Last week we mentioned how governments were dabbling in discursive design, and this week three major educational and cultural institutions weighed in with different forms of support for this intellectual arm of design practice.
Perhaps the biggest news was the announcement by the University of California San Diego (UCSD) starting a new undergraduate major, Speculative Design. Within the Department of Visual Arts, known for an emphasis on experimental art and the resistance of commercial art and even commercial fine art, the inclusion of design to its offerings was not without some initial resistance. As its Chair, Jack M. Greenstein reflected upon the genesis of the program three or four years ago: with "design so closely related to product and marketing…we couldn't really foresee how this would work."
This rejection of design due to its relationship with commerce has long been a point of tension within schools of art, sometimes resulting bad blood, formal schisms, and even banishment. The same reason that UCSD eventually found that speculative design made sense for them—that it is ultimately idea-based and shares many of the same goals as experimental art—is precisely why it can be discounted by mainstream design.
Just as it has taken the good part of a century for schools of design to emerge (rather than having industrial design, for example, located in schools of architecture, schools of engineering, and schools of art) discursive design has not found a singular home in academia. But similar to corporate product development processes where design is seen as the link between marketing, manufacturing, and engineering, discursive design can be the bridge between art, technology, and more traditional design education.
As opposed to UCSD's seeming emphasis on discursive design's more artistic capacities, the MIT Media Lab stresses its value in the technological sphere. Their Design Fiction Group, under the leadership of Hiromi Ozaki (a.k.a. Sputniko!) is particularly interested in prospective students "with a strong interest in emerging technologies" and with "backgrounds in synthetic biology, bioengineering, and electronics." And certainly many industrial design programs are looking at discursive design projects and courses as a way to extend the cultural reach of design as part of an expanded notion of 21st century practice.
As part of UCSD's launch event for the program, Fiona Raby gave the keynote speech, presenting the many and influential projects of her co-run studio, Dunne and Raby. This occurred just a day after The New School's Parsons School of Design publicly announced that she and Anthony Dunne were beginning a "new gig" within their School of Design Strategies.
In moving from their celebrated positions at the Royal College of Art, Parsons can offer them a broader collaborative community. Raby says, "In joining The New School, I will be able to not only work with faculty and students to explore new forms of socially engaged practice in relation to emerging technology, but also collaborate with some amazing people in disciplines like anthropology and political theory, which Anthony and I haven't been able to connect with before."
While their positions include teaching, they are also going to be driving collaborations with other universities, notably the MIT Media Lab. The hope, says Tim Marshall, The New School's provost, is that "their inspiration and insight will help our students to not only prepare for but also help shape our social and technological futures."
And it is this question of social and technological futures that Forbes contributor Johnathon Keats questions in, "Can the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial Save Us from the Next Global Die-Off?" Published a day after Raby's keynote and in anticipation of the Triennial's February 12th opening, Keats discusses several discursive design projects to be exhibited that deal with synthetic biology and questions of its relationship to how we might (have to) live our lives. Designers Daisy Ginsberg, Neri Oxman, and Ana Rajcevic exhibit objects and images of hypothetical creatures, synthetic organs, and animal-inspired prosthetics for humans.
These uses of current and future synthetic biology and bioengineering are of course not predictions, but provocations. As UCSD professor, Benjamin Bratton stated in his insightful (and perhaps incite-ful) lecture just prior to Raby's keynote: "These technologies are Pharmakon [Socrates' term]: remedy and poison. Any perspective that emphasizes their positive or negative potential without assuming the inverse is incomplete or dishonest." The Cooper Hewitt as a cultural institution is trying in this way to keep us a little more honest.
In regard to this week's events from the UCSD program announcement, to Dunne and Raby's gig at Parsons, to the kickoff of the Triennial, we turn to Keats' for a helpful summation: "While more frequently found in art, this philosophical turn belongs equally in the realm of design, where it can problematize product development before manufacturers remake society in their own image. Moreover, design is the universal language of the modern world. Using design speculatively brings philosophy to everyone."
The "everyone" is certainly an ethnocentric oversight, given that discursive design is currently a product of and for the privileged world. But all of this is a start. In order to responsibly, substantively, and extensively deliver on this promise, we need even further academic emphasis, even more visionary practitioners, and even greater public engagement in discursive design's future.
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These harbingers of an expanded field are indeed exciting. When our department changed its name to Media Design Practices, we shifted our emphasis to emerging practices that are developing in response to increasingly unpredictable conditions. With our focus on ensuring that designers can thrive in non-design domains, we emphasize communication across cultural and disciplinary boundaries. We also foster an ability for designers to be able to articulate their expertise to diverse communities unfamiliar with design, from policy wonks to hotel workers. This requires that designers find better ways to engage directly with people and the world at large. Operating with "critical distance," keeping the world at arms length, is great for critique but not so good for action.
Anne, these are both interesting programs, and I imagine with interesting 'interminglings.' One of the challenges that design has is language and common understanding. This is the reason we felt it was important to deliberately locate discursive design within the broader range of design practice. The outcome was a four field approach--commercial, responsible, experimental, and discursive design--were it is not the what, or the how, but the why we design that became the basis of distinction. Since we introduced the framework formally in 2009, it has been generally well received and has weathered the test of time.
With this framework in mind, your Lab track seems to be quite consistent with the approach of discursive design--where the focus is on voice and discourse above utility. The Field track with project such as food deserts in Chicago and social justice interventions is more in line with responsible design practice with an emphasis on serving the underserved, largely through providing some utility or greater inclusivity or access.
Of course these four fields are not exclusive and there is overlap--commercial projects that have a discursive element, or experimental projects with a responsible element. This is what is interesting about having both the Field and Lab 'under one roof'--the potential for the discursive or experimental to influence the responsible, and vice versa, given the fundamental differences in their primary aims. I imagine that there can be some tension between the positions, that if cultivated well (and with some luck) can lead to exciting results that would not have been possible otherwise.
I agree that a broader understanding or acceptance of the roles and possibilities for discursive design as well as economics is important, especially in a public university. That said, as broad as art and design may potentially be, I can see the value in educational emphases and the freedom to intentionally exclude. Hopefully this is an informed choice, and one that is probably more appropriate at the graduate level. I hope that UCSD is at least open to a broader debate on the pros as well as the cons of economic relationships. The staunch notion of the "market as the enemy of good" is indeed simple-minded.
In Media Design Practices (MDP), we tackle this issue head on with two tracks that intermingle and challenge one another: Lab—which engages with future-oriented speculative work with emerging ideas from science, tech, culture—and Field, which integrates fieldwork in the Global South in addressing emerging ideas from science, tech, culture. artcenter.edu/mdp or watch this short film.
That UCSD, a university, have such a poor understanding of design (history, education and practice), that they are only interested in design when it is more like (aneconomic) art, is embarrassing - for UCSD and (speculative critical) Design.