Discursive design is a broad category that encompasses many 'species.' While speculative design and design fiction have gained recent popularity, we should not forget that there are other design approaches that primarily aim to contribute intellectually through designed objects—voice is the focus rather than utility for the marketplace.
With discursive design's roots in Italian radical design of the 1960s, we should remember that Memphis had an internal focus—they were using design to speak to other designers and to challenge their status quo. To an extent, it is with this same internal focus and using a Memphis-esque medium of higher-end, low-production furniture and furnishings that Cranbrook students recently "spoke" to the design community during New York's Design Week.
A recent collection of work from Cranbrook, 'Fine Design for the End of the World', was exhibited at Collective Design fair in West Soho. The purpose of the work was to critically analyze the social, economic and environmental uncertainties of the future through the lens of fine design.
The conversation which led to the exhibition evolved over the course of two semesters in Cranbrook's 3D Design graduate program, and was led by Scott Klinker, designer-in-residence and head of the 3D program. Students were encouraged to critically discuss the state of design in relation to our current global context, and built the exhibit around some meta-questions about the current state of design:
_ Will design somehow save the planet?
_ What does design mean in the era of climate change?
_ Will climate change deliver the 'end of the world'?
_ With the pressing need to rethink our culture of production and consumption, can industrialized society willingly change?
_ Can design still improve the world?
_ Do we just look away and keep making shiny, happy objects while the house is burning down?
_ How do we feel about growing up in an age of environmental uncertainty?
_ Will it (environmental uncertainty) lead to tragedy?
_ Should we raise children in this kind of world?
Though it should be noted, "Of course we are not 'for' the end of the world… Instead we hope to point to the potential tragedy we face. It's not about saying we've got the solution; instead the show portrays what it feels like to face these conditions as creative young people who want to improve the world. The work can be read as a poem, a prediction, a protest or a prayer for our collective future."
"Prototypes can circulate as ideas on the internet while never being intended for production. This exhibit, for example, is intended to provoke conversation, not sell stuff."
The below are excerpts from Scott Klinker's interview about the exhibition:
"Historically, Industrial Design has served industry, and therefore has reasons to be complicit with certain lies we tell ourselves about 'progress.' Fine Design doesn't have these constraints. Fine Design can look more objectively and critically at design culture to ask important questions. In fact, it may be Fine Design's duty to ask those questions that Industrial Design can't or won't."
"The formal responses to this subject were varied. Some designers responded with 'mythic' images of mankind, while others responded with forms derived from data. Formal themes of 'excess' and 'disintegration' were prevalent and the overall collection has a somber mood."
"All designers hope to improve the world in some way, whether it's through new functions, forms, processes, aesthetics, etc. Design is a positive force! We hope to make the world more 'human.' ... Designers, like other kinds of citizens, can ask such questions, but it takes collective will and leadership to give healthy answers. Designers have offered many visions of a more sustainable society, but very few ideas have overcome the political status quo so far. "
See the entire interview about the exhibit and all of the work here: http://cranbrookfinedesign.com/
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Sadly, that's a collection of both ugly and nonfunctional overly designed objects that will have exactly zero effect on the oh-so-terrible-future in which these spoiled "designers" sans talent will have no room to ride their hobbyhorses.
It seems you misunderstand the "discursive" portion of "discursive design." The goal is not function or mass production. The goal, rather is to foster a discussion about material/object culture. The objects themselves may not have a direct effect, but I would argue that the world will not be saved by direct effects -- rather it will be saved via constructive dialogues and societal change.
I agree, good design is not always about our shinny commercial good with sexy appearance. When we look back the timeline of many big designers' work, we'll find there are always some 'ugly', 'confusing' or 'nonfunctional' piece. Like you said, those kind of study are unlikely to put directly effect on the current design trend nor make any sales, but they are important process for young designers to explore their own design philosophy.
besides, I don't think they are ugly, I think they look pretty unique and cool.
As an industrial designer, I often look at these articles and wonder why someone would bother putting this sort of thing on a design website. I think it's more suited to juxtapoz or cool hunting, and would be classified under the 'art-design' heading like much of the Campana Bro's works. It is interesting as a thought exercise, but what value do these objects bring? Most of them look like something that wouldn't be out of place in contemporary art museums around the world. Will these objects be useful? Will they end up in landfill?
Aaron, I think the short answer is that there are different definitions and boundaries of design. The longer answer follows...
It seems like you are raising a questions from the perspective that design is limited to the same type of practices from the early 20th century. Many feel that the field has expanded to include other intentions beyond profit-making on functional, mass-produced work. (One could easily say that much of the Campana Brothers' work is just that though--so perhaps you are making some other distinctions.)
We feel that product design should be afforded the same ability to participate intellectually as other design disciplines. A graphic designer can design a better voting ballot, and no one challenges her when she then also design a political poster--one is utilitarian and the other is discursive. Are political posters beyond the realm of what graphic design is?
It would be interesting to hear you describe the traits of something that you feel falls into your design camps, and of others that do not. I think that you might find that it is a difficult exercise to make clean distinctions. (I know because I spent months trying, and which is why we wrote The Four Fields of Design article for core77 a while back.
...continued/truncated from earlier comment
It might be worth reading that article, even if only as a basis for some common language or a starting point from which to deviate.
Fundamentally we have a more pluralistic view of design as an expanding field. Others of course are also just as free to have a more traditional and narrower view. Such questions of disciplinary bound are not unique to design and they will likely forever be asked of any field that people care about and seemingly matters. We encourage dialogue and discourse about this as a way of making better sense for yourself and your interlocutors, especially as there is no right answer. As the linguist Michael Silverstein once told me (and the 25 other budding anthropologists in the room), "Of course I'm wrong. We're all wrong. But are you wrong and interesting? Are you wrong and useful?"
what an inspiring reply. I really enjoy studying your theories.
Our next design: a hobbyhorse!