This week, DesignDigger presents a daily critical reflection from a designer, critic, or researcher on Dutch Design Week, which starts on Friday. These creative voices can be in the form of a long read, installation, or visual column. British design critic James Dyer and graphic designer Nick Deakin kick things off with a passionate plea for design realism. “When we write about the way that careful things are muddled up and mishandled by the cack-handed, I call it design realism.” Dyer & Deakin reflect on the perspective Speculative design and the DDW-mission Creating our Living Environment .
The Ineptitude of the Interpretation
Designers relish the oppression of necessity. Now, when we brim with social, political, economical and environmental crises, radical change is what we call necessary in design. This necessity is so common to see at expos and degree shows that it has practically become naturalized in design’s discourse. The way we readily come to think about radical change and design is via fantasy, fiction, and speculation.
Broadly speaking, speculative design relates to two basic concepts: critical thoughts about possible futures and the designs of an alternative present. Designs that are speculative are not exciting or valuable because they offer penetrating visions into fantastic problems or because they accurately anticipate possible futures but because there is an admirable purity in their naivety. In speculative designs, low-fidelity, hyperbolic versions of specific problems are playfully modelled. For instance, Gas to Green speculates on the future loss of gas station networks due to the electric transition. Fungal Wars, alternatively, speculates on the ethics of biotechnology, and House of Dreams speculates on the impact of AI on sleeping patterns. The works that emerge from these speculative models are presented as radical plans for designerly solutions. In these instances, they are urban farming in disused landmarks (Gas to Green), lab-based bloodsports (Fungal Wars) and artificially intelligent sleep (House of Dreams). This is why I would say that speculative designs symbolize their own time.
Design as carnival
To be frank, what we have in speculative designs are a series of divergent ideas that have a greater or lesser relevance based on the appetites of now. This means that speculative designs do not need to be disproved or shown to be fallible for new speculations to be required. Rather, contemporary speculations just become inefficient, inappropriate, improbable, untimely, incompatible, outdated. Speculative designers still have a social responsibility, their speculations do not vanish, they remain as residue in articles (like this one), on social media posts, in portfolios and exhibitions, and catalogues and more generally in the public’s psyche. They are an imminent haunting, a soon-to-be-past idea of a present future.
The way I see it, the horizon of our understanding in speculative designs advances up ahead as rapidly as it recedes in the rearview mirror. Problematically, and contrary to how many of these projects compose themselves publicly, what this means is that there can not be a shared grand scheme of work that is collectively progressing towards long-term improvements for a greater good. In speculative design, there is no “straight forward” movement – instead what is going on is more like a modest lyrical flocking, a sort of revolving dance of designers, or – to characterize Dutch Design Week – something like design-as-carnival.
Where is the harm in ‘not getting it’? It is almost illicit to say that you don’t understand design. It’s a lamp, a scarf, a table, a toy, or whatever else, curtains made of wool, what’s not to get? In these scenarios I sometimes feel like Monsieur Hulot from Jacques Tati’s film Playtime. He is perpetually out of place and dumbfounded by his living environment, it’s a stubbornly strange situation for him. But his confusion is insightful, it goes much further than comic satire, it is playful commentary on life. Hulot’s life is hyperreal but, curiously, has no serious place in design’s respectable thinking. I’m not sure I know what the problem is with being clumsy with design’s objects, but I think I know where the problem comes from. It comes from taking direct, lived experiences seriously; being true to fleshy encounters and mucky optics that distort and (perhaps unknowingly) distrust designs.
Thinking of our living environment concerns the ways we live with designs; idiocy (read: the idiosyncratic) must be taken seriously in this context of lived-life. As far as I can see, everyday designs appear to be tragically vulnerable in the way they are so open to interpretation. This means that deep meaningful connections with designs can emerge suddenly with force, just by chance, like shining accidental encounters jutting out of the oomska of life. In his diaries, Witold Gombrowicz, the playwright, noted how he would prefer to overhear a recording of Chopin from an open street window rather than from inside a concert hall. He thought of this to be more connected with the music through “the ineptitude of the interpretation”. I am not saying this to undermine design, I am just acknowledging the messiness of life-with-design and the joy of the unplanned experiences that come with that. When we write about the way that careful things are muddled up and mishandled by the cack-handed, I call it design realism.
Our experiences with designs should not immediately and automatically be subordinated to the concepts of those designs. In the almost confessional register of design realism, our often-overlooked lived experiences are foregrounded. In short, from the vantage of realism, what we write about when we write about design is the grubby, surly, precariousness of everyday life-with-design. Design realism does not run vein-like through the center of design though. Instead, it quietly endures on the frayed edge, if not the underbelly, of design. When thinking about what is necessary in design means thinking about possible futures and alternative presents of our living environments, as it does now, then design realism is a sympathetic voice that should be (over) heard well.
James Dyer is a lecturer in the school of Art and Design at Prague City University. He writes eclectically about design and communication.
Nick Deakin is a graphic designer and illustrator who works under the studio moniker Totally Okay and is senior lecturer of Graphic Design at Leeds Arts University.