Against Complexity

[Transcript of my intervention during Domus Academy’s roundtable, entitled “Design for Complexity: Plural Perspectives on Systems Ambiguity” with Allison Rowe, Georgina Voss and Matt Webb. The roundtable took place on the 18th of April, 2024.]

Bucky’s Nightmare by Mathieu Lehanneur.

Hi, today I would like to speak against complexity, extending some of the arguments I developed in my latest book, entitled What Design Can’t Do.

Our world is complex, right? So, how can one speak against something that just is? Let’s start from a very tangible image of complexity (specifically, disorganized complexity) by Warren Weaver, a pioneer of communication theory: “a large billiard table with millions of balls rolling over its surface, colliding with one another and with the side rails.” This is the level of multiplicity we speak about when we speak about complexity (as real-life examples, Weaver mentions a large telephone exchange network and a life insurance company).

Now, I find the image of the billiard table beautiful and straightforward, but also pretty much unusable, unless you are a physicist or a mathematician. Very few people work at that level of intricacy, and surely not most designers. Hence, my skepticism toward the idea of complexity as it is currently used in design.

I only became interested in it when I started noticing that, not complexity, but the very talk of complexity was becoming, in the design field, a cultural practice in its own right. As Guy Julier puts it, “it has become an orthodoxy to talk of the growing complexity of design in our ‘complex world’”.

Furthermore, the idea that the complexity is growing in our society is actually untenable. In his viral (and bacterial) “Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis” article, Lee Vinsel asks: “What does this claim even mean? Complex in what way? Increasingly complex with respect to what metric? I have asked many professional historians this question, and they believe this increasing complexity claim is unsupportable.”

Theodor Adorno would have agreed, as he once stated that “society, wrongly scolded for its complexity, has in fact become too transparent”.

How many times per day do you think about the Roman Empire? Today, it will be at least one. To show that the world has always been shaped by distant, “nonlinear” and obscurely related factors, I will mention a couple of interesting theories about the fall of the Roman Empire. According to one of them, the fall wasn’t due to short-sighted politics or war, but to the lead present in the cups that the members of the Roman elite used to drink, a substance that slowly poisoned them. Marshall McLuhan, on the other hand, suggested that the real cause of the fall was a shortage of papyrus, which prevented effective communication on such a vast territory.

If complexity (in a broad sense) is not a new phenomenon, and complexity (in a narrow sense) is practically useless, why is it so present in conversations and articles? This means that it has to play another function. To understand this function we need to think of how disciplines, and in particular the design discipline, work.

Disciplines are arbitrary compartments of knowledge: they strategically define their boundaries in order to demarcate some particular problems and solve them, or at least address them. Sociology, for example, was born in the early 19th century to address the problem (and, therefore, problems) of society. However, disciplines won’t meekly confine themselves within their artificial boundary; rather, their internal discourse will push the border, extending it. This tendency is especially evident in the design field, where you often hear that “everything is design”.

Besides the physiological swelling of the disciplines, we witness a phenomenon which is historically specific. Martin Oppenheimer (quoted by philosopher Donald Schön) called it a “proletarianization of the professions”. When everyone can call themselves a professional, the reputational and financial returns of being one shrink. Furthermore, there is a tangible distrust toward the figure of the expert. Just think of the field of economy or virology…

So, what do professionals do to regain prestige? They accelerate the expansion of the disciplinary confines, creating connections in an almost conspiratorial, apophenic mode. Carlo Bramanti, who is currently working on the notion of “conspiratorial design”, points out not only the visual but also the conceptual similarities between diagrams made by legitimized design figures like Victor Papanek and paranoid-style infographics about “Covid 5G” by an obscure graphic artist named Dylan Louis Monroe. What do they have a in common? They want to produce and project a sense of control on the messiness of the world (Richard Hofstadter: “the paranoid mentality is far more coherent than the real world, since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities”). How do they do so? By means of hypertrophy: by adding always more relations to their system, which becomes a totalizing one: it becomes the system.

This is why complexity is ultimately a reassuring category. Reassuring to whom? To the professionals, who are there to explain and clarify it, to seal it with “the authoritative stain of scientific enquiry”, as Georgina Voss puts it. And there is a further paradox. Do you remember the Game of Thrones “It’s not that simple” meme? Well, to reassure themselves, experts will have an incentive to expand their system of reference, and therefore create more links and relationships. This leads to the ever-increasingly intricate diagrams, to what Voss calls “the airport-bookshop model of systems thinking which tends to involve a lot of graphs and urges to ‘shift your mindset’”. But by adding links and relationships one doesn’t necessarily reach galaxy brain level. More likely they will just generate more confusion, more noise, more chaos.

Chaos is a mysterious concept, but also one that doesn’t require any specific expertise – everyone knows what a chaotic room is. Chaos is the professional-disciplinary repressed that returns. We hardly find the word ‘chaos’ in design article and papers, because chaos is truly scary: it resists organization, it escapes any idea of controllable totality, it leaves us with undecipherable fragments. Whereas complexity reassures us, chaos forces us to confronts our own powerlessness.

Shall we then just surrender to it? Not necessarily. As we have seen, complexity as a cultural practice is about totality: the world is complex, society is complex, etc. However, philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis points out that the idea of a totality that can be encompassed by the intellect is nothing but a phantom of speculative philosophy. What’s more: we do not actually need it in order to act in the world. Praxis, our acting in the world, is not a plan (closed and exact) but a project (open but not aimless): “every movement is a movement toward”. And yet, there is something real and concrete about totality. Who, among us, has never felt like the whole world is working against them? This is why, the material upon which praxis acts “does not give itself as totality, [but] it is as totality that evades us.”

Praxis is an ongoing negotiation between a general programmatic vision and a partial set of interventions on an “open, self-making unity”. While keeping track of its general ‘mission’, praxis recognizes that it belongs to a given space and time. Seeing its own specific point of view as a feature instead of a bug brings it close to what feminist scholarship calls “situated epistemology”. Ultimately, praxis means that we exist within the billiard table, not outside of it. And as ivory balls we must roll, hoping not to end up in a pocket too soon.


Midjourney as a Starbucks Barista

Working with Midjourney is like running into an overly proactive Starbucks barista. “I’d like a coffee.” And they bring you a Caramel Macchiato. “But I didn’t want caramel.” So they bring you an Espresso Macchiato. “I’m lactose intolerant.” A little impatient, they bring you a Coffee Americano. “But there’s too much coffee here.” Now visibly annoyed, they bring you a Sugar Cookie Almondmilk Latte. “Who asked you that?!” “That’ll be $14.99” and they go on misspelling your name on the cup.


OUT NOW: What Design Can’t Do

My new book What Design Can’t Do: Essays on Design and Disillusion, with Federico Antonini’s melancholic design, is finally out.

Get it from Set Margins’ website and soon from many great bookshops.

Thanks to all of you who pre-ordered it. It means a lot, and not just symbolically. Hang in there, your copy is on its way.

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Appunti sparsi a proposito di immagini e intelligenza artificiale

Immagine non generata con l’IA bensì con il buon vecchio Content Aware Fill di Photoshop.

Le immagini generate con l’ausilio dell’intelligenza artificiale sono doppiamente retrospettive. In primo luogo in senso tecnico, in quanto costituite a partire da un dataset preesistente. In certa misura ciò vale per qualsiasi immagine, tuttavia i dataset sono caratterizzati da una soglia precisa: i materiali raccolti, ad esempio, si possono fermare al 2021. In secondo luogo, queste immagini sintetiche sono retrospettive in senso culturale: osservandole si ha già il presentimento che il trend visivo di oggi sarà obsoleto dopo il weekend. Da ciò derivano tutti i tentativi di collegare, serializzare, commentare, catalogare, musealizzare… insomma giustificare tali immagini. Tramite una canonizzazione fai-da-te si cerca di salvarle dall’abisso imminente.

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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:

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 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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