“Design Transitions” Expert Interview

The following is the transcript of a verbal interview (conducted in May 2012), along with 3 longer emailed responses at the end (written in July 2012), prepared by Joyce Yee for the book Joyce and her colleagues have just published: Design Transitions [BIS, 2013]. A shorter version of this interview appears in that book. A pdf of what follows is available at my academia.edu site.

Cameron Tonkinwise has recently joined the Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) as the Director of Design Studies at Carnegie Mellon University and Chair of the Design PhD Committee. Prior to this, Cameron was the Associate Dean for Sustainability at Parsons, The New School for Design in New York. Before coming to New York, Cameron was the Director of Design Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and prior to that, Executive Officer of Change Design, a not-for-profit independent research organization (formerly EcoDesign Foundation). His doctoral research concerned the educational theories of Martin Heidegger and he continues to investigate what the ontological philosophy of Heidegger can teach designers. His current research focuses on ‘dematerialization design’ — enhancing societal sustainability by facilitating less materials intense lifestyles through design: in short, sharing.

Briefly, please summarize what you do in your role and why you do it what you do.

So my current role is Associate Dean Sustainability at Parsons, the New School for Design, and my job there is to try and enhance the ecological literacy of undergraduates and graduate students at Parsons. My role is to increase the presence of sustainable design in all the different disciplines of design at Parsons, which is pretty much every discipline. I also have a role there which may be of more interest to your project in so far as I am the coordinator of the design area of study of an Environmental Studies degree program which runs across the entire university and in that instance my job is teaching design to non-designers.

The programme sounds really interesting. Can you tell us more about it?

In American parlance it’s a BA and BS in Environmental Studies and one third of the required courses are effectively in or about design. The other two thirds of the programme are Eco-system Science and Environmental Policy and Planning. The students are basically getting Science, Social Science and Design. In that case the version of design they are getting is very much a Design Thinking version of design. We are creating, using the language of Harry Collins, an interactional expertise. Collins describes interactional expertise by using the example of a commentator on a sport; they haven’t actually played the sport and they probably couldn’t play the sport but they can certainly talk expertly about the sport with sports people and even advise them on how best to play the sport. In a sense we are looking at a transactional expertise in design so these students aren’t designers and can’t design but they recognise the role of design in the unsustainability of our society and in mechanisms of bringing about its enhanced sustainability. They would be the best of all possible clients for a designer.

Did you set the program up when you were there or was it already running?

It’s half and half. There was already the idea of creating a university wide degree program in order to bring all the different facets of The New School together. It was a very federated, strange institution and the president at the time wanted a degree program that would run across the different divisions. As a result, somebody had come up with this tripartite structure that was very loose and so essentially it was my job to fill in what it would mean to teach design to non designers to these primarily liberal arts students.

There is a very interesting problem in the United States that might not occur to people from English and Australian backgrounds: universities in America have an unusual commitment to the concept of the liberal arts. They have a much more early German romantic version of the university than I had anticipated or to put it the other way around, universities in Australia and the UK are extraordinarily neoliberal by comparison. This means that they’ve given up any sort of major commitment to the idea of a liberal art. Whereas the way undergraduate programs are licensed or accredited by different States in the United States is in terms of a set percentage of mandated liberal arts. For example, the Bachelor of Arts has 70% liberal arts and a Bachelor of Science has 50% and a Bachelor in Fine Arts [the primary degree for undergraduate design], which is about as pre-professional as you can get, has 30%. The way they define liberal arts is also strange. No one really has a good definition but in the end it’s something that you can’t make money from. For example if you learn the history of business planning it’s a liberal art, but if you learn business planning it’s not a liberal art. This is one of the big dilemmas in the American system when you talk about design. Normally, design that is experienced in a studio and is taught by a practitioner cannot be considered a liberal art because essentially a studio is an apprentice model in which someone is teaching you a marketable and practical skill. However, with the changes in the nature of design education, people are spending a lot more time doing critical design, speculative design or design research in a design studio. In that case you might be giving them some fairly significant social issues to negotiate and what they might come up with are not so much solutions as interventions. Those interventions might be revealing of the situation rather than correcting, in which case you couldn’t really say that the studio is producing a marketable skill. It’s producing an analytical skill that you’d expect from a liberal arts course; and so one of the interesting things in the American situation is to try and argue whether there could be studio based liberal arts.

Now all of this is very academic and possibly not of interest to your book in the way that you’ve described it except in so far as it’s part of the debate here about what design thinking is. If design thinking is an innovation tool for business, is it an instrumental tool? In the US university context it’s definitely not a liberal art; but then on the other hand, if it’s a radical innovation in the creation of new knowledge it’s definitely a liberal art. If it’s challenging of the status quo then perhaps it is a liberal art; but if it’s just a set of methods for more human-centred empathy-based way of proceeding then it wouldn’t be a liberal art. So in a funny way the debate that goes on in American institutions about how to get design thinking into design schools is part of the larger issue of questioning whether design thinking is just another tool box in capitalism’s perpetual search for new markets or whether design thinking is a rethinking of the way in which society organises itself and attempts to try to understand people differently in order to actually shift the nature of values and value production. So that’s a very long answer for the way in which the position I’ve currently got interfaces with the question of design thinking; and of course it’s particularly crucial when you bring design thinking to sustainability. Are you in the business of making business-as-usual more sustainable or are you in the more revolutionary business of trying to make redundant current business models and whole ways of being economical? Are you actually trying to create new ways in which society resources itself? That’s a very different kind of project for designthinking.

Where are you attempting to position design thinking between these two positions?

I think we are attempting to do both – or even all three. For example the design subjects in the environmental studies degree programs do deliver some design skills, straight up design skills (not liberal art design skills) to the students, primarily communication design and information visualisation in particular. These students should be adept at the kind of visual thinking that you might associate with design thinking, but also with designing itself, especially in relation to practice-based versions of everyday living. This means taking a lot from ‘practice theory’ as it’s emerging at the margins of sociology and anthropology on the one hand and material cultural studies on the other, including technology studies. Practice-based versions of society teach that the basic unit of society are practices, and that practices are constellations of habits, meanings and devices. These are the things that lock us into particular unsustainable ways of being and that you need to change if you’re going to create more sustainable ways of living. Those skills would service your regular business-as-usual attempts at creating more sustainable offerings. Every innovation is going to need a shift in the practice ecosystem of household living or everyday ways of working and in those cases, these are just tools for better understanding of how people operate and how to make interventions in that space. However, in the background is where design thinking starts to head towards service design thinking, towards product service system, sustainability strategy and the general project of dematerialising society, making society less materials intense. You will naturally have to start thinking about more revolutionary propositions on how it might it be possible to decouple use and ownership for example. You don’t need to own what you use and so could you start thinking about the kind of business models and service systems associated with car share schemes or tool sharing or co-housing. How do you begin to get society to be less materials intense? In relation to this version of design thinking, it is really looking at thoroughly new business models that don’t bear any relation to current forms of profit and loss, valuation and customer relation management.

How is the programme received?

It’s difficult to answer. On the one hand the students do incredibly interesting work that I’m not seeing anywhere else. Their thesis presentations are very interesting combinations of a demonstration of scientific literacy and an understanding of regular forms of social change in terms of community organising or planning or environmental policy and regulation. Then on the third hand they have rich modes of presentation much richer than you would normally expect from environmentalists and they have a sensitivity to social change which is much more material. The evidence is that this is a rich and powerful combination and something that hasn’t been seen in environmental studies to date, which conventionally heads towards policy. In terms of where they go, we’ve only had three years of graduates and it’s into a depressed job market. Lastly it’s difficult to know where these people would operate. They’re either very entrepreneurial government agents or they’re working in start-ups or small not for profits that have new ways of approaching these issues. You probably won’t see them get corporate jobs; corporations couldn’t really understand the way in which they’re thinking and working. The last way to answer that question is to say that unfortunately The New School is rather idiosyncratic and in fact did it completely the wrong way around. They created an inter-divisional programme to try and get the university together; which meant that the programme totally falls between institutional gaps – they actually should have created inter-divisionality and then substantiated it with a programme. You can’t change a university through a degree programme; so the second half of the story is that I am in the middle of leaving the New School because it’s just proved to be very frustrating and that’s partly an answer to your question about what’s happening to those students.

What is the new role that you are taking up in CMU then?

The role is twofold. Primarily my job is going to be working with faculty to renovate Richard Buchanan’s old PhD program at CMU. There are very few PhD programs in America and there are none that are wholly focused on design and understanding design. They’re normally social science in relation to design such as those at North Eastern and one in North Carolina State University and IIT (Illinois Institute of Technology) has a programme but they’re haven’t really taken off in the States. I miss desperately having PhD students so I was very keen to go to this job and essentially I’ve pitched to them the creation of a practice-based model of a PhD that would be about practice redirection for mid-career practitioners, not academic training which is what PhDs normally are in America. So that’s 60% of the job. 40% of the job is creating a new design studies curriculum for the undergraduate programmes. CMU is one of the leading product, communication and interaction design schools in the US and they used to have a design studies programme, again that Richard Buchanan created which needs to be revived. They have very little liberal arts and so part of my job is to create a new vertical core for the product, interaction and visual communication designers.

What are your current views of the changing roles and practices of design?

I will give you an American answer to this and then I’m starting to have an emerging Australian answer to this. I have been investigating things there and they’re changing quite significantly. In the US you’re actually seeing quite a concerted backlash at the moment and it’s not just people like Bruce Nussbaum saying, ‘design thinking’s over, let’s come up with creativity quotient,’ or something. It’s still the same idea but to some extent you’re seeing a significant move by leading professional organisations to attempt to jump on the grave of design thinking and reassert the importance of a traditional disciplinary practice and a craft based expertise. One of the indicators of this for example would be Paula Scher, who has been a long time principal at Pentagram and a very old, established and leading voice in old style visual identity branding. She posted a blog a few months ago against the AIGA’s latest competition. The AIGA, which is the main body for designers here in America, is having only one competition this year. It is called ‘Justified’ and to enter ‘Justified’ you have to provide lots of documentation of what the client wanted, what research you did and how the project was evaluated; very little concerns the aesthetics of the final design itself. Paula Scher has just derided this as the bureaucratisation of design and everything that’s wrong with a strategic approach to design and design thinking. In her opinion, it is totally missing beauty and affect and what is actually exceptional about design. It was just a nasty spray by a dying old voice but it’s received huge support and in a funny way I would say that you can see an attempt by lots of people to think that the pendulum has swung too far toward strategic design and client- and customer-centred-ness.

I don’t know if you’re aware of this controversy, but several years ago a design firm redesigned a famous orange juice but unfortunately the customers just hated it and it had to get pulled off the shelves. They returned to their old packaging at vast expense about two weeks later. Paula Scher notoriously said “if this gets pulled from the shelves it’s the worst thing that’s happened to graphic design since user testing”. This is the kind of attitude that is emerging and in a way I would say there’s quite a backlash happening. There are a number of firms that have established consultancies in the design thinking and strategic design space. All the major companies like Frog, Smart, Continuum and IDEO very clearly offer strategic advice but lots of other more established firms are reasserting the importance of a craft based version of design. I think that’s interesting to note and I would say that this is part of the same kind of backlash that you’re seeing against science in relation to global warming. It’s a version of the anti-modernisation that Ulrich Beck talks about in relation to risk society. The only way to navigate risk is through participation, and when you start moving into participation, your old modernist institutions come under threat; and sometimes they react, as Ulrich Beck, says “barbarically”. I think what you’re seeing now is a kind of barbarism and an attempt to get back to a design fundamentalism in reaction to something that is much less able to be controlled by experts. In a weird way, design thinking gets coded here as a loss of control by experts, an excessive democratisation of expert designing. People will blur design thinking with crowd sourcing in order to rubbish it. How will this affect the market place, I’m not sure? I have enough faith that the neo-liberal machine will crunch on and that this kind of design expertise will fall by the wayside. Firms like Google have an internal design unit but they don’t appear to really do design. They just do massive iteration and massive user testing. The hideous Gmail is the result but there’s nothing you can do about that machine. No Paula Scher is actually going to convince these young algorithm addicted guys that they should be redeploying Swiss Typography.

It’s interesting just to note that the interest in the loss of power has been noted with the people we have been speaking to. Designers are feeling that they’re losing power too, not just the experts, and it seems to be an important theme emerging in our discussions about the future of design.

Yes. I think the other thing to recognise is that these changes happen at the leading edge and then there’s a lag when they finally get taken up in design education. Even then, there’s a lag when all those graduates finally hit the market place but in the meantime corporations, businesses and people themselves are calling for something different. To some extent I’d say this is an exact replication of what happened when computers arrived. You had all these people who’d been taught using scalpels in the marketplace. They were now middle management or principals in design firms and there were all these calls for computerisation of the process by clients and the people who had the expertise were the youngest graduates in the firm. It caused a real crisis at that point and there was a whole market that emerged for evening master classes in which middle aged people could re-skill in computers. I get the feeling that you’re seeing a similar kind of thing happening in relation to design thinking. The client is asking for research from principals who unless they’re progressive don’t have any understanding of what they’re talking about. They ask their middle level designers to do it; those designers quickly read a book by Tim Brown to work out how to do this. In fact the real people who’ve got extensive experience about this are the ones who’ve possibly done an MFA or an MA or an MS which required them to conduct a lot of research. The kinds of people who have good track record and a whole set of techniques and skills for doing this are recent graduates and young people. I think it’s that kind of power dynamic. It’s not that they’re losing power with clients, it’s almost like they’re losing power within their own firms by having to learn from the younger generation how to do this kind of work. I think you need to conduct an embedded anthropology in a couple of firms to see how they navigate this issue. I think it would be interesting to see if the younger designers feel empowered or feel disempowered because they actually have the tools that the middle managers need but don’t want them to get credit for. A lot of design thinking rhetoric these days that I’ve seen more recently just at more commercial conferences is all about how you make the client think that this is their idea and how you make the client look good realising that when presenting it themselves – and it’s the same problem internal to design firms: how do I as a young designer do the design research but then hand it over to the principal or the middle level designer and make them feel like these ideas are theirs?

Is this a paradigm shift or is it an extension of the discipline?

I think that’s the tension at the moment. I think its being read as an extension to the discipline. There are a lot of people trying to use the key skills of a designer in the research process. So for example people with visual and material thinking are the people who should be doing the researching. This approach is very different from getting an ethnographer to conduct commercial anthropology. At the least, you need both designer and ethnographer to conduct the research, which is always the IDEO approach. You need people who’ve got T shaped skills in a design area and you need anthropologists. To some extent it’s an extension and I would say, and I’m an advocate so I’m biased in saying this, it’s not yet a paradigm shift. A paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense is when the kinds of questions being asked are not even understood. When Paula Scher had that outburst, it might look like a paradigm shift because she is unable to understand the aim of the ‘Justified’ competition because she sees no value in any of that. In her article, Paula literally calls it fluff or noise, meaning it’s the rubbish you create to show a client in order to make it look like they’re getting what they’re paid for – when in fact the design is something the designer came up with on the back of napkin. At that point it’s starting to feel like an anomaly in the Kuhnian sense. Part of the reason why people are trashing design thinking is that it tried to market itself as an extension.

And you don’t think it is?

I don’t think it should be and again I’m biased because I’m really not interested in helping business at all. I’m in the business of making business go out of business. I want ‘business as usual’ to just disappear because it’s something that is destroying the planet socially and ecologically. This is the reason why I’m not interested in innovating for existing businesses. I’m interested in creating new ways in which society resources itself. Business is a means and it’s certainly not the end. To that extent, I want a paradigm shift and I want design thinking to represent an entirely new way of understanding humans and an entirely new way of understanding households and understanding societies. And I think it is, or could be, when you start to think about practices and their materiality – which the whole history of western thinking has so far failed to do. The number of philosophers who’ve actually managed to give a good account of making can be counted on one hand. Plato didn’t understand it at all, Aristotle has a philosophy of making, Marx, probably; and Hannah Arendt talks about it – and that’s it. You really have to then jump all the way to Bruno Latour to understand what is going on when makers make. I think a primary cause of our unsustainability is the absence of an adequate understanding of the materiality of maing in the entire history of western thinking. We are unsustainable because we don’t really understand our own material practices.

Design thinking should represent the paradigm shift that says ‘I’m going to have a Copernican revolution which realigns not humans with nature but humans with things. I really need to start thinking differently about things and I don’t think of them as economic units and I don’t think about them as chattels, as property, as stuff I own. I think about them in terms of their use value’. The number of people who’ve really understood use value is: Marx – but he got it wrong. So it is quite amazing how ignorant we are about design.

So that was the American viewpoint. What about the Australian context?

Australia were leaders in thinking about sustainability and they were leaders in design research and particularly practice-based design research. However, what I’m seeing at the moment is the total re-ephemeralisation of design somewhat as a result of the way in which design in Australia has, I would say, been ‘architectured’. This term I’m using as short hand for people who are obsessed with facade and large scale, and not human scale and not inside-out. Australians are spending a lot of time thinking quite technically about creative industries, landscape urbanism and scenography. I think it is really problematic: they are appropriating the research legitimation of design thinking and just handing it over to a society of spectacle. It is not a coincidence that Australia is the last place on the planet to be building Gehry’s. Everyone else has given up on them but Australia is still doing it. Helsinki for example just said no to a Geary commission. It might be because Austrlalia is at the moment a wealthy country being flashy; a lot of money is being spent on large-scale, architectural design. I’m just glimpsing this and I don’t really have any substantiation for it but they do seem to be using design research and it’s technical creativity utterly in relation to innovation and with almost no attention to social innovation. There are people doing world-leading government-centred service design in Australia but I really think they are about to be marginalised. It feels like ASIX – which is the Australian version of SIX, the Social Innovation Exchange [no longer – see http://www.tacsi.org.au/ instead] – was a bright star two or three years ago, but they just don’t seem to be where the funding is going now – it least in relation to higher education research budgets. It’s only a hunch and I hope I’m wrong.

The question of design and social innovation is again at a really important turning point. On the one hand design is being belittled as creative ways of doing participation when conducting community development work. There is a recognition that communities should own some of the services provided by governments for example, and that sometimes those services generate more value when they are co-created. To do that you need post-it notes and brainstorming sessions, and as a result design thinking gets deployed. However, it gets deployed totally as a means and in that case design stops thinking about the larger systems in which it is operating. One of the basic principles of modernist design is that you always design a chair for instance with a view to the next higher system which is the room, and then the building and finally the building to the society. I’m just not seeing that at all in relation to design-based social innovation. People seem to believe that a way the community expresses the problem is the way the problem should be solved and you just provide the tools for them to solve it. To that extent design has become the handmaiden of the neo-liberalisations of government. In the UK, for example, ‘The Big Society’ is a rhetoric for the defunding of community services; in exchange for the defunding of community services you get the handing over of these services to people under the guise of ‘empowerment.’ Consequently there needs to be a lot more work on what design those social innovations should take. There needs to be much more critique going on and a lot more research on the longer term strategies. I’m just not seeing sufficient evaluation work; I’m not seeing sufficient research in fact. It’s like design has stopped being about research, which is where the current deign thinking trend began, and instead it is only an uncritical tool for enabling participation.

Do you not think also it’s difficult to evaluate because social impact are often difficult to measure?

Certainly that’s a problem and it’s a problem that design should be in involved in. I think that’s always been design’s problem and if anybody has skills in trying to persuade people about value by pataphysically using measurement, designers should. Designers have always been the ones who’ve tried to describe the value that their designs bring to a company. It might be a jump in sales when they have redesigned their logo but obviously it’s a lot more than that. It’s allowed the workforce to cohere around a new style and a new creative management practice. Branding in design was never just about measurable increase in sales and when it was, it wasn’t really design. In the same way I think designers should be in there thinking about social impact. It has to use the measures that it’s funders demand but it should be much more creative about that. I’m really not seeing enough research or work on that. There were moments in which people were talking about fourth generation evaluations but it seems to have faded again. This is due to the kind of urgency of the situation in the UK with the complete un-funding of social services, meaning that people have to rush in there and do something, anything. When somebody asks for a metric, one is pulled off the shelf because there’s a panic about having to go to the next social crisis. The US is in the same situation but in a less urgent way in. No one trusts the government so it has to have extraordinarily robust measures for anything it does which means that it only ever does very instrumental things.

Do you think the fact that there is enough design research or enough in-depth evaluation happening in this space is because designers aren’t really in that position to control or to negotiate a more holistic and deeper view of the project?

I’m never one to accept when designers whinge about not having enough power. I just think you’ve just got to go out there and get it. Design is a network sport, in which you have to win briefs, then you have to win the nature of the brief and then you have to win the realisation of the brief. It’s a constantly agonistic domain and it’s never not a fight. If I had to come up with a summary conclusion I would go back and say that one of the big problems has been the role of the universities. Universities are in this ambivalent position. On the one hand they have created the research culture that has enabled a lot of the increasing of power and increased value in design. When design moved from polytechnics to universities, schools had to become research active so they started developing higher degrees. This meant that schools had to teach research which led to research trained designers who then move into industry. Design thinking to some extent is the off-shoot of the ‘researchification’ of design as a mutual professional discipline. On the flip side, as you participate as a researcher in a neo-liberal university you chase targeted funding and targeted funding will have EU-specified frameworks or priorities in the Australian ARC system or worse, you have the industry partnerships in the American system. Consequently the only research that is getting done is project specific. No one funds anybody doing larger scale metacritical evaluative work but that’s exactly what design academics should be doing right now. That’s the role of the university. It’s the Kantian definition of the university as the crucial arbiter of what the profession is doing. Universities should be the space in which critical design studies is occurring, in the same way in which you have critical legal studies for example. But this just isn’t happening anywhere. You can ask, ‘where are people critically evaluating social design projects?’ You see thousands of celebrations but I’ve never seen anyone game to critique it. I think it’s really important that there should be a lot more of that unfunded critical work and that is actually where design academics need to be showing leadership.


You talked about Design Thinking as having 3 roles/levels. The first is linked with innovating existing businesses, in your words ‘business as usual’. The second is linked with using DT as radical innovation, creating new services and offering new ways of doing things. The final role is focused on rethinking our current economic model of the world. As we understood it, you are more interested in the last role, in your words ‘making current businesses unsustainable’ and using DT as a approach to understanding what this means, and linked to the idea of materiality. We are really interested in this idea, can you expand more on this?

It is not so clear in the interview – I think I lost track of the counting in my head. I think I meant that the 3 roles/levels are:

1) The thinking that designers do when designing, which is a combination of

a) material thinking (about what materials and things can and can’t do (Louis Kahn’s ‘what does the brick want?’ or Donald Schon’s ‘material back-talk’)),

b) visual thinking (testing sketched forms for buildability, operability, usability in imagined contexts)

c) empathy (an ethnographic sensibility toward not just what people say they are doing, or even what they are actually doing, but to what they would/should do if only they could)

2) The application of the way designers think, by designers or non-designers, to the solving of problems beyond those normally considered design problems – where normal designing concerns the making of things that people will buy to make their lives more efficient, productive and/or pleasurable, whereas not-normal problems (often mischaracterized as ‘wicked problems’) to which design thinking gets applied are more strategy- and systems-based situations, like innovation (whether commercial – increasing market-share or creating new markets on the one hand – or social – helping people to transform their lifestyles so that they can be more healthy or employable).

Both of the kinds of innovation that result from the kind of design thinking in 2) remain, to my mind, innovative within as-usual circumstances. No matter how innovative the new strategic direction that comes from a design thinking consultancy, the proposition would still involve a business, with employees, charging customers for a product-service. And such a proposition can only be profitable if on-going social and ecological damage are externalized as costs (unless the whole system moves to whole-of-life costing, no individual business can afford to). This is what I mean by business-as-usual. More controversial would be say that most social innovations, especially those that involve designers or at least design thinking, are also not radical innovations. The mere fact that social innovations are distinct from commercial innovations is an indication that social innovations are not yet disrupting the larger organization of society – or worse, social innovations in the form of social entrepreneurship allow the commercialization of the social, rather than the socialization of commerce. to put it more starkly, what is often innovative about social innovations is how they enable people to cope with their situations rather change them: for instance, I might need to use a design toolkit to DIY my health or food or education because I am excluded from mainstream commercial provision of those goods and services; but my DIYing perpetuates my exclusion – I can continue and they can continue without either being changed.

All of which is a very long way of saying that I think there is 3rd radical, because disruptive, innovation potential to design thinking. I think that the way designers think accesses a really new ways of organizing our societies. And I think this because of what I consider design thinking to be, as per 1):

Material Thinking

Our societies are unsustainable because we are good modernists: which means we are thoroughly ambivalent – we think that well-being comes from material things, but we pay no heed to the materiality of those things. As Twitchell I think once said, the problem with consumerism is that it is not materialist enough – it doesn’t in the end behave as if it really values material things. Only this double-bind explains on the one hand, how our houses can end up stuff with so many things, and on the other hand, how we can have systems of value that are centered around things and yet can’t account for the ongoing social and ecological cost of those things. The only people in our society who truly understand the materiality of all the things that stuff our households are designers. Good designers know the value of materials, know what materials can and can’t do, why they are good for one device and not another, where they come from and where they go. Within the material thinking of design thinking lies a way out of our unsustainable modernist ambivalence – a radical, Copernican potential to really valorize the products of design, putting materiality at the center of value production, with circular economies of product take-back and materials recovery logistically structured into how society resources itself. (I am also alluding here to some of the work that is occurring in philosophy at the moment concerning Object Oriented Ontology – Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology for instance, or Latour’s work on a Parliament of Things.)

Visual Thinking

Our societies are unsustainable because they are hopeless at imagining the future, let alone factoring those futures into present value systems. Science fiction (which as John Thackara has pointed out is, at its best, social fictions, imagining very different social structures, rather than just techno-fictions where the employed bourgeois family households of the present are just kitted out with new gizmos) remains a marginal area of literature, and future studies is an even more marginal discipline (even though the purpose of a university is to forsee with a critical eye, the consequences of the present). Designers however work in realm of futuring: they create rich pictures of future scenarios where both material environments and lifestyles co-evolve. They not only fantasize about these futures, but they critically evaluate their feasibility, and argue on behalf of the futures that they evaluate to be preferrable. They unfortunately must do all this within the sheer short-termism of market economies, which is precisely why designing must break free from the professional service of design consultancies – hence the radical potential of design(erly) thinking


Our societies are finally unsustainable because we do not practice what we preach. We claim to be modern products of the Enlightenment, engaged in basically humanist enterprises, yet we have created economic structures and organizations that are dehumanizing. Households filled with comforts and toys are needed because employment is unsatisfying for most people; and when employment is satisfying it mostly because it still involves successfully producing more stuff. So our material unsustainability is codependent upon our fundamentally non-empathetic society. You need to wonder for example why businesses are currently finding the creative empathetic research aspects of design thinking such a radical breakthrough? If businesses have not in the past been attentive to the needs of customers in empathetic ways, what were they doing – just foisting products onto a market that had no choice. This is what I mean when I claim that our societies to date have been unsustainably non-empathetic (or non-empathetically unsustainable). Designerly empathy is innovative in that regard. But it is radically innovative when enough heed is paid to the way in which designers are not just empathetic to people in the way social researchers usually are – that is, listening to what people say in order to understand what their values are – but are rather empathetic with people as practical, as engaged in habitual practices that are fused with all the things that make up their material environment. I am alluding here to what has been called ‘the practice turn’ in sociology and anthropology, the recognition that a fundamental unit of social analysis is a practice, which comprises 1) devices and infrastructures, 2) skills, know-how and habits, 3) meanings and identities. Social researchers usually on focus on 3), sometimes 2), but only designers bring 1) operationally into the mix. And this more comprehensive form of empathy has radical potential, because it is more accurate account of how we live; of why for example, we can intend to be very sustainable (3), and even know how to be sustainable (2), but not have the material opportunity to do it (1). Real social change requires all 3 – this is design at its most powerful.

To sum up, think of it this way: the modernist dream for design was functional perfection (this is Jan Michl’s phrase); for any problem, there was the perfect solution, and its form would follow. This idealism failed to recognize that humans are changeable and infinite, and that as a result problems are always framed, in modernist times, by capitalist economic systems, systems that restrict the materialist values, future visions and human-centeredness with which designers can work. Nevertheless, ideally, design, released from conventional, commercial design consulting, in the way design thinking hopes, would be freer to create real and lasting value, not just profitable systems of exchange value. We can glimpse this idealism in the emergence of different forms of the peer-to-peer sharing economy, where I can find just the thing I need from a neighbor nearby, who I may or may not pay – the disintermediation promised us by the internet appears now (at the convergence of urban informatics and social software) more or less achievable – except of course businesses are desperate to work out how to interrupt those efficient markets with noisily distracting advertising for things we don’t really need. The point I am trying to make is that within design thinking is an idealistic drive toward anti-capitalism, or at least anti-business-as-usual – that is, business as knowing something we don’t and so being able to trick us to pay more for something than it costs. That is the 3rd level of design thinking that the 2nd level is very eager to see not come to fruition.

In your summing up remarks, you touched upon the role of design education, and how design research which emerged from the academisation of design has enabled DT to emerge. You talked about the need for more critical voices in design education to evaluate the impact of social innovation projects. But what about the teaching of design? How does the changing role of design impact design education at the UG level? Particularly this shift from design of things for people to design of people. What kind of implications does this have on designers? And design education?

I think there are two big consequences of design thinking for undergraduate education of designers, and both concern design moving from one of the fine arts, separate from the liberal arts, to becoming more integrated with the liberal arts, and vice versa. As design has evolved from the application of fine art to products to the practice of enhancing the efficiency, productivity and enjoyability of human-product (or -built environment) interactions, design has had to do progressively more social research. It is a bit schematic if not mythical, but let’s say that designers originally researched only materials. And then, following a typology that is Liz Sanders’, they start to ask customers what they might want (market research via surveys and focus groups, etc). A person for the purposes of this research is just a bundle of semi-rational consumer desires. Then, to make products more helpful and innovative, designers start observing people, seeing that they do things differently from what they self-report when asked. A person at this point is now a more complicated ecosystem of only ever semi-conscious practices. In Sanders’ typology, the designer then begins to undertake generative design research, which means engaging in co-creative activities and participatory design. A person at this stage in design research now has a history and future; they are an ensemble of trajectories and latencies. Design thinking, and the more strategic new design practices like service design, therefore require designers to have much richer and wider perspectives on the people for whom and with whom they are designing. They need to understand psychology, but not just consumer psychology, but social psychology and perhaps psychoanalysis (that people also comprise unconscious aspects). They need to understand sociology, but not just statistical analysis but also social, political and economic history. They need to understand anthropology, but not just ethnography, but material cultural studies, technology studies. And designers need to be highly honed observers and interviewers, which means they need to know performance: improvisation, character, expressiveness, self-awareness, etc. And they of course need to know much more about living systems, about (co-)evolution and resilience, etc. Design thinking is a performing art.

What I’m arguing is conveyed in the slogan that ‘in service design, humans are your material.’ It is a very dangerous idea, but it contains the warning not to treat people like inert materials, but nevertheless to try to discern what, like a material, a person can be reasonably (via persuasion, design-enabled facilitation) made to do or not do. We need a design education that studies the human along with white space, serif type, glass and steel, molded plastic and organic textile drape. I am reminded of the Eindhoven Design Academy’s undergraduate program with courses that all ‘Man and …’ Maybe design thinking will finally see the insertion of the human into over aestheticized materialism of the still-too-replicated Bauhaus foundation year.

And then, it is not just a matter of dumping a whole lot of humanities and social science lecture and seminar courses onto design students. Design students don’t tend to learn that way, and plus, the point is to integrate these knowledges into the design process. So the liberal arts must be redesigned – and this leads back to what I think I was saying in the interview about critical studies and studio courses that have liberal arts outcomes. 

At the start of the interview, you gave us a bit of background to your role at Parsons and the inter-disciplinary Environmental Studies programme that you taught on. We wanted to ask what it was like to teach non-designers design?

I am a non-designer (or at least not trained as a designer, though I do plan-the-making-of-stuff – I spent the second half of the 90s designing and maintaining an early website and electronic publications for the EcoDesign Foundation; and every semester I do curriculum and instructional design; and I teach that writing (and so thinking) is a form of designing). So I learned about design by reading the classics from the design methods movement. As a result, I have a very idealistic sense of the design process. I like to argue that this is what design is at its best, rather than just what design is only in the abstract, in theory. My primary engagement with the practice of designing has been through nearly a decade supervising and examining practice-based design research degree students. This is very useful, because these are students who are critically reflecting on their process; so as they recount and analyze their process, I learn very intimately about the process of design practice. But as a result, the version of design I am still learning is very researcherly one; it is one heavily biased toward methodical and research-based designing, not one by contrast that is more tacitly intuitive, or formulaically precedent-based; nor does it tend to be the mature practice of an expert professional with strong style or a large repertoire of successful gambits, as Bryan Lawson calls them.

I say all this to indicate that what I have learned about design is what I teach design to be; in other words, I teach a very idealistic and researcherly based version of designing. And this is quite compatible with more thoughtful liberal arts students ways of approaching the world. As a result, I find teaching design to non-designers both successful and rewarding – they have rich insights into the transformability of the material practices; often, because of their more comprehensive understandings of the social, insights that are more creative, or at least more radical (never ‘beautiful’) than straight design students.

There are two other particulars to note about teaching design to non-designers to Environmental Studies students at The New School. Firstly, Environmental Studies students are obviously well-versed in thinking ecologically. They expect that every thing is in a co-dependent and co-evolving relation to its environment. So the designer’s way of attending to useful-things, things with which certain people in certain situations will fuse in order to better accomplish living, is already what ecologically literate environmental studies students expect of phenomenon. Secondly, The New School is quirky institution – founded by socialists as an adult education institution, the home of exiled European Jewish intellectuals, richly embedded in the arts and politics of Greenwich Village, an institution subsidized by the long-standing design school it purchases in the early ’70s. As a result the kind of student who decides to go to college at the Eugene Lang College The New School for the Liberal Arts, which is where most of the Environmental Studies students I taught were enrolled, is a particular kind of undergraduate, committed to urban engagement more than pure liberal arts. The interventionism of design that scares most humanities and social science faculty and students was not scary to these students, and was even expected. So teaching design, which tends to need to do to know, rather than insisting on knowing before doing, was not hard for these kinds of non-design students.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s