What Design Can’t Do is in Pre-order

Almost there. My new book What Design Can’t Do will be out in late October with Set Margins’, but you can already pre-order it. Here is the cover, designed by Federico Antonini.

Design is broken. Young and not-so-young designers are becoming increasingly aware of this. Many feel impotent: they were told they had the tools to make the world a better place, but instead the world takes its toll on them. Beyond a haze of hype and bold claims lies a barren land of self-doubt and impostor syndrome. Although these ‘feels’ might be the Millennial norm, design culture reinforces them. In conferences we learn that “with great power comes great responsibility” but, when it comes to real-life clients, all they ask is to “make the logo bigger.”

This book probes the disillusionment that permeates design. It tackles the deskilling effects provoked by digital semi-automation, the instances of ornamental politics fashioned to please the museum-educational complex, the nebulous promises of design schools. While reviving historical expressions of disenchantment, Silvio Lorusso examines present-day memes and social media rants. To depict this disheartening crisis, he crafts a new critical vocabulary for readers to build upon. What this exposé reveals is both worrying and refreshing: rather than producing a meaningful order, design might be just about inhabiting chaos.

What was once a promising field rooted in problem-solving has become a problem in itself. The skill set of designers appears shaky and insubstantial – their expertise is received with indifference, their know-how is trivialised by online services, their work is compromised by a series of unruly external factors. If you see yourself as a designer without qualities; if you feel cheated, disappointed or betrayed by design, this book is for you.

“What happens once design is a smokescreen and can no longer claim to be a blueprint for change? This is the question Silvio Lorusso puts on the table. How did form, no matter how cool and disruptive, become so futile and tired? Read this with caution: we can no longer design ourselves out of this painful realisation.”
– Geert Lovink, author of Stuck on the Platform


Why I (Almost) Stopped Contributing to Student Projects

Every year, one or two months before graduation time, I receive invitations from students of various institutions to contribute to their final project with an interview, a podcast, a short text, a talk, etc. Some of these requests derive from projects that are genuinely interesting and related to what I do, while some other requests feel, to be frank, a shot in the dark. But that’s not the point.

The point is that some time ago I stopped accepting most of these invitations directly. The reason is not that I find student projects unworthy of my attention. On the very contrary, I dedicate a lot of my work to the dissemination of theses and projects born in school, sometimes believing in them more than the students themselves. See, for example, the Other Worlds journal, in which I published various excerpts from MA theses; and P-DPA, an archive of experimental publishing, populated by many school projects.

The reason of my embargo is instead structural. Students are encouraged to get in touch with practitioners external to their institutions to get the knowledge, points of view and expertise that they don’t have ‘in house’. If we would live in a society devoid of remunerative issues, there wouldn’t be any problem: exchange is good and necessary. The problem arises when the income of creative practitioners becomes low and intermittent, and academies begin to cut down on staff, both hour- and people-wise.

From the point of view of the student who is working on their final project, a contribution from someone external is a nice gesture justified by the fact that nobody is making money anyway. The urge to write this short text came, in fact, from people working on a project that is “student-initiated and maintained — no profit is being made and no one is making an income.” But there is another perspective to consider: the designer who takes part in the podcast contributes to the ‘buzz’ of the school’s final show, the artist who is interviewed might appear in the academy’s website, the writer who gives a talk at the student-organized panel is bringing visibility and prestige to the institution. From this perspective, these practitioners, enthusiastically invited by students, are doing unpaid work for their schools.

I came to think that carelessly accepting most invitations aggravates this state of affairs, because it hides the fact that while schools expand their reach via the innocent requests of students, their core of knowledge, expertise and culture is shrinking as a result of casualization of staff. One can envision a dystopian institution where there is no actual staff but a growing list of email addresses for students to write to… I’m exaggerating, of course, but I honestly believe that students need to be made aware of this process. This is why I’m writing this.

What to do, then? How to avoid disappointing those students who are genuinely excited about my work? Here’s what I generally do: after thanking the students for their interest, I encourage them to ‘re-route’ their informal invitation, that is, I ask them to ask the school to invite me formally for a talk, a ‘crit’, an article, etc. And you know what? It works, sometimes. This way, I got a few paid gigs as guest tutor, and thanks to that, I could dedicate the necessary attention not only to the project of the inviting student, but also to those of their peers. Needless to say, institutions are often slow, and by the time that a student’s request is approved, they might be already graduated. But there is no harm in trying, and if things seem to take too long, the guest can always decide to proceed informally.

This text was written as a contribution to the project “Structurally Screwed: Political Configurations within Design Education” by Mariana Neves and Urjuan Toosy, Experimental Communication students of the MA Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art.


In-Between Media Conference – Thoughts and Impressions

Leaving the Dreadful Days Behind

Generally, attending an INC conference means encountering a large variety of perspectives, a parade of presentation formats, and a whole bunch of diverse practices. In-Between Media was no exception. From “theory-scrolling” lecture performances (Jordi Viader Guerrero) to talk-meets-boiler room set (UKRAiNATV), from anti-clouds shamanic rituals (Lukas Engelhardt) to testimonies of visual and invisual citizen journalism (Donatella Della Ratta).

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New: A Slice of the Pie

Sebastian Schmieg and I recently launched a new artwork entitled A Slice of the Pie. Check it out here: https://a-slice-of-the-pie.live/

For three months, a 16 square meter LED wall installed at Kunsthalle Zurich will display a circular shape divided into six slices. A dedicated website will livestream the pie 24/7. Through the website, artists will be able to purchase one or more slices and fill them with their own artworks, thus becoming full participants in the DYOR exhibition. To fill the pie, they will have to collaborate or compete, hustle, or simply leave the final composition to chance.

Once per day, at a random time determined by an algorithm or through a paid option on the website, the pie will be minted as NFT and auctioned on Objkt.com. The profits from the sale will be shared among the artists and A Slice of the Pie.

A Slice of the Pie derives from the artists’ prolonged reflections on the gatekeeping of the art world and the monetization of the access to it. Focused on the crypto scene, the artwork provides an update of these themes, which were first explored by Lorusso and Schmieg in Projected Capital (2018). A Slice of the Pie allows both cooperation and competition, both consensual decision-making and winner-takes-it-all resolutions. The artwork is inspired by the dry language of financial charts and dashboards as well as the cutthroat design of “battle royale” games. Being launched in a time of backlash around crypto, A Slice of the Pie puts its promises of participation to the test.


“Expectations as Reality” New Essay on The New Design Congress

It’s finally online the essay derived from the talk I gave at the Yale school of Art in April. In this essay I tried to weave together various themes that are particularly close to my heart and to my world, that is, the art and design school: professional “proprioception”, the role of the intellectual, self-design, the problem of access to problems, the persistence of the two cultures, the spectacle of self-aggrandizing ethics, and the ethos of compromise. Writing it meant running into a number of contradictions, and my attempt to overcome them was not easy because it meant placing myself outside a certain antagonistic comfort zone. The result is this river of text. Read it, if you have time, and let me know what you think about it, if you feel like.

The text appears on the New Design Congress, which I highly admire for their sharp and embedded work on design politics, ethics and technology. Publishing build bridges.



New Essay in New Book about Creative Coding

My essay “Learn to Code vs. Code to Learn” is online. Coding is an ideologically charged skill: “learn to code” is an actual injunction, and not just for designers. The propaganda around coding has not only to do with need to produce a new professional type – IBM speaks of ‘midcollars’ – but also with relocating obsolete workers and introduce emerging economies into a global production circuit. The outcomes are sometimes paradoxical. In 2019, Joe Biden addressed a crowd of puzzled miners this way: “Anyone who can throw coal into a furnace can learn to program, for God’s sake!” This is what I call learn to code.

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The Paradox of the Political Art & Design School – Notes on Bourdieu

During the last couple of years, in various countries such as the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, art & design schools were demanded to take an explicit political stand. They were asked, for instance, to show solidarity with marginalized groups, to take a side in international conflicts, to oppose the dominant economic system, or to actively join environmental groups. We can think of this period as an accelerated reshuffling of political urgencies. We can go even further and say that politics, as understood within art & design academies, is a process of prioritization of such urgencies.

These days I’m reading Bourdieu and I believe that his work can be useful to understand some implications of the political art & design school. One of the questions that Bourdieu helps framing is an apparently obvious one: what is a school? The French sociologist urges us to think of the school not just as a context where knowledge is acquired and shared, nor as a merely repressive institution that disciplines future white collars, but also as a market where cultural capital is formed, exchanged, sanctioned and legitimized.

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Addendum to Platform BK’s Open Letter to Dutch Art Academies: Economic Responsibility in Art Education

Last week I signed Platform BK’s open letter entitled “Graduates of art academies deserve more agency over their future” without hesitation. Addressing the executive boards of Dutch Art academies, the letter argues that education should prepare students for “the unruly reality of the cultural sector’s job market”.

A four-point plan is laid out: 1) developing post-precarity courses; 2) support social engagement and self-organization; 3) provide insight into the wolrd after the academy; 4) involve students in institutional developments.

The letter argues that general response to the issue of labor is two-folded: cultural entrepreneurship on the one end of the spectrum, and art autonomy on the other. The first can be understood as a passive adoption of a market logic (neoliberal, if you will) within education; while the latter is a form of romanticized detachment from the material reality of artists and designer careers’.

A previous version of the letter advocated for an “economically responsible art education”. The big question is: how do we define economic responsibility? Here, I’d like to give a pointer towards a possible answer, linked to point 3 of the letter.

Economic responsibility is not just financial literacy. Sure, students need to know how to write invoices, but economic responsibility goes beyond that. One way in which art academies can be more economically responsible is by strengthening the research into the lives of their students after graduation. The data available is often fragmented, hard to find, superficial, too broad (on the scale of a country or even a continent) and frequently comes from the work of students themselves who use their thesis time for this kind of inquiry. Furthermore, exceptionalism is the norm: cherry-picked successful alumni are invited to give career tips to young students, reinforcing biased representations of professional fulfillment. Instead of externalizing surveys and cherry-picking success, art academies should be the ones that dedicate in-house resources to develop a rigorous, localized picture of economic life after graduation.


Notes on Design Populism

Like many others, I’ve been following @neuroticarsehol for years now. Mostly popular within graphic design circles, NA is a shitposting account active on both Twitter and Instagram that makes fun of the grandiose statements of the design discourse, its unrealistic claims, its careerism, and its distance to everyday life.

@neuroticarsehol, 2021

Not everyone likes them. Some more or less prominent practitioners find their points reductive and obvious: ethical or political gestures unavoidably contribute to a designer’s career. This doesn’t mean that these gestures are insincere and that such designer is a hypocrite. Not so long ago, I stumbled upon a starter pack meme made by the students of a German design school. Here, NA appeared behind a red cross. The meme also showed legitimate “equipment”, such as the Glossary of Undisciplined Design, and a We Should All Be Feminists shirt.

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6 Theses on the Deprofessionalization of Design


[This post is now published in Who Can Afford to Be Critical? by Afonso de Matos (ed.), Eindhoven: Set Margins’, 2022.]

1. According to Donald Schön, a professional is someone who “claims extraordinary knowledge in matters of human importance, getting in return extraordinary rights and privileges.” This definition proves that a profession is necessarily exclusive. Claiming inclusivity by calling for a complete deprofessionalization of design is mere populism.

2. The current calls for design deprofessionalization legitimately denounce how the design profession has disproportionately excluded marginalized groups. However, they ignore the mechanisms of deprofessionalization that affect the design field in the first place. This is a problem, because higher education–which is where these calls generally come from–is bound to generate resentment and anger if it cannot guarantee to its student body, which invests time and money in its institutions, the social and economical benefits of the profession.

3. In the context of design, extraordinary knowledge is expert knowledge. We need to ask: how much of this expert knowledge does the designer actually hold in the public perception? If the designers’ knowledge is not considered, at least partly, a form of expertise, they won’t be granted the status of professionals in the social arena.

4. In the eyes of the general public, certain design sub-fields such as graphic design do not possess any “esoteric” knowledge. The perception is that thanks to the common availability of digital tools and devices, everyone can design a logo or a book. For several people the fact that there are MAs in graphic design is a source of astonishment.

5. Whether this perception is right or wrong is irrelevant, as it does and will nonetheless shape the economic relationships between clients and designers, and therefore the social status of the latter. The effects are already apparent in the salary gap between specialists in UX design, which is still considered an esoteric practice, and those in graphic design, which is fully demystified.

6. Some designers recognize that there is no fundamental difference between their supposedly expert knowledge and that of a profane. Instead of trying to convince the public of something they don’t even believe in themselves, they attempt to regain the benefits of a professional position (prestige, credibility, higher income) by placing their expertise within the domain of cultural production, i.e. by presenting themselves as intellectuals. Thus, cultural production is not just the casual ambition of some aspiring intellectuals, but the result of their field’s failure to generate or maintain the impression of expert knowledge. Ironically, the very calls for deprofessionalization belong to this process.