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.↩︎
  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.↩︎
  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.”↩︎
  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


“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


“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


“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


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


“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


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


“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


“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


“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


“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


“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


“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


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


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


“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


“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



– 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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1h call = 2h work

These last few days, inspired by Geert Lovink’s upcoming essay on Zoom Fatigue, I’ve been thinking a lot about videoconferencing and telework. And then today I was asked to borrow a non-Linux machine to participate in a live talk because Teams’ “Live” function is not supported by the Linux version of the software. Lock-ins ahead. Luckily, the other speaker is also a Linux user so we didn’t have to feel weirdos… Anyway, everybody seems to agree: videoconferencing is exhausting. But how can one turn exhaustion into a political demand? My proposal is to consider videoconference work (Zoom, Teams, Skype) from the prism of recovery time, namely, the time needed to regain mental and bodily energies. My empirical assumption is that videoconference work (Zoom, Teams, Skype) requires twice as much of recovery time as the same activity performed in a physical setting or as regular, async digital communication (email, chat, etc.). And what is recovery time if not just another name for work? If that is the case, one can formulate a concise slogan reminiscent of the “8 hours labor, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest” one. Here’s some versions of it:

1h call = 2h work




Not sure which one works best. I tend to like the one with work because it logically leads to a reduction of working hours. But then I’m also a fan of the exploding head. I also realize that the one with the hammer and wrench, if taken literally, brings in the complexities of physical vs mental labor… So I leave the choice to you, dear asynchronous reader.


NPC.CAFE, Texts on Videogames

Gui Machiavelli and I didn’t really know where to publish our weird takes on videogames so we came up with our own text repository. It’s called because non-player characters are our friends. When I say ‘text’, I mean it: no images whatsoever, except for a bunch of emojis. It’s either read or play.

The text on Angry Birds vs Flappy Bird is quite connected to The User Condition’s posts, so if you’re into that, make sure to check it out!


The User Condition 06: How to Name Our Computer Monoculture?

A general question, to start with:

What are today’s socio-technical conditions embedded in hardware and software that shape a computer user?

There are various issues that make such question too broad. The first has to with the word computer: a Roomba, a Raspberry Pi and the laptop I’m using right now are all computers. In this respect, I tried to refine the question by offloading the problem to Google Images. According to it, the computer user is one who uses either a laptop or a desktop. I think such framing is reductive as it excludes the computer device that is most used nowadays: the mobile phone. So, the computer I’m talking about is an explicitly pseudo-general purpose device (pseudo- ’cause smartphones often need jailbreaking) which can be on one’s desk, lap or pocket. Problem solved.

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The User Condition 05: On Movement and Relocation

In a previous post I stated that one of the features of interface industrialization (and therefore of user proletarianization) is “movement without relocation”. Here I’d like to characterize a bit better what I mean this two terms, especially the latter, and how they apply to computer software.

Automated Depletion Strategy by Josh Katzenmeyer

I guess it’s unavoidable to mention the very word cybernetics, coined by Norbert Wiener in 1948, which comes from the Greek kybernḗtēs, standing for the “helmperson” of a ship. The helmperson drives or better governs the vehicle. Here, the emphasis is more on movement and trajectory than relocation. We can imagine this ship traversing a boundless sea with no island and still have a sense of this activity of governing.

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The User Condition 04: A Mobile First World

Nowadays, computers can be found inside cars, fridges and watches. So, what do we envision when we think of a computer user? Google Images will provide you mostly with images of people sitting in front of a laptop or desktop computer, somehow confirming the concern that the computer, in the very moment when it becomes truly pervasive, disappears not only from sight, but also from the imagination. Here, I want to briefly argue why the most productive conception of a computer user today is that of a smartphone user.

“Computer user” search on Google Images.

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Intervista di Alessandro De Vecchi: design come adolescenza, deprofessionalizzazione, artigianalità digitale

Alessandro De Vecchi studia design al Politecnico di Milano. Per la sua tesi mi ha posto alcune domande sulla questione professionale, i progetti self-initiated, l’automazione, Instagram e il rischio imprenditoriale.

ADV: La tua formazione nel graphic design guida gran parte del tuo lavoro di ricerca, in quanto settore emblematico nell’industria creativa quando si parla di imprendicariato. In un saggio del 2017 sottolinei come parlare di graphic design come linguaggio ne farebbe emergere la componente ideologica, invece di parlarne in termini soluzionisti, come spesso invece viene fatto. Inoltre, sottolinei come la strada politica possa essere una strada per riaffermare il ruolo intellettuale del designer. Nell’ottica di innescare questa riaffermazione del ruolo intellettuale, credi che la strada politica sia l’unica strada? Ci sono collegamenti con il tema del linguaggio, dato che lo colleghi al tema dell’ideologia?

SL: Innanzitutto andrebbe discusso il valore di un eventuale affermazione o riaffermazione del designer come intellettuale. A distanza di alcuni anni dalla pubblicazione di quel saggio mi rendo conto che l’intellettualizzazione stessa sta al cuore del problema. Con essa intendo la produzione di un’immagine del designer quale detentore di una certa influenza culturale. Non esiste il designer; esistono i designer. Tra di essi i designer-intellettuali sono pochi. Tutti gli altri sono quasi del tutto ininfluenti a livello di discorso pubblico. Ed è proprio qui che si innesta il discorso politico. La politica che auspico è una micropolitica del lavoro, focalizzata su istanze specifiche come il reddito, il tempo di lavoro, la questione abitativa. Ciò è l’esatto opposto dei tentativi perlopiù fallimentari di lobbying professionale, come il tema dell’educazione del pubblico alla cultura progettuale. Per fare politica i designer si devono spogliare della propria veste professionale e disciplinare. Devono porsi non come progettisti ma come lavoratori della conoscenza. Devono allearsi e riconoscersi con mondi a loro estranei piuttosto che cercare di distinguersi da essi.

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