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

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.

 

 

Other Worlds

A few months ago, I was blessed to join the amazing team of the Center for Other Worlds, a research center for design and art based at Lusófona University. Now, we’re finally launching Other Worlds, COW’s shapeshifting journal for design research, criticism and transformation. Other Worlds (OW) aims at making the social, political, cultural and technical complexities surrounding design practices legible and, thus, mutable.

What other worlds, exactly? Those that have been traditionally ignored, neglected or silenced in the past, as well as those that are overlooked today: non-Western communities negotiating their own set of values through practice; alternative rationalities emerged in the West but overshadowed by the instrumental reason; technosocial environments blossoming at the periphery of platform empires, semi-visible modes of organization that oppose or sustain official institutions.

OW hosts articles, interviews, short essays and all the cultural production that doesn’t fit neither the fast-paced, volatile design media promotional machine nor the necessarily slow and lengthy process of scholarly publishing. In this way, we hope to address urgent issues, without sacrificing rigor and depth.

We are starting small, OW’s initial form is that of a newsletter. Follow this link to find more information and to subscribe.

Do you feel like you have OW same energy? Then, don’t hesitate to get in touch!

 

Notes on the WdKA’s Removal of a Pro-Palestine Resistance Students’ Banner

Yesterday, a students’ banner in solidarity with Palestine was removed from the walls of the Piet Zwart Institute of Rotterdam. The Willem de Kooning Academy, whose the PZI belongs to, took out it out because “the University of Applied Sciences does not get involved in geopolitical situations” and “does not take political stands whether on national or international issues”.

This might come as a big surprise for who has witnessed first-hand the often self-congratulatory ostentation of Dutch art & design’s criticality, politicality, activist attitude, and decolonial agenda. On Instagram, two posts before the official statement, one reads: “Hello all! Tomorrow our Instagram will be taken over by WdKA’s climate collective SPIN. 🕷️🌿”

Piet Zwart students expressing solidarity with Palestine.

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Ghostly Design

The design field operates according to a fundamental conviction: that what we call design has an unambiguous existence. Back in the days, delimiting design was easy: whereas the mass-produced moka pot hissing on the stove was design, the handmade ceramic cups used to drink its coffee weren’t. Design began with the series and ended with it. Nowadays, things are more difficult: design escaped its industrial enclosure to become a mentality, which is to say that our mentality has become industrialized.1 The few handmade objects still surrounding us owe their aura to design. Design haunts them.

Whatever we make or encounter–a thing, an arrangement of things, a procedure to arrange such things–is haunted by design. Even if design is not there, it is already there. Thus, the ontological status of design is a ghostly one. But design is a peculiar ghost, one that craves the tangible world of the living. Design is like Slimer, the gluttonous ghost from Ghostbusters: a specter that enjoys ingurgitating as much food as it can.

Slimer’s interactions with the material world are not seamless: they leave slime wherever they go. We can allegorically interpret such gelatinous secretion as design’s ability to reconceptualize things within its mode of comprehension: suddenly, a pebble starts having a form and a function, it gets liable to a process of improvement, a process that is itself subject to a method. What happened? Design has digested the thing: the pebble is now an artifact, a designed object. Design’s metabolism has left its muculent mark and spurred out what it couldn’t process, namely, the thing’s symbolic and ritual aura, its culture; substituted by design culture, with its own equalizing symbols and rituals. The thing is apparently the same, but it is in fact completely different.

In 1963, Italian design polymath Bruno Munari amused himself by describing an orange, peas and a rose as industrial objects. Whereas the orange is “an almost perfect object”, the rose is deemed completely useless and complicated. Munari’s innocent divertissement, a sort of lesson in design thinking and perhaps a subtle critique of mass production, exemplifies the actual way in which design comes to reinterpret and thus change reality. Once such reinterpretation has happened it is very hard to think reality otherwise, beyond functionality and efficiency.2

According to design curator Paola Antonelli, designers are “respectful, curious, generous, and hungry for other fields’ bodies of knowledge and expertise, designers invade without colonizing. Who can we trust more? They should run the world.”3 Ruha Benjamin might disagree. Asked, during a workshop, to offer a definition of design, the sociologist suggested that “design is a colonizing project”. By that she meant that design is used to describe everything.4 Description is indeed the form that design’s slimy digestion takes.

As Paul Rodgers and Craig Bremner denounce, “design is neither a product nor a service. Design occurs in relationship to everyone and everything – it describes and shapes relationships.”5 Design proceeds through formalization. Focusing on one of today’s most successful design currents, design thinking, Benjamin points out its capacity to encapsulate any form of activity, from the organization of a protests to the user journey of a banking app. The problem is that design thinking is forgetful, not unlike design in general: it neglects histories.6 Again Benjamin:

If one needs to “subvert” design, this implies that a dominant framework of design reigns–and I think one of the reasons why it reigns is that it has managed to fold any and everything under its agile wings.

According to the US scholar, there are risks associated with design thinking, an “umbrella philosophy” that diminishes broader forms of human activity, erasing the genealogies from which they emerged in the first place, canceling what Ezio Manzini calls tradition.7 It’s a matter of hegemony: “Whether design-speak sets out to colonize human activity, it is enacting a monopoly over creative thought and praxis.” Benjamin’s concerns are specifically related to racial issues. From this vantage point she is able to see the way in which design depletes empowerment: “Maybe what we must demand is not liberatory designs but just plain old liberation. Too retro, perhaps?”

A sense of disillusion partly derives from the realization that design can be, like money, a general equivalent: something that severs the links between things and thus estranges them. It can devour contexts. Practitioners suspect that the umbrella is too small, that design is lacking the conceptual and practical means of encompassing human activity, and that by attempting to do so it is actually making tabula rasa.8 Design might be the last successful avant-garde: a deliberate repudiation of histories. Designers who come to terms with such awareness logically develop an impostor syndrome, an urge to resist design assimilation. This is probably a concause of many personal exoduses, dreamed or practiced: ex-designers decide to engage with the fullness of a certain human activity within its specific and historically-rich domain: farming, writing, cooking… all activities that resist the reduction to “rural hacking”, “content design”, or “food design”. More rarely, however, the act of design description provides an enrichment: the selectivity of design allows for the inclusion of forgotten voices, for the lighthearted reshuffling of austere practices, for a novel bridging of contexts. In these rare cases, design “ignorance” truly becomes its bliss. At worst, design flattens a multiplicity of worlds into a one-dimensional, aseptic one, at best it nurtures them.9


  1. Presumably, this industrialized mindset started to emerge in the West in the 16th century, with the appearance of the first mechanically-reproduced books.↩︎
  2. Peas are described as “food pills of various diameters, packing in double valve cases, very elegant in form, color, material, semi-transparent and easy to open”. Munari, Bruno. 2010. Good design. Mantova: Corraini.↩︎
  3. Paola Antonelli “Foreword”. In Midal, Alexandra, Design by Accident: For a New History of Design. Berlin: Sternberg Press.↩︎
  4. Benjamin, Ruha. 2019. Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code. Medford, MA: Polity.↩︎
  5. Rodgers, Paul A., and Craig Bremner. 2018. “The Design of Nothing: A Working Philosophy.” In Advancements in the Philosophy of Design, edited by Pieter E. Vermaas and Stéphane Vial, 549–64. Design Research Foundations. Cham: Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-73302-9_25.↩︎
  6. Susan Stewart puts it in more systematic terms: “the excision of history from design thinking isolates the understanding that informs the design act from any understanding of the temporal trajectories in which it participates.” Stewart, Susan, and Susan Stewart. 2020. “And So to Another Setting….” In Design and the Question of History, edited by Tony Fry, Clive Dilnot and Susan Stewart, 275–301. https://doi.org/10.5040/9781474245890.↩︎
  7. Manzini, Ezio. 2015. Design, When Everybody Designs: An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation. Translated by Rachel Coad. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.↩︎
  8. If we are to consider “progressive” policy making as a form of design, we recognize a similar impetus for erasure, even in more explicit terms: “There is a sense in which rapid economic progress is impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of caste, creed, and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated.” United Nations, Department of Social and Economic Affairs. 1951. “Measures for the Economic Development of Under-Developed Countries.” http://digitallibrary.un.org/record/708544.↩︎
  9. The field of creative coding provides a good example of non-flattening design. Processing, one of the main programming languages deliberately conceived with artists and designers in mind, is part of a rich history of experiences where design bridges diverse fields of knowledge. Emerging from the MIT “lab” culture, in which Muriel Cooper, a graphic designer, had a leading role, Processing gave rise to a broad community of makers and thinkers who go beyond the drive towards efficiency of much computation culture. See Levin, Golan, and Tega Brain. 2021. Code As Creative Medium: A Handbook for Computational Art and Design. Cambridge, MA: The Mit Press.↩︎
 

Design Panism: A Timeline

1962

“Every human being is a designer. Many also earn their living by design – in every field that warrants pause, and careful consideration, between the conceiving of an action and a fashioning of the means to carry it out, and an estimation of its effects.” – Norman Potter

“Everyone is a designer, says Author Grillo in What is Design? Design is not the product of an intelligentsia.” – The Architectural Forum

1971

“All men are designers. All that we do, almost all the time, is design, for design is basic to all human activity.” – Victor Papanek

“Many books on industrial design suggest that design began when man began making tools. While the difference between Australopithecus africanus and the modern designer may not be as great as one might think or hope, the idea of equating man the toolmaker with the start of the profession is just an attempt to gain status for the profession by evoking a specious historical precedent. ‘In the beginning was Design,’ obviously, but not industrial design.” – Victor Papanek

1994

“Contra the widely promoted belief that design is something all human beings do and have done throughout history, but now must do more consciously and thoroughly than ever before, design is something that has had a history. Its beginnings can be traced to the rise of modernity, and it will almost certainly come to an end with the modern project. Indeed, we have an obligation not so much to promote designing as to learn to live without it, to resist its seductions, and to turn away from its pervasive and corrupting influence.” – Ivan Illich & Carl Mitcham

“We are all designers. Designing is integral to every intentional action we take.” – Tony Fry

1996

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.” – Herbert Simon

1999

“There is a risk of falling into the trap of vague generalizations like ‘everything is design.’ Not everything is design, and not everyone is a designer […] Every one can become a designer in his special field, but the field that is the object of design activity always has to be identified […] The inherent components of design are not solely concerned with material products, they also cover services. Design is a basic activity whose capillary ramifications penetrate every human activity. No occupation or profession can claim a monopoly on it.” – Guy Bonsiepe

2000

“Everyone is a designer!” – Mieke Gerritzen and Geert Lovink

2003

“We are all designers. We manipulate the environment, the better to serve our needs. We select what items to own, which to have around us. We build, buy, arrange, and restructure: all this is a form of design.” – Don Norman

2004

“Design has emerged as one of the world’s most powerful forces. I has placed us at the beginning of a new, unprecedented period of human possibility, where all economies and ecologies are becoming global, relational, and interconnected.” – Bruce Mau, 2004

2007

“That design is not only an activity that trendy metropolitan design ‘creatives’ engage in: it’s a universal human life skill, a way of ordering, interpreting and enhancing our artefacts, images and surroundings, in which all of us should have a stake.” – Rick Poynor

2009

“Over the course of their century-long history of creative problem solving, designers have acquired a set of tools to help them move through what I have called the “three spaces of innovation”: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. My argument is that these skills now need to be dispersed throughout organizations. In particular, design thinking needs to move “upstream,” closer to the executive suites where strategic decisions are made. Design is now too important to be left to designers.” – Tim Brown

2010

“Looking back at the first edition of Everyone Is a Designer in 2000, when we proposed the idea of democratization of design, a decade later this programmatic statement has become reality.” – Mieke Gerritzen and Geert Lovink

2015

“We are a designing species” – Victor Margolin

“In a world in rapid and profound transformation, we are all designers. Here, ‘all’ obviously includes all of us, individuals but also organizations, businesses, public entities, voluntary associations, and cities, regions, and states. In short, the ‘all’ we are talking about includes every subject, whether individual or collective, who in a world in transformation must determine their own identity and their own life project.” – Ezio Manzini

2016

“Design has gone viral. The word design is everywhere. It pops up in every situation. It knows no limit.” – Beatriz Colomina and Mark Wigley

2018

“[…] design is literally everywhere; from the largest structures to the humblest aspects of everyday life, modern lives are thoroughly designed lives.” – Arturo Escobar

2019

“If one needs to ‘subvert’ design, this implies that a dominant framework of design reigns–and I think one of the reasons why it reigns is that it has managed to fold any and everything under its agile wings.” – Ruha Benjamin

2021

“Luckily, design is something anyone in any discipline already knows how to do.” – Keller Easterling

 

 

The User Condition is out!

I’m glad to announce that I’ve just published The User Condition, a micro-interactive essay on computer agency and behavior. The essay concludes the blog post series on this subject.

 

No Problem: Design School as Promise

 

GRAPHIC DESIGN IS SHIT CODING IS SHIT ALL I WANT IS REVENGE 

– Sticker found in Berlin

The Promise

A promise is something that is put forward. It involves intent and expectation. It is a performative speech act: an utterance that, hopefully, does what it says. A promise is fulfilled when an intended future, now become past, finally aligns with the present. That’s when the speech act meets its condition of felicity.

What kind of promise (from now on simply “the Promise”) does design education involve? Does that relate to the present of education or to the future of work? What are the forces that shape it? How is it fulfilled and by whom? Who has the authority to sanction its fulfillment? Let us consider educational promises in general. First, they are not unilateral but reciprocal. It is not just the promisor, namely the school organization, in cooperation with or in opposition to the market and society, that is supposed to fulfill it (“We’ll give you knowledge, skills and a space to develop them”), but the individual promisee as well, the student, as they guarantee effort and participation (“I’ll make it worthwhile”).

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