Reading Response 1 · Akshat Srivastava

The current taxonomy of the design profession is a mess. It makes the industry seem scattered and chaotic, which is ironic given the fact that designers generally tend to take great pride in their organizational abilities. Most forms of design that aren’t geared towards ‘solving [commercial] problems [for commercial benefit]’ are often looked down upon and don’t get enough recognition. To address these issues, Bruce and Stephanie Tharp propose a 4-segment system to categorize [industrial] design into more meaningful sub-fields. Categorized primarily on the basis of intent, these 4 ‘shelving units’ of their Design Garage are Commercial Design, Responsible Design, Experimental Design, and Discursive Design. Commercial Design comprises work oriented towards and driven by the market. Responsible Design, on the contrary, takes on a humanitarian approach and seeks to help those in need. Experimental Design is geared towards exploration and discovery, and Discursive Design seeks to express ideas and encourage discourse. While all of these ‘compartments’ are strong areas of practice within design by themselves, this system becomes especially powerful when ‘The Overlap’, i.e. hybridization of said compartments, is considered. In practice, these categories don’t always have explicit boundaries. In fact, most if not all design work can be placed into two or more of these categories. One of the most important outcomes of using this system is that it legitimizes several rather crucial forms of non-commercial design work by giving them a recognized umbrella, a well-defined category to belong to. This can be particularly helpful in making room for and encouraging the form of design work that we hope to do in this class, which deals with visualizing alternative futures and creating thought-provoking artifacts that provide a vision of how things could be instead of trying to only work around how things currently are.

This approach is commonly labeled ‘Speculative Design’, and that is precisely what Dunne and Raby advocate for in their book, ‘Speculative Everything’. While the widespread take on design being a problem-solving tool is valid and useful in most regards, limiting design to just that discounts its utility as a means of provoking thoughtful discussion and debate. Speculative Design offers a way to think outside of the limitations of the world as it is right now and speculate how things could be. However, that does not imply that Speculative Design is about predicting the future. Rather, it serves to the idea of a range of possible futures that can be used to understand people’s ideas and expectations about what they want their future to be. One key condition Dunne & Raby lay down is that these ‘possible futures’ should have believable paths leading to them from where we are currently, or else we risk getting into the zone of fantasy that has little to no practical utility. Dissatisfaction with the current form of the economy is what has led to increased interest in these forms of non-commercial design. Conceptual Design tries to leverage design to provoke and inspire rather than exclusively serving the needs of the market. Critical Design seeks to utilize Conceptual Design as a form of critique, a way to find alternatives that question and highlight the flaws of the status quo. The primary motivation behind Speculative Design (and all its sub-forms) is not to react to the material world but to act on ideals and attitudes, to provoke meaningful discussion and debate, and to provide not one but many possible visions of the future.

For me, all of this is refreshingly jarring; it truly challenges what I have long believed design to be, and I love it. Of course, there are lots of rabbit holes (such as the design vs. art debate) this discussion opens up that I hope to address as we proceed in this course. Through this discussion on Speculative and Critical Design, I am reminded of Hume’s Law, the classic is-ought problem, which questions any philosophical arguments that are made for what’s ought to be based merely on what is. The philosophical notions of descriptive vs. normative ethics appear to tie in quite closely with our subject matter here, with Speculative Design clearly advocating for normative thinking. I believe there’s a lot of insight that classical philosophy has to offer to the world of design, and I look forward to diving deeper into the philosophical roots and implications of the many different forms of design discussed here.

 


 

Helpful Resource: The Young Designer’s Guide to Speculative and Critical Design; offers concise overviews for the many terms we have discussed, and has a wealth of useful references as well.

Reading Response 1 / Natalie Washington

 

The purpose of these texts were to introduce the different approaches to design, describing both their usefulness as well as their intended purposes. Not claiming that one field of design is necessarily more impactful than the other, Bruce&Stephanie Tharp, (authors of the article,“The 4 fields of Industrial Design”) describe discursive design’s role as significant in it’s ability to serve a tangible way to consider alternative realities compared to the one that currently exists; this is powerful in that it provides a way for designers to not only join, but potentially shape the conversation on major issues we [currently] face, with an emphasis on offering ideas rather than predictions. The article goes on to explain that understanding the different facets within the design landscape is crucial in maintaining its effectiveness. From what I have gained from both readings, I would say that speculative design, specifically, faces the greatest danger of being used for its more ephemeral sense of the word, if we as designers are not diligent in how we use/practice it. It’s a powerful tool, and when used properly (I use that word loosely) it holds the potential to spark great &positive change.

The second source “Speculative Everything” by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby begin to further dissect conceptual design and speculative design’s role within that category. It begins by describing a diagram that helps us organize the framework of potential futures. Anthony&Fiona go on to acknowledge what zone of potential future they feel is most significant (Preferable) and how it empowers the user/citizen/consumer to usurp the role of “decider” of a potential future that is holistic and “ideal” for “all” or “most” of society. I definitely align myself with this approach to design and design thinking as both a fashion designer and as an individual. As this relates to fashion, I think often times fashion design is more of a result and in it’s most forward-thinking sense, it is still almost dependent upon a certain trend occurring or not occurring (because of it’s strong orientation towards the market/market value, which is ultimately the case for most design disciplines/fields, not just fashion.) As an individual I have found this often competes with my personal values as it relates to social interaction, social responsibility etc. etc. I think this study has the potential to greatly impact the voice that I choose to project as a designer.

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Forum for the Future + Levi Strauss &Co:

 

Response 001 | Noah

The exploration and analysis between design for consumerism versus design for inquisition is very interesting and captivating. I truly enjoyed reading through the list at the beginning of Speculative Everything where it maps the mental approach to the two different ideologies of design. I personally haven’t had a lot of experience with discursive design, so i found that these readings focused intently on the gaps in my knowledge, and elevated a new perspective (yay, learning). I can agree with Core77 for categorizing design into four different fields, since it establishes validity for doing design work that isn’t focused on making profits and moving product. The further we can separate ourselves from this methodology, the more our society can benefit from the creative and analytical minds we manifest.

What really sticks with me is the cultural shift within design that discredited all forms of non-commercial thinking. I find myself considering the creative culture that existed back in the mid-1900s, in which we had such a fantastic boom of art/design movements, explorations and installations, and how there seems to be a large gap from the 80’s until now. Some may relate it to the advent of the internet age, in which we’ve quickly lost the security of our “private lives,” therefore people began curating and conservitizing their external image. Others could relate it to the War on Drugs, which pulled the open and questioning culture into the quiet and suppressed voices of the underground, countercultural movement. I believe both are true, and im glad to see the much-needed discursive movement began to rise at the turn of the century.

We need this societal questioning. The Internet has made it seemingly easy for large corporations to have their influence on the masses, for better and for worse. The masses can only know and question the information that is within their grasp, so if there’s a lacking of imaginative thinking or exploration, we only encourage a consumerism-driven economy. I fear that the accessibility of the internet and social media have stifled creativity, since all ideas are now accessible, leading to the mentality that “somebody else already has that concept, now i don’t have to pursue it.”  

In the reading, Susan Neiman mentioned that “we should measure reality against ideals, not the other way around” (12). This phrase explains how we can have checks and balances within our economic system, regardless if we continue with capitalism or overturn it to another structure. I’m sure many have mentioned these books before, but I cannot help but relate these topics to Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 due to their societal-suppressive nature. These books strike a powerful nerve with our mainstream society because they showcase the exact fears that people have when it comes to the top-down government. These books are discursive in their own right because they envision a scenario that people can empathize with, and illuminate the potential pitfalls that we have as an evolving society.

Another book that i can connect with these readings is Cradle To Cradle. The book is intended to open people’s understanding of how we arrived into the consumer-driven society evolved, and what attributes we have stopped questioning. The best example of the book in action is that it was printed on a recycled-plastic paged book with soy-based inks, all with the intention of giving the the book a longer life cycle.

Reading Response 1 / Shelbi Howard

Speculative design is created for the purpose of idea communication. It encourages discourse and debate about the stance that it takes. As much as speculative design focuses on the communication of these ideas, its methods also create a call to action. Through its humor, physical elements, and stretched reality, people are meant to relate and react in a way that challenges their current beliefs and motives. Without a call to action from the work, it is merely art; something to be discussed and passed over in a museum. Speculative design informs experts and directs social ideals in a way that has a purpose of reflection and decision making rather than just idea communication.

Speculative design lives in the uncanny valley of reality showing those who experience it either a potential utopia or dystopia from the alternate reality created by the work. While being inhuman in its depiction of an unlikely reality, it is also decidedly human in its exploitation of our hidden motives, fears, and behaviors we use to make decisions with in today’s reality. We are both comfortable with its place in our current world and discomforted by the effects of these alternative ideals on the lives we live. Unlike fiction or idealism where someone is shown what should be, speculative design lives on a plane of possibility. Motivating the person by visceral discomfort and fear rather than blatantly informing them or using less potent emotions, such as jealousy of the unattainable, that will not call a person to action.

Traditional product design is intrinsically connected to capitalist ideals. Modern design education constantly harkens back to the 1950’s where objects were pure, impractical, and purchased for symbolic wealth through brand names. Today, designers are no longer thought leaders nor do they carry influence in modern capitalist economies due to the automation of processes that have circumvented direct innovation. The implementation and capabilities of mass production that initially allowed designers to gain wealth and recognition in the 1950s, ‘60s, and 70’s has replaced their innovative influence with automated algorithms and data collection that now drive consumer decision-making. Markets are no longer being driven by brand innovators but by the technology they have optimized to incrementally increase their margins, regardless of its side effects on society. This automation of markets has a decidedly negative impact on the human condition, creating tension between people and the system they rely on to survive.

Technology has created a new environment for capitalism that both optimizes its growth and provides increased challenges to our current market systems. Beyond the obvious negative global effects on the wealth and quality of life in third world countries, capitalist-driven processes are also hurting first world countries in more subtle social ways. Humans are no longer connected through the innovation, production chains, and trade of goods that were ultimately created to make products more accessible. As capitalist-driven technology implementation grows, human decision-making, independence, and critical thought is ultimately removed from daily experiences, thus reducing their capabilities.

Will an economy beyond capitalism emerge from the current trajectory of design and society? It is impossible to predict, but current market trends imply new economic exchange systems developing as a result of distrust in the current economic system. Not-for-profit service economies have become available through apps and websites such as Couch Surfing to allow people to rely on the trade of favors and human trust to benefit one another, ultimately sharing its success with all of its users. Here we see decidedly more human ideals and connection returning as the basis of exchange once again.

In contrast, crypto currency is an example of automation and technology being implemented to address growing market distrust instead of exacerbate it. This addresses the same concerns of capitalism being insufficient for future use in a way that removes the element of human control, greed, and error. While challenges between technology and capitalism will continue to grow, there are many possibilities to implement a post-capitalist technology-oriented socio-economic system for a more humane future.

 

Additional interesting resources I’ve found this weekend:

New discursive film, Zoe, that seems to fit well into what has been described as speculative in James Auger’s essay.  The producer questions the difference between humans and AI through an evolutionary Turing test, our work and leisure roles once robots are ubiquitous, and shows how capitalism exploits human needs/fears through pharmaceuticals and technology markets. I’ve linked the trailer here, but it’s a terrible example of the depth of the film. You can find it for free on Amazon Prime.

This article alludes to capitalist agendas and their influence on children today through media and automation.

Reading Response 1 | Adriana Noritz

Speculative Everything, in its first three chapters, lays down the groundwork for a critical analysis on what design should be/what it has to be in our contemporary world. They describe new ways of framing “design” as a form of exploring possible futures, ones that reflects what society truly desires in the bigger picture. These designs don’t need to be the tell all solution, but the hope is that the conversation that comes from it leads to a different way of thinking which could then lead to the solution. (Small motions leading to a big movement)

I worry that design is too comfortable with what it should be. Designers, at times, work in a silo, far from the reality outside our doors. We are skilled at delivering what we think is “good” design and skilled at staying in our lanes – you’re a product designer, you have a minimal style, everything is a cylinder, everything is white. I think in developing this stagnant theme, we lost an essential part of what made design interesting and human: experimentation with what we have available to us and speculation of what could be. Dunne and Raby are in the same camp saying, “[‘Nice’ design] limits and prevents designers from fully engaging with and designing for the complexities of human nature” (38). What they’re talking about is design getting stuck in the practicality of life, when in retrospect human nature is so nuanced.

I’m looking for something richer than a clean aesthetic and nice looking products. I would like to see designs that challenge social issues, address the state of politics, provide alternatives to the way we educate youth, etc. … things that could start small, but influence people to think differently and more openly about the future of our world. The beginning of this movement can start by reframing the different fields that manifest within design – allowing designers the freedom to think creatively and critically without selling the practice short. Design becomes reflective of the complexity of human nature when we allow chaos to blur the lines between what is and what can be. Designers have the potential to be “important local and global citizens as well as influential cultural agents… [serving] along broader intellectual and social lines” (Tharp).

Throughout these readings I kept thinking about a scene from the movie Waking Life where the main character is in a dream conversing with Professor Eamonn Healy about the span of human evolution. What Healy describes is exponential advancement within human capabilities – referencing the development of agriculture, scientific revolution, and industrial revolution happening more rapidly than the last (10,000 years, to 400 years, to 150 years) this “telescoping” of evolutionary time, if consistent, would mean for another major shift to happen within our lifetime. The hope being that “the new evolutionary paradigm will give us the human traits of truth, of loyalty, of justice, of freedom”. That said, a technological revolution will undoubtedly rise if not already, but design could be the element that grounds us and establishes the importance of human qualities and connection impacting the future of our world.

Reading Response #1/ Luke Weaver

Now that I am re-reading Speculative Everything, I can be more critical. I spent my first reading in a state of Awe, that so many of my dreams about design’s potential were already being put into text and studied. For example, hearing universal design being called out on it’s commercial expansiveness rather than it’s ability to solve problems well, or just the idea of design not having to function as the “Handmaiden of Industry” is very empowering. It elevates our careers beyond Jobs and into Higher Callings.

Looking at the map of design, I fall pretty squarely on the upper lefthand side, sitting between critical design and emotional design. There are a few better places for a obsessive with aspirations of process driven furniture to land. However, I’m very enamored with the idea of involving the user as an equal participant. IKEA owns this land. I think the the two clearest ideological versions of this idea, are Max Lamb’s DIY chair and it’s inspiration Tord Boontje’s Rough and Ready chair. These chairs are based on the idea of the user being able to purchase and then assemble these chairs based on drawings, and only costing $9-15 dollars. To quote Max Lamb, “A design for everyone and anyone; massproduction in fact, but production by the masses rather than by machines”.

Now delving into the wormhole of Speculative Everything, my first notation is on the nearly confrontational tone of the writing. Calling shots on varying design theories, I can’t help but be envious of their ability to question our current systems. You can’t make it very far in our co-op fueled program with that attitude. Contribute to the landfills with your plastic solutions, or become an “artist”. I’m eternally grateful this speculative class is being offered at DAAP, and that I don’t have to just wait for grad school to participate in this conversation. However, it’s self-evident why it’s not taught specially for ID, as our ties to commodity at this school appear to be inescapable. There is a sort of chicken-or-the-egg situation here; is this because or for the co-op program?

While this text isn’t necessarily a piece of critical design on it’s own, it certainly has achieved the proposed goal of opening up questions. Which brings me to my largest complaint about Speculative Design: Isn’t language/film/writing, just a better medium to propose these questions? This book has establish the role and touched on the methodology of speculative design, but it hasn’t corrected the problems existing in the current “high-brow” execution of this field. The proletariat masses don’t have the existing design lexicon or go to enough high-end gallery openings to engage and participate in this field. Designers speaking to designers. Points are easier to prove when we are all using the same vocabulary, but the common man doesn’t use the design lexicon, let alone the visual languages we use.

But perhaps (the great opening phrase of all those who live off ideology rather than food and water), it is the role of critical design to bring objects to this critical light. How else do consumers know that they need to be questioning their objects, if their objects and their producers furtively avoid the dialog?