design cultures.
It’s interesting that it has become increasingly prevalent for historians to refer to ‘the design culture of..’ a period that pre-dates the usage of the term. I think it’s fair to say that, at least in English, the term has only come into common use in the last decade and yet we find it being used to discuss earlier periods. Equally we also find ‘design activism’ and ‘social design’ being grafted onto the discussion of historical moments that figured long before these terms actually came into being. When referring to different eras, should we be more specific in defining these precisely? Is there the danger that these become used a-historically? Social design, for example, is practised and understood in very different ways today compared with the activities of radical designers of the 1960s. My personal view is that design culture has emerged as part as a discursive term within a very specific set of economic and ideological processes, namely neoliberalism. It expresses certain qualities and practices, in many distinct ways, that are framed by this or activities that sit in relation to it. Even within this we have to be precise about how design cultures functioned differently.
The conference generally seemed to be happy to accept my proposition that Design Culture as a mode of study and research can exist inside, outside and alongside other pursuits such as design history or design studies. It can be done within and without these, usually with a different emphasis and sensibility but sometimes towards different types of outcomes. The keyword here is and rather than in opposition to or instead of.
It was interesting that, perhaps due to the contributions of at least two of the keynote speakers, a stronger space was also being carved out for cultural studies as a reference point. Notable here was the proposition that this field provides methodologies that work as useful counterpoints to those that come from the social sciences. More specifically, the embededness of the researcher with things within cultural studies provides, arguably, a qualitatively different approach to ethnography. Furthermore, doing cultural studies opens onto using the poetic as a form of enquiry. Description needn’t just be description. It contains analysis as well.
Finally, the influence of STS and ANT was notable at the conference (as it seems to be everywhere in academic research at the moment). But I’m intrigued as to how Design Culture studies opens up modifications or even alternatives to these.
Many delegates, like myself, had come to Design Culture through teaching practice-based design students. We had become dissatisfied with traditional approaches to teaching ‘contextual studies’ or ‘history and theory of art and design’ as separated activities. There is a place for this separation of ‘studio’ and ‘classroom’. But we also felt that much of the richness of praxis was being missed.
The rise of service design, design thinking and social innovation in recent years finds natural partners in Design Culture, given that they, at best, attend to socially constituted practices and the role of materiality in these. Changes within some sectors of design itself rework their relationship to the humanities and the social sciences.
Currently, though, Design Culture studies more often looks onto design practice rather than being a starting point for practice itself. In my own experience, Design Culture provides opportunities to intervene in the world through policy and debate at the macro-scale and within neighbourhood development. Perhaps there are other forms that design culture as practice can take. Perhaps we should not be quite so instrumentalist in thinking about the uses of design culture, as if it has to feed into design. Perhaps we can regard academic enquiry, writing or convening discussions as itself part of an expanded field of practice. Certainly, we should also be thinking about how we can engage in non-standard academic formats and places, pursue other publics and build new enthusiasms elsewhere.
The conference ended enthusiastically, with discussion for a follow-up one already beginning. My short-term gauge of a successful conference or symposium is how many delegates go on to nearby bars to continue the conversation. That evening we were also entertained by an open-air rock concert alongside the university building. This was a public event to celebrate the new campus. Among the star bands was ‘poetic post-punk’ band Magtens Korridorer (Corridors of Power). Its lead singer is Johan Olsen who holds a PhD in microbiology. Now that’s an example of cross-disciplinarity! Or more likely it’s a case of ‘…and…’.