Just in case

SINKING BUT SINGING - ON THE FUTURE OF DESIGN

This is a large text on the future of design which we wrote in 2016 for the catalogue of the 25th anniversary edition of the Biennale Interieur, Kortrijk, One of the main points we wanted to make was that for future designers -and now that crisis was no longer an exception but the new normal- it would no longer be enough to think outside the box. In order to survive they would have to develop a whole new box. It's a rather heavy text, but so are the problems we're facing. And those who don't have the time can limit themselves to the subtitles. Together, they are meant to be read as pamphlet or manifesto. The text also serves as a basis for the PhD which we are writing. Enjoy.

SINKING BUT SINGING- ABOUT LIFE, SURVIVING AND DESIGN IN AN UPSIDE-DOWN WORLD

Max Borka

Now that chaos is the new world order, and crisis no longer an exception but the new normal, it’s impossible to predict what the future will hold for the next generation of designers, says State of Design, Berlin director Max Borka. “All yesterday’s design principles are being replaced by their opposites. Designers don’t have a choice: they must all be different if they want to survive. It’s no longer enough to think outside the box. What we need now is to develop a whole new box.”

1. NOW CHAOS IS THE NEW WORLD ORDER…

The European debt mountain; the broken USA; the bloody Arab Spring and the War on Terror; failing climate conferences; Occupy Everything: design must operate in a world in rapid transformation. The consequences are unpredictable, let alone controllable. Chaos is the New Order, crisis the default rather than the exception.

 

2. …BUT A BETTER WORLD BECKONS

At the same time, a new world beckons. Different, and better. Trends which until recently remained quite obscure are now defining the agenda: phenomena such as DIY-Biolabs, Hackermoms, Net-activism, the Meme Machine, Identity Correction, Brand-hacking, Bitcoins, Cloud, and Edupunk. The symbiosis between globalization and digitalization brought about a worldwide Netification – the Internet of Things and Big Data – an extraordinary mobility and exchange of ideas, numerous new business models and participative processes, technologies and ways of communicating.

 

3. NOW THAT SOFT IS THE NEW STRONG…

In the past, straightforward and closed geometric shapes were the blueprint for social dynamics – it is no coincidence that the star and the circle define most Corporate Industry logos. The reticular shape of the future paradigm is more confused and undefined. However, this apparently weaker paradigm is in fact stronger than the previous one, where profit as well as risk were centrally divided across a limited number of major nodes. If one of those is in trouble, the whole system collapses, including its periphery. In a decentralized Peer-to-Peer or P2P-economy on the other hand, net-shaped and open, such as the rhizome of Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, power and risk are divided across a large number of smaller nodes. Ad hoc, according to circumstances, they connect into much more flexible and dynamic units, so that the demise of one node is much easier to absorb.

 

THE FUTURE OF DESIGN

4. …OPEN AND NETIFIED

In terms of economics, the obvious example is the contrast between Mohammed Yunus and Richard Flud. They both had the same idea: lending money to those whose status did not allow them access to it. But while Yunis, an economist from Bangladesh, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his micro-credit concept, Lehmann Brothers Investment Bank CEO Flud’s bankruptcy in sub-prime credits just about brought down the global financial edifice. The difference was in the Peer-to-Peer strategy of Yunis, whose network approach proved to be far superior.

5. AND NOW THAT GOVERNING IS ONCE MORE (A LITTLE BIT) A MATTER FOR MANY,

Revolutions have happened in other fields as well. Kickstarter in the US is already much larger than the most important cultural fund for start-ups, the National Endowment for the Arts. The number of projects being financed by crowdfunding keeps on rising. Anyone can spend from 5 dollars upwards and become an investor – and a manager. A little bit, in any case.

6. AND WE ARE NO LONGER LIVING UNDER THE TERROR OF THE PERFECT LIFE

When the German Brockhaus encyclopedia disappeared in 2013, Wikipedia was considered one of the culprits. Brockhaus was an institution, one of the strongest bibliophile brands in the German language. But while the content of Brockhaus was defined by a small group of highly qualified authors, Wikipedia is an open network which invites everyone’s co-authorship. The end result may lose some of the qualitative aspects, but only pedants would care. That also is new. Like the icon of the circle, the obsession with perfection has gone. Good enough will do.

7. AS FREE AS IN THE WILD WEST WWW

When the internet became accessible to everyone in the early nineties, it was not at all the commercialized and monopolized mass medium of today. It was a virtual variant of the Wild West, abjuring all rules, populated by few politicized nerds, visionary scientists and HTML pioneers. Soon, however, this early internet free-for-all would disappear.

8. ITS EXISTENCE MENACED

Three decennia later, a war is raging for control over the global data streams. So far, we have not managed to develop a social codex to outline the shape of the digital realm. The dream of an open, transparent, free and democratic platform has twice resulted in a nightmare: first in the stock exchange hysteria around the dot.com bubble, and later in the ocean of Likes and Shares on Facebook, a monopolized and perverse surrogate for full participation.

9. BUT BACK FROM BEFORE

There is hope. Luckily dot-com turned out to be an infant disease and Facebook just an adolescent phase we can’t but live through. Many alternatives have already shown glimpses of a hybrid space. One example is Open Source, a movement which tries to erase the boundaries between consumers, producers and designers, by making designs freely available to use and adapt, giving new life to dilettantism. Everyone does DIY! 3D printing allows anyone to print a gun at home, while financing a new media platform on Kickstarter. It was never easier to take things in hand, in being an Agent of Change. Soon, the Wild West will be back.

10. A REVOLUTION IS BROODING,-

With an aversion to the big ideologies of the past, the phantom of the netified revolution is not entering through the gates but rather through every single nook, opening and cranny available. It is no longer supported by the proletariat or any other mass movement, but by a strange mix of Hackers, Makers, diy-ers and artists, activists, scientists and literati, bien étonnés de se retrouver ensemble, unexpected bedfellows armed with a blueprint for an alternative economy, and the conviction that the global netification should not just benefit the race going on in the world of goods and money.

11. IN THE DARK WINGS BEHIND THE DESIGN FOREGROUND.-

And designers? The developments we mentioned above are what Dutch architecture historian Wouter Vanstiphout calls the Dark Matter of design – referring to the 83% of matter in the universe we are not seeing. This is a complex system of invisible links which to a large part define the comings and goings in the design world, including legislation, the division of labour, and company and financing models.

12. CAN DESIGN SAVE THE WORLD?-

On the other hand, for a long time now design has functioned as a catalyst for these social developments, even if only as a lubricant which must make products unique, plausible and eye-catching, and help them sell. The role of design has thus evolved from the modernist lab assistant to the flamboyant Story teller of post-modernism, a poetic and attractive interface for cold, business-like technologies and products. A flatterer. Around the millennium, design contributed not a little towards the survival of capitalism, the only big ideology remaining. Today’s urgent question is this: can design not just save capitalism, but also change it, and so contribute to saving the world?

13. A NEW DESIGN CULTURE IS NO LONGER OPTIONAL, BUT NECESSARY.

Indeed, in the meantime we have another couple of crises and a War on Terror behind us, and we see the next Crash coming which will be even more wretched than the last. Capitalism needs an urgent overhaul: paying less attention to economic capital (money) and more attention to social and cultural capital (human relations, the patrimony etc.) The post-industrial landscape allows next-generation designers no other choice but to come up with totally new and ever more intelligent designs, if only to survive. Those who stick to old-school design are facing destitution. A new design culture is no longer optional: it is a bitter necessity.

14. YESTERDAY’S DESIGN CANON IS NO LONGER VALID,-

How much the digital netification will change the profession of designer is impossible to predict in these unpredictable times. But it is already doing away with much that used to be fundamental to good design: authenticity, originality, the ingenious designer, the iconic object, and so on. All the signs indicate that we are talking about developments which are only in their early stages. In these circumstances, it is no longer enough to think out of the box. We need a new box. The profession must be reinvented.

15. CHANGE IS THE ONLY RULE, -

How can the strict and formal rules of yesterday help us, when change is the only rule? For instance: in communication design, a Visual Identity used to be a case of developing a set of standards which were minutely detailed in manuals. Just like designing an industrial product, like a chair. A strict reproducibility of the visual language, anytime and anywhere, was the main element in the recognition and success of Corporate Design. The fact that this has more or less done away with cultural differentiation all over the globe, doesn’t enter the discussion.

16. DESIGN, THE BIG HELMSMAN, ...-

While Church, State and the Big Ideologies have lost much respect during the previous decades, Corporate Industry had put itself forward as the Big Helmsman, giving meaning to our existence. Its strategy – Branding – has now expanded into more or less every social sphere: politics, science, cities, towns and countries – nothing is safe from branding. And Branding is design.

17. ...IS NO LONGER,-

The growing globalisation makes this strategy ever more problematic, a labour of Sisyphus, a Mission Impossible. Increasingly the question is to wonder whether designers and those who commission them, are still using the correct tools. Universal and egalitarian rules are ever more difficult to implement. What remains is a desert of logos, easy and interchangeable, no longer able to contribute any cultural impulses.

THE FUTURE OF DESIGN

18. AND EVERYTHING BECOMES ITS OPPOSITE

Total control is no longer within the reach of companies. If they want to survive, they must become more flexible. They must lose their autocratic and patronising character, and learn to live with new communication channels which have assaulted the one-directional Top-Down media’s very existence. They must admit Bottom-Up feedback and interference from target audiences, via Identity Correction, Brand-hacking, or Guerrilla Communication. Bottom-Up media are cheap, efficient and powerful, but because of public participation also quite random. They mean that more than ever, market leaders are those who know how to devolve power, and follow their audience. The new reality means that everything becomes its opposite.

19. THE GENIUS DESIGNER IS DETHRONED TO BECOME A SIMPLE CO-WORKER, -

The status of the designer as an untouchable genius has also been overturned. Designing until now has been largely connected to closed structures and a vertical hierarchy, where one designer or studio is commissioned by a company to impose a design on the consumer; products that are little or not at all compatible with other designs to achieve as large a market share as possible. Tomorrow’s agency, on the other hand, consists of an open and modular structure, where the consumer becomes co-creator, and a shared work process and a horizontal hierarchy deliver designs which can be endlessly combined. Peer-to-peer means exactly that: from equal to equal, it stands for an interaction that does away with the top-down one-directional traffic between producers and designers on the one hand, and consumers on the other. The designer is no longer an author who works in splendid isolation. Co-working is the order of the day.

20. HOW EASIER TO COPY, HOW BETTER,-

In communication design, this has led to the irresistible rise of the Meme. Previously, the success of design concepts depended on their originality and authenticity (in any case a recent concept which only appeared with modernism). In the age of the Meme communication is successful when it is easily copyable, and everyone can create their own variants. Old-school design depended on a context which has all but disappeared. Many new challenges await next-generation designers.

21. IN AN EXPLOSIVELY EXPANDING DESIGN WORLD,-

Design is by its nature expansive; and many times in its short existence it has already undergone radical transformations: from the artisanal period, via the industrial revolution, to the situation where the word Function in Louis Sullivan’s adagio Form follows Function, has been replaced with an endless number of other F-words, from Fiction and Friction, via Famine and Fragility, to Fun and Funk. Halfway through the previous century, architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller had already described the designer as “a synthesis of artist, inventor, mechanic, economist and evolutionary strategist”. Can such a synthesis still be imagined? New disciplines are born almost daily: Service Design, Strategic Design, Interface Design, Ambiance Design, Critical Design, Experimental Design, Speculative Design, Social Design and Experience Design, the latter without a doubt the most esoteric, closer to theatre, poetry and philosophy than to the factory. It seems an impossible task to bring this explosive growth under one common denominator, let alone imagine that one person would be able to combine all these facets on their own.

22. EVEN THE OBJECT ITSELF IS GIVEN NEW MEANING

Considering the enormous differences between those myriad new disciplines, a small common basis is nevertheless discernible: new role patterns for designers push the traditional, industrially manufactured object into the background, in favour of the design of processes, systems and organisational concepts.

23. NOW THAT LIGHTNESS BECOMES THE KEY CONCEPT FOR THE NEW CENTURY

The second Industrial Revolution is no longer one of rolling millstones and molten steel, but of bits in a flood of information,” said Italo Calvino in 1985, five years before the internet became commercially available, when – in his series of lectures entitled Six Memos for the New Millennium – he proclaimed that following the global netification, a light footprint would become a key concept of the new century. The essence of things, said Calvino, would no longer be mainly a matter of materials, techniques and forms, but of code, of data and their netification.

24. THE OBJECT BECOMES A BLACK BOX

The new Age of Enlightenment predicted by Calvino which in the meantime has become reality, has not yet led to a decrease in the number of objects produced. It has resulted in reducing the status of an increasing number of objects to that of a black box, however. Unlike the past, the value of such a box now lies not so much in the way the object can function on its own, but in the way it communicates with other objects within the Internet of Things, and participates in a modular network. Designs which do not take these criteria into account are becoming niche products in this post-industrial world. If designers cannot themselves write the code to orchestrate this dialogue in the Internet of Things, their input may more than ever before be marginalised into the designing of an interface, the choice of materials, compositions, typography and colours. A decorator.

25. WITH AN EXPONENTIALLY GROWING SYMBOLIC POTENTIAL

Another aspect of netification has conveyed a whole new dimension on the status of an object. Whereas a designer in the past could only reach a limited public of specialists and aficionados through selling his designs via shops, fairs and magazines, social media have exponentially expanded his reach, so much so that the concrete impact of a design is often less important than the symbolic potential impact of his virtual shadow once it has gone viral.

26. THE DESIGNER WILL NEED TO MASSIVELY EXPAND HIS REMIT TO INCLUDE DARK MATTER...

If designers wish to control their designs in the future, they will need to massively expand their remit, towards a practice where an object is not approached in splendid isolation, but as a cog within a system where everything is interconnected. Buying a smartphone today, for instance, not only conveys status and access to mobile networks, it also willy-nilly opts in to the reality of blood materials, civil wars for control of mines with rare materials, inhuman working conditions, earnings below minimum wage, and suicide epidemics in the factories where the smartphone is produced. Following the example of Dutch interaction designer Bas van Abel and his Fairphone, design can not only provide a deeper insight into this Dark Matter, but also point towards alternatives.

27. ...AND BLIND SPOTS

The present crisis is so all-embracing and deadly that just to keep the market going, it is an urgent matter to embrace a whole range of needs where the market principle is not applicable – blind spots in the system which are of primordial social importance but are first to suffer under the crisis, and which render the market itself unworkable: healthcare, education, art, and human rights.

28. ... ‘UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS’ AND WICKED PROBLEMS

To quote the American ex-Minister of Defence Donald Rumsfeld in a rare lucid moment, “There are known knowns – things we know we know. We also know there are Known Unknowns – things we know we don’t know. But there are things such as Unknown Unknowns – things we don’t know we don’t know.” As a handmaiden to industry, design until now has been busy almost exclusively with Known Knowns and Known Unknowns – even when it involves a user-friendly interface, a liveable town, or an ecologically sound production. Considering an unknowable and non-transparent future and the threatening thunderclouds above our heads for which industry and the lack of engagement from designers also bear some responsibility, it is high time that design got itself involved in Unknown Unknowns. What Octavi Rofes calls Design without Project, useless design, Wicked Problems which are so difficult to solve they can hardly be described: climate change, epidemics, natural disasters, and questions regarding social injustice or Black Box technology.

29. AND DISRUPTIVE INSTEAD OF SUSTAINED INNOVATIONS

More than any other parameter, concepts such as new and innovative are the driving force within industry – and therefore also within design. In the new, netified P2P reality, however, innovations are no longer developed by single people in the centre of the system and with input from big capital, but by the very many dilettantes, often at the diffuse edge of the internet, and low-budget. Moreover, it is often all about a totally different kind of innovation. While designers have so far concentrated mainly on what Clayton M. Christensen described as Sustaining Innovations, the improvement and refinement of existing products, often to make them more profitable, Wikipedia and Kickstarter are typical examples of Disruptive Innovation, initiatives which often and totally unexpectedly impose new rules and values on an existing market segment, and wipe the floor with the ruling protagonists.

30. AND JUMP INTO THE UNKNOWN.-

Digitalisation and netification mean that these Disruptive Innovations are happening at an increasingly fast and furious tempo. While the blog was a Disruptive Innovation just a few years ago, it was soon displaced by micro-blogging platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, and even Twitter seems to be dying on its feet. We live on a digital rubbish tip, and we produce ruins at breathtaking speed. Moreover, Disruptive Innovations often happen from below, where they are not expected. A common factor is the fact they allow the users – to some degree at least – more input and participation. The result is a fractured market, increasingly difficult to control by industry but creating a myriad of opportunities. The Suspension of Disbelief which is behind this Disruptive Innovation, the belief in the impossible, the Cartesian Jump into the Unknown which follows... this has already been proven to be the only proper strategy to attack a Wicked Problem such as climate change.

31. DESIGNERS WILL ALSO NEED TO TAKE THEIR RESPONSIBILITY. -

Who is responsible for climate change or child poverty? Everyone and no one. This must not stop a designer from assuming her responsibility. A century ago, the Bauhaus argued for a new ethics for mass production, whereby form needed to follow function, and the aim of design was to get more (use) from less. The new strategies, tools and business models now also bring a new responsibility, if only because that Bauhaus philosophy no longer seems fit for purpose. But we need to get our hands dirty. It’s not enough to experiment. Experiments hit a wall when no one takes them seriously. They need to be practicable.

32. BUT FIRST, DESIGNERS WILL NEED TO CANCEL THE RENT,-

The New Enlightenment Age appears in the world of design on many other fronts. It also means, for instance, that the old romantic foundation story of design studios – three graduates on the same wavelength who hire a common space after their studies – is now redundant. When a design studio really became a studio was the moment when the rent contract was signed. Nowadays there’s not necessarily a physical space involved. A virtual space like a website or a facebook page are enough to start a studio. The office space behind it is less important. On the contrary, a fixed location may in the longer term become a hindrance, because it may hinder flexible, mobile working methods.

33. TAKE ENEMIES AND NOT FRIENDS AS PARTNERS,-

Studies such as Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better by sociologist Scott E. Page have already shown that randomly chosen teams on the basis of diversity perform better than teams of like-minded people, even when the latter have intrinsically better talent available. Teams put together on the basis of diversity manage to work through more options in less time, and challenge one another more. Now that design commissions become ever more complex, this diversity is a condition sine qua non for a studio.

THE FUTURE OF DESIGN

34. KEEP THE STUDIO AS SMALLL AS POSSIBLE, SINCE MICRO IS THE NEW MACRO

The same complexity means that it is now also more efficient to keep a studio as small as possible, which allows for spontaneous, ad hoc and temporary joint ventures around specific commissions, with diverse partners, involving constant strategic adjustment and reinvention. This way of working is not as straightforward as suggested by the adhocratic method which engendered it. The flat hierarchy, and the spontaneous and informal aspects of an Adhocracy demand an even greater investment in structures than has been the case so far.

35. AND BECOME AN AGENT OF CHANGE,

These few examples illustrate the widening of the competencies of designers. They also indicate that the roles of the designer increasingly change towards those of a mediator and catalyst. As described by John Tackara: the most individualist author of earlier objects or buildings is transformed into an Agent of Change in the service of the community. Many will no doubt argue that this means design stops being design, and becomes something else. Others will maintain that only then does design become real design.

36. WAVING A DRIVING LICENCE,

Can a next generation designer live off this? “No one knows how designers will earn money in the future,” says British designer Adrian Shaughnessy in Florian Pfeffer’s praiseworthy To Do: Die neue Rolle der Gestaltung in einer veranderten Welt, “A design education then becomes something like obtaining a driving licence. Many drive, but few make money doing so. In the longer term, the capabilities of a designer become a permit to do other things. In the meantime, survival will depend on each one’s adaptative potential.”

37. AND SINGING.

Will society benefit in the end? “Imagine (...) you are living in prehistory (...) and with much thunder and lightning a deluge drops on the tree you’re sitting under,” says philosopher Peter Sloterdijk in Der Welt Über die Strasse Helfen. “If you survive the storm, you may as well start reciting a hymn to the Weather god. It is not important if you can make the weather do as you wish – the latest technology cannot either – but that you have a way of surviving. It must be possible for you to do something, even if there’s nothing else to do.” If it doesn’t help, it doesn’t harm either. The designer in the end is an eternal optimist who wants to change the world. Anything’s better than apathy.

Max Borka

Berlin/Brussels/Biches, August 2016

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