This classroom encounter has inspired my new operation: Studio Thing
, which will put art, design and learning in new configurations. There’s plenty I still need to unpack, but for now the priority items from my experience are: (1) the unexpected arrival of art, (2) the significance of basic encounters with the non-human, and (3) encouraging freedom of movement via “looser tailoring”.
The unexpected arrival of art
As someone who gets paid to make things for clients, I’ve furrowed my brow over the work of people like Dunne and Raby
and muttered, “but that’s art
, not design.” And yet after art unexpectedly appeared on my classroom agenda and became a platform for upending the world
, I’m more interested in how “art thinking” might complicate the instrumental logic
of design. Design is (almost by definition) a means to an end, but both the “means” and “ends” of that formulation can be mutated by the weirdness that art brings to the table.
The significance of basic encounters with the non-human
I recently spent seven years as a director of a design studio
that intervened in problems of sustainability and social purpose with human-centred design
methods. It was very special. But just as all those buzzwords were reaching mainstream critical mass
, I began to suspect that “human-centredness” was part of the very problem that ecological justice needs to overcome. Isn’t putting humans at the centre of things what got us into this climate disaster? I obviously prefer actually listening to people
over my Assumption Autopilot, but over-privileging human voices, especially if they’re playing the classic roles of customer
, creates huge blindspots in our planetary design imagination. So how does post-human-centred design begin? We need the design equivalent of the deep meditation that a still life requires. Things are encounters,
and we must make those meetings count. Humbly acknowledging our imbrication in non-human assemblies seems like a step in the right direction for me. I want to explore that
Encouraging freedom of movement via “looser tailoring”
Our contemporary world demands that thou shalt know thine audience
, and thou shalt tailor thine output to suit thine audience
. And just as human-centredness can be problematic, our ensnarement in these feedback loops is precisely one of our biggest problems
at the moment. It’s not just “algorithms” that have created our social media quagmire, and neither is it just a social media problem. It’s the entire orientation of our cultural economy, and design is heavily implicated. In self-help psychobabble, design’s quest to understand its users isn’t being used to maturely negotiate our relationships. Instead, it’s enabling toxic, people-pleasing codependence and generalised addiction. Our overeagerness to “give people what they want” by tailoring our output to fit very specific user types or audience segments is narrowing our repertoire of thoughts and actions. Uncritical “design empathy” has led to the perfection of capitalist interpellation
rather than emancipation.
In the classroom, I got to experience how making things strange and difficult and inappropriate can be wondrous. Rather than going for the perfect fit and encasing our test subjects in carbonite
, we need to widen our hailing frequencies
to enter the undiscovered country
. This doesn’t mean I want to stop investigating and listening in my design practice, but I do want to ensure it’s the kind of curiosity that leads to unexpected places rather than, you know, The Matrix.
Anyway, the whole venture is all still under construction. I will meet you in the Thing Fields.