This past spring, the Parallel Times exhibition featured the talented students in the School of the Visual Arts' MFA in Products of Design. The results of their Product Futuring class, led by faculty member, Sinclair Smith, were on display as part of the 2016 NYCxDesign Global Design Celebration.
The MFA in Products of Design embraces discursive design. Under the guidance of department chair, Allan Chochinov, students are asked in their first semester to think quickly and deeply in order to imagine design alternatives that transcend typical commercially-focused, user-centered design. Right from the start, discursive design becomes part of their vocabulary and gets added to their toolboxes. Throughout the two-year program, students are pressed to consider broad possibilities for how they want to contribute to our material culture, and how discursive goals might work in combination with commercial, responsible, and experimental projects. These questions are deliberately reinforced through subsequent courses, such as the fourth semester thesis course, Product Futuring, with its unique approach to the relationship between the now and the then.
The Parallel Times exhibit was comprised of the twenty graduating students' utopic and dystopia class projects. With discursive design–especially as speculative design and design fiction–particular futures are presented to an audience that is asked to imagine that they are citizens and users in these scenarios. Following this model, Smith's students first thought about future social and material practices and then, inspired by the Yes Men, created newspaper-from-the-future stories. Further, they devised product offerings that addressed these future conditions, describing them through advertisements within the same newspaper.
Natsuki Hayashi's thesis explores the contemporary design of assisted suicide. Utilizing design to reimagine the way we die, Hayashi pushes the boundaries of the legal, moral, and emotionally appropriate ways to end life. Passage, a final cocktail kit, consists of cup, mixing spoon, and tray, and introduces ritual into the preparation of one's final drink. It's made of raw wood to resemble the taste of the specific medicine used to end life, and to highlight its temporality as a food-safe vessel. The form of the tray dictates the placement for capsules, opened and un-opened. The cup base is rounded, necessitating mindful behavior around its impermanence. /natsukihayashi.com/
While interesting enough, Smith's clever twist was to have students refract backwards in time from these future artifacts to create "critical products for the here-and-now," that act as "original specimens." Students were asked to create products for the users of today that would, in a somewhat probable chain of events, lead to their advertised future products. This asks students to have a better sense of certain consequences and a more engaged timeline—their speculating is broader and more grounded.
Through this process, students create a vital and informed bridge, which is often missing with design fiction and speculative approaches. The audience's natural interest in today gets piqued with provocative physical artifacts, but these are also linked to deeper questions of tomorrow. This is a great model that not only serves students better, but also their audiences.
Take a look at some more of the students' work and excerpts of a discussion between Smith and Chochinov:
ALLAN CHOCHINOV (AC): Speculative design has been such a cathartic tool for designers, providing a kind of all-access pass for their musings on the future and (hopefully) putting design "in harm's way." But how do you see its current role in education?
SINCLAIR SMITH (SS): I see the role of speculative design as a key to exploring the consequences of design. One of the central frames at Products of Design is around design consequences. Product designs create product consequences. We see the process of exploring extrapolated, speculative futures as deeply inspiring and provocative (and of course Dunne and Raby's Speculative Everything is a key component of the class reading!) We celebrate the value of an idea or artifact that exists as a provocation—a conversation starter to get us asking the hard questions about where we want to go as a society and as a species. But while these provocations are essential components in the makeup of design, we also know that design is defined at its root by pragmatism. It is this utilitarian pragmatism that separates design from art.
Eden Lew's thesis, Masterminds, explores the binary relationship between crime and design, and aims to reward misbehavior. Compelled to use subversive design to expand her voice and boast her opinions, Lew created products and services that reveal everyone's inner badass. Keyhole Gigantico, is a lock-picking puzzle box piggy bank that teaches kids lock picking and analog skills at a young age: skills representative of a dying generation of criminal masterminds, armed with the power to unlock the physical world. Lew stresses the importance of understanding the mechanics of everyday objects early on — before becoming sucked into the digital world of intangible objects. /edenlew.com/
AC: Well, it's also a political act.
SS: Design is absolutely a political act—and that goes hand-in-hand with the provocation. So I feel a moral imperative to ultimately educate for and deliver a compelling set of ideas or artifacts that actively address problems as much as they draw attention to them.
Marianna Mezhibovskaya's thesis aims to shift negative public perception, and create
engagement with the currently and formerly incarcerated, through compassionate products and services designed to reduce crime and recidivism. Chronicle is a contraband voice recorder disguised as a radio designed for use in prisons. Referencing the electronics sold in prisons — which are transparent to prevent illegal paraphernalia from being smuggled into prisons — Chronicle is meant to be smuggled into correctional facilities as a tool for self-expression and covert recording of abusive correctional officers. In a dehumanizing criminal justice system, Chronicle uses design to subvert legal boundaries and create empowerment.
AC: I'm sympathetic for sure. I've always felt that the refrain "design's job is to ask the right questions" was insufficient and a little bit disingenuous. Though, for the record I do love the questions that design asks.
SS: So do I! Design and designers need troublemakers. Look, Statler & Waldorf—those two old men heckling from up in the box on The Muppet Show—are nothing if not critical designers. And we need them in the big picture. But they are not the whole show. So in this course, we take a pragmatic approach to speculative futures and use them as beacons. Our students take their conclusions drawn from the research that underpins the central arguments of their theses and ask the question: "If we draw this out to its natural conclusion, what will be the state of our world in fifty years?" Thus are born the newspaper front pages, with their back page product advertisements, as well as the handheld accessory products from those respective future organizations. And we move through this process quickly: from extrapolated vision to newspaper to speculative artifact in two weeks.
AC: And in your opinion, was there a happy ending?
SS: I believe there is a happy ending. It's the arrival of a more critical and insightful design process. Speculative futures are visions of product consequences. They are the consequences of today's product design. So as the final exercise in our program's curriculum, we flip the script: We ask students how the product consequences of tomorrow can lead us toward better product designs of today.
Panisa Khunprasert's thesis, Hereafter, explores bereavement in a contemporary society that habituates silence with respect to death and grief. It uses design to create products and services that externalize grief in an empowering and beautiful way. The thesis does not seek solutions or ways to find closure, but fosters the acceptance of death and grief as they are a natural part of life and the price we pay for love. Allusion is a wall-mounted altar that physicalizes the different stages and methods of grieving. Users are invited to store physical items—representative of the deceased to establish individualized symbolic rituals for their passed loved ones.
Discursive design is a creative practice with intellectual goals. Designers strive to get others to reflect and engage in substantive sociocultural discourse in hopes of impacting individual, and perhaps collective, thinking. This demands an audience-centered approach, which is somewhat distinct from the usual user-centered approach; the intent is to communicate beyond, but also through, product utility. This asks more from designers and their educators. Novel approaches, such as Smith's, can increase the odds of audience reflection by leveraging the now and the then, the real and the imagined, and the physical and the intellectual.
But it is also important to look more broadly at where discursive design is today. Design schools' inclusion of discursive approaches, and even emphasis as with programs like Products of Design, marks an important and deliberate expansion of design's current role. This is mostly a change in quantity over quality, however, since there is certainly over a half-century of precedence for "radical design" and other provocative, conceptual work. Now, with what we claim is a sufficient community of discursive practitioners and educators, they need to focus on raising their game. In addition to design-specific methodological improvements—thinking innovatively like Smith—designers also need to draw upon the expertise, approaches, and knowledge of other disciplines.
Academic fields like cultural studies have significant traditions centered upon cultural criticism and social change; they look at the explicit and implicit forces and systems that influence the constantly evolving construction of everyday social life. There are definite parallels and much that design can learn from them.
If discursive design seeks better processes and outcomes, it should be engaging with and considering the same types of cultural studies approaches that involve feminist theory, Marxism, post-colonialism, political economy, critical theory, critical race theory, literary theory, and many others. Educators should be helping students to think through and frame their work in these terms to have better chances of achieving their bold and laudable discursive goals. Indeed the opportunity before us is to continue with novel approaches like Parallel Times and also begin to think about the parallel academic and intellectual spaces that can lead to substantive reflection, discourse, and even design's impact on social thought and practice.