A Long Blurb for a Design Education Talk at AIGA Pivot In October

I just threw together the following set of assertions based on a running essay I’ve got going. Please feel free to let me know what you think, especially any counter examples:

Change Studies: Educating Designers in
the Possibilities of Intentional Social Change

Slavoj Zizek once decried that movies today seem to evidence that the only kind of social change we can imagine are ones forced upon us by material catastrophes like meteors, epidemics or deranged robots. This seems worryingly true of designers. They can imagine things looking different next season; they can aspire to improved technologies a few years ahead; but they almost never imagine significant cultural transformations. Progressive design programs might acknowledge that this or that technological trend leads to ethical dilemmas that should be pre-emptively explored, but the obverse – when social trends are leading to political dilemmas that will demand technological redesign – are much rarer.

From this perspective, it is more than ironic that whilst designers are trained to be future makers, almost no design school I know explicitly teaches future studies. By this I mean teaching designers tools and techniques for either:

A. describing likely futures with conditions very different from those of today in which rising professional designers will have to work – for example, conditions of Peak Oil (or Peak Water, Pensions, etc), changed climate, India/China global economic domination, end-of-/massive-increase-in migration

B. describing the futures likely to be the consequence of the designs, if successfully adopted, that rising professional designers innovate – I am thinking of social impact assessments based on various adoption scenarios: used extensively as designed, abused extensively, extended through combination with other platforms, etc; and then, with respect to mainstream North/Western middle class, global consumer class, bottom of the pyramid, in developed or developing nations, etc

Without these kinds of future studies, designers seem constrained by the frame of the present: the future is only ever imagined as being differently quantitatively: faster technologies, more of the current dilemmas, the same basic nuclear family + 5 day job + light capitalist market resourcing.

In response, this paper will present 3 approaches to what could be called ‘Change Studies for Designers.’

1. Types of Social Change (and the Role of Design)
Designers need to understand the different way larger scale change happens, whether evolutionary ecological change and analogous socio-technical regime change, or community organized social revolutions and analogous market innovation diffusion, regulatory policy changes and behavioral economics, the social psychology of organizational or personal habit change. These are standard social/management theory courses: what is always missing (though partially present in innovation diffusion) is the role of the material designed environment, the difference new technologies make, the constraints physical spaces have, the visibility that designs promote or conceal.

2. Things Weren’t Always this Way (i.e., History)
Most design students are required to take Design History courses, but in ways that are often ahistorical, as if designing has been this constant thing throughout the last century, just in slightly different cultural contexts and resulting in different forms. Designers today need histories that make them realize that the use of the term ‘design’ in 1930 is almost incomprehensible for designers today. Designers need social histories that show them it has not just been technologies that have changed within mostly unchanged (bourgeois) social conditions, but that all current experiences, especially cultural ones, are historically specific and relatively recent. Remember Richard Florida’s claim that whereas someone from US 1900 relocated to US 1950 would be shocked by the technological change but find the social conditions more or less the same, someone relocated from 1950 to 2000 would find only the social transformation shocking. The learning outcome of any history (or rather, historicist) course should be something like the realization that “because what is now has not always been, then everything is changeable.”

3. Fantasizing Social Change
Doodling is still a primary indicator of design inclination, the capacity for visual thinking. But even more important should be day-dreaming, the capacity to imagine utterly different ways of organizing society. Designers need to be retrained in the arts of imagination, especially story-telling alternative realities. As John Thackara has observed, what is needed is less ‘science fiction’ than ‘social fiction.’

The paper will conclude by arguing that there are three barriers to ‘Change Studies for Designers:’

The Near-Anti-Intellectualism of Professional Design Associations
Design education remains tied to the imprimatur of Professional Associations, as it should. However, as professionally focused, and as often led by more senior professionals, questions of large scale social change, or even redirection of practice are not foremost concerns. Those associations with historical projects often, in line with their funding, tend toward the hagiographical and away from the historicist.

Accrediting Bodies’ Distinction between Liberal Arts and Studios
Design education are accredited by not-very-forward thinking bureaucracies deploying 19th Century distinctions between knowledge-for-its-own-sake liberal arts and instrumental training studios. What is needed for designers to have a more thorough appreciation for social change are interactive engagements with social change theories and histories, and more critical research-oriented speculative design studios.

Social Science Ignorance of Design
Design Schools can reach out to the social sciences and humanities for more sophisticated learning about social change, but until those disciplines have a better understanding of design, their histories and theories will be missing the role of design in social change, and their pedagogy will not insufficiently designerly.


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