[Excerpts published in Who Can Afford to Be Critical?, Afonso de Matos (ed.), Set Margins’, Eindhoven, 2022.]
GRAPHIC DESIGN IS SHIT CODING IS SHIT ALL I WANT IS REVENGE
– Sticker found in Berlin
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”).
Things get easily complicated because the Promise is not unambiguously formulated—there is no clear contract—and yet it looms over the promisee, functioning both as encouragement and threat. It can be rooted in notions like success, career, self-realization, ambition, autonomy… But, it can also aim at redefining them. It is affected by geography, class, race and gender. It comes in multiple shapes and forms and yet it can be understood as a whole. Does the Promise resemble a vow, an oath, a resolution, a mission? Is it as nebulous and frail as the American dream? In the design field things get even more complicated, as the field itself is in perennial reconfiguration: it experiences a constant identity crisis, some might say, fueling the personal identity crisis of practitioners.
To focus on the Promise means bridging preexisting societal conditions—such as employability, welfare, housing availability, discrimination, mobility, privilege—with socialized professional and personal aspirations—lifestyle, institutional roles, legacies of crafts, research trends, urgent matters, subcultures, notions of virtuosity… In other words, the Promise is built on some premises, at once materialistic and idealistic. When there is no full alignment between a promise and its premises, the promisee feels like they are compromising. From this a question arises: who is defaulting when the Promise is not fulfilled? And what can be claimed as compensation?
Recognizing the Promise means foregrounding intimate confessions, atmospheric peer pressures, individual anguishes, tacit dissatisfactions, concrete limitations, but also creating hacks, finding new paths, imagining different ways of living and working. It means reflecting on the design field’s linguistic tics and automatisms (such as working “at the intersection of”) in order to forge new vocabularies and approaches. It means designing new alignments of personal goals, collective aspirations and societal conditions.
The first chapter of C. Wright Mills’ 1959 book The Sociological Imagination is entitled “The Promise”. This chapter is not, as I suspected, about generic expectations, such as having a house, finding a job or building a career. What Mills talks about is “the promise of social science”, ensured by a fundamental skill that the social scientist should muster.
Such skill is the sociological imagination. It is about connecting the personal and the societal, what Mills calls “the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.” It consists in understanding personal troubles in the light of structural issues. A problem, for Mills, is an adequate formulation of these two scales. Here’s how he discusses it:
The sociological imagination enables its possessor to understand the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning for the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals. It enables him to take into account how individuals, in the welter of their daily experience, often become falsely conscious of their social positions. Within that welter, the framework of modern society is sought, and within that framework the psychologies of a variety of men and women are formulated. By such means the personal uneasiness of individuals is focused upon explicit troubles and the indifference of publics is transformed into involvement with public issues. The first fruit of this imagination—and the first lesson of the social science that embodies it—is the idea that the individual can understand his own experience and gauge his own fate only by locating himself within his period, that he can know his own chances in life only by becoming aware of those of all individuals in his circumstances. In many ways it is a terrible lesson; in many ways a magnificent one.
As we see, situatedness is crucial to the understanding of how certain values might be cherished or threatened and how we react to such encouragements or threats. Mills provides a spectrum of reactions: well-being, indifference, anxiety and panic. These collective reactions are what he calls trends. What we are attempting here, keeping in mind Mills’ terribly magnificent lesson, is to reflexively turn the lens of sociological imagination to the milieu of (graphic) design, by looking at the implicit promises of design education. For a start, we can simply paraphrase some of Mills’ questions:
What varieties of [practitioners] now prevail in this field and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted?
To be sure, the design field is vast and diverse, and so are design schools. What I want to focus on here is the kind of design school that isn’t uncomfortable with being associated with art: by indicating the fruitful relationships between the fields and their historical entanglement (think of the tradition of applied arts), I am interested more in the design schools that belong to the art academy than in those that are associated with architectural and engineering departments. This doesn’t fully solve our framing problem, though. So, my strategy will be to consider not a singular institution, and not even a series of them. Instead, I will focus on the School. The School is an “ideal type”, a useful fiction that, for the sake of the argument, combines, isolates (and maybe exaggerates) traits of the actual institutions I observed by means of direct involvement or distant scrutiny. Whereas the Promise is real, although vague, the School is unreal and yet derived from actual cases.
These cases, which are mostly concentrated in the urban nerve centers of the Netherlands (as well as being linked with the UK and the United States) are definitely a minority and don’t represent design education at large. However, they perceive themselves, and are often perceived, as a sort of avant-garde. Embodying newness, the School suggests directions to other organizations, both educational and professional. The School, supported by a generous system of public funds, can legitimately consider itself a site of reflection, cultural production and renovation. Admittedly, its novel culture is not passively accepted by the field at large, instead it is often confuted, adversed, or simply ignored. And yet, this culture influences the field. Whereas the School has the means to make a cultural idea visible to the field, it is not hegemonic and doesn’t want to be, at least ostensibly. The School doesn’t say “design should be this or that”, but it presents itself as the locus of doubt and experimentation. Certain ideas grown within the School will leak out in the field at large, through the practices of its alumni, through final shows, through textual production and debates later hopefully cemented into design history. But also through the mockery, skepticism and disdain of its detractors. In a 2011 essay, Rob Giampietro pointed out that the culture of design was becoming increasingly like the schools’ culture. The School is the laboratory where this very equivalence is produced. So, reverting the postulate, talking of the School means talking of the culture of design.
In the same essay, Giampietro wonders how the attitude of designers is formed. This question was triggered by something that he noticed in the context of design schools: an emphasis on biography and a heightened sense of self-awareness. The author points out that this biographical focus is not the result of a narcissistic leniency but it can be interpreted as one of the main burdens of the modern subject. As sociologist Ulrich Beck maintained, “people are condemned to individualization”.
Being proudly international, the School values and encourages biographical expression as an interface to cultural difference, a badge of honor given its multicultural ethos. However, the risk is that a biography perceived as uncommon—in geographical, class or bodily terms—is exoticized and therefore “othered”. Here, the unfamiliar biography is made valuable (“one’s roots”) not for its intrinsic value as the story of a life, but because of its scarcity. A work that mobilizes an unfamiliar life story is framed as a cultural statement while one that is rooted in a relatively usual biography might be deemed mere egotistic indulgence. Not everyone’s “becoming who they are” is validated in the same way. In both cases, the School is in trouble because it struggles to discern the biographical from the personal, what it relates to one’s place in society from what is a feature of individual character, what is debatable from what should be unquestionable.
A keyword that points to such tensions is position. The most frequent question one hears in the School is “how do you position yourself?” The question is of course of a maieutic kind: it is meant to help students situate themselves in the issue they are investigating or, more rarely, in the problem they’re trying to solve (more on that later). The question works as an injunction because it forces the student to produce, or at least reflect on, a self-image. The position can be the one of designer as mediator, as problem-solver, as activist, etc. Or more broadly, for instance, as male, as Western, as able-bodied. Positional complexities are now at the heart of the field’s identity crisis. As the School as a whole rarely has the conceptual tools to address them, this identity crisis (that has always characterized the field and now just feels more apparent) is shared with, if not offloaded to, the student-practitioner.
What’s the School’s responsibility here? Will it still be able to reproduce itself as a progressive institution? How can it facilitate the generative crisis of the field without turning it into the identity crisis of individual students? Positional maieutics is a valid and useful means, but the dilemmas and wicked problems that it engenders should not be merely outsourced to individual students. Furthermore, the School should use those dilemmas neither as formal nor informal evaluation criteria, such as a grade or the conferral of trust.
The very fact that one can reflect and partly shape their position indicates that the Promise is one of autonomy and self-discovery. However, this process is rarely tied to material constraints. When urging students to become who they are, the School developed only a partial alertness and sensitivity: it is rarely concerned with class, census or wealth. Talk on professional exploitation and self-exploitation, increasingly high fees, little pay, unemployment, unfair working conditions, uneven funding possibilities, expiring visas, etc… in one word, precarity, is still infrequent. As it is infrequent to point the finger at the most obvious power disbalance within educational institutions: on the one hand, the powerful managerial class (the stable organogram) and on the other, the fragile teaching staff, whose members are occasional and redundant. Instead, successful stories imbued with survivorship bias are foregrounded.
To avoid misunderstandings, let me say this loud and clear: all the dimensions of inequality are equally important. Not just important, they’re real and inextricably linked. A School that is explicity anti-racist and non-patriarchal is also, by default, against precarity. If that thing we call progress actually exists, this is where we see it.
An emphasis on precarity is much needed as it counterbalances the myth of life and career self-determination that can be fuelled by a simplistic idea of autonomy and self-direction. An emphasis on inequality would foreground what is statistically hard to achieve and what aspects of practice are strictly dependent on local possibilities. In other words, to what extent society determines biography.
I suspect that a miopia towards professional limitations results from design and designers’ protagonism (more rarely, from a solid and remunerative career). What matters is the mark that the designer leaves on the world, not the scar that the world leaves on the designer. Professional disadvantage might sound gloomy, depressing, almost a petty subject. A workshop on precarity? Not fun. Surely, the School doesn’t want to sadden its students. And yet, workshops on entrepreneurship abound. Is there a way to lead their interest to these topics without curbing their enthusiasm? This is the dilemma that the School, usually proud of its criticality, must address if it wants to be considered fully critical.
The promise of autonomy implies the principle of self-direction: within the School, the student is given a space and time to direct their own work. A practice is the outcome of self-direction. What do we mean by that? “Practice” is a term used mainly in the arts to define an artist’s poetics. It involves the artist’s concerns, their method, their medium and even their theoretical and ethical ground. Through the decades, design has been considered a style, a craft, a method, and later a thinking approach. Now, with the notion of practice, we observe an extension of the meta-understanding of the designer’s activity. What does this shift mean? Borrowing from programming, one could say that each “constant” of the discipline (methods, techniques, media and products, literacy, topics, ethical issues) is turned into a variable. Unavoidably, a degree of specificity is lost as the student is encouraged to tweak all these variables. But if none of these is shared among peers, how can we call this a field? Again, the liberating potential of tweaking the very terms of one’s work might also lead to isolation and individualization. The School, partially aware of this, compensates the atomizing drive with participatory and collaborative modes of interaction.
I can’t refrain from wondering whether the practice model—with its consonance to the profoundly isolating subject formation of the art world, which rarely offers more than a faint sense of belonging—is a weak form of professional, and therefore social, reproduction. Maybe, the traditional medium-based or problem-based orientation was stronger for the simple fact that it shared at least some fixed variables. The point, however, is not to choose one model over the other, but to raise a specific concern: what effects does the “practice of practices” have on identification? Is the School partially responsible for the disintegrating sense of belonging and tangible social isolation that many practitioners, often self-defined as “outsiders”, feel? By offering an abstract promise of autonomy, is the School uncritically abdicating its role to nurture the field?
Variable manipulation is so radical that one variable might take the place of the other. As Giampietro pointed out, in certain design contexts “research […] is not only an analytic method but also a cultural product unto itself”. The School presents research as the very artifact that is offered to the public. However, it rarely clarifies what research actually means, who this public is and how it is going to consume such research. The specter of self-referentiality manifests: will this research be read and seen by designers only? The emancipating image of a practice “without reliance on commissions” and with no problem to solve might look like a shout into the void, as the lack of commission might coincide with the absence of an audience. The sites in which research as a cultural product is consumed are mostly educational in ambition: the gallery, the museum, the school itself. It seems that the School is trapped in its own pedagogical afflatus, and extends the student paradigm to the public as a whole, a public that is often indifferent. Instead of the socially-oriented “double commission” (the client and the public), we end up with “zero commission”: no public and no client.
Traditionally, problem solving has been a defining aspect of the design field. The designer used to solve problems, both big and small. Perhaps pushed by the tedium and frustrations of client-based work and the scarcity of grand-scale problem-solving positions available, various currents have challenged this approach. As a consequence the School has developed an allergy for that word: problem-solving feels petty and naive, undignified. Designers are meant not to solve but to frame problems, to be, in other words, cultural agitators, people who raise awareness, influencers. Design’s main category once was “the problem to solve”, now it’s “the problematic issue to address”. Is this an attempt to question the way in which problems are constructed by the larger system or is it a form of disciplinary surrender?
Take Victor Papanek’s complex diagrams of interrelations for an “integrated design team”: one feels dizzy just by looking at them. The reason why these diagrams feel overwhelming is that they ask for a configuration that hardly exists. Papanek provocatorely asserted that the minimal design team would include social and behavioral sciences, maths, biology, maybe even computer science (and also, commendably, the final users of the design). Outside of corporations and big studios, such a design team is mostly utopian. But the School, despite training designers who will frequently develop small-scale practices, operates according to this pseudo-fiction. As a result, the student is forced to become their own minimal design team, timidly approaching all the disciplines involved. Since getting in touch with an expert is apparently effortless (“just drop her an email”), interviews and surveys (when and if the expert replies) become the interface with other areas of knowledge. Even before having a job, the student becomes “hyperemployed”.
The notion of scale is key. Papanek’s not-so-minimal team is mainly economically viable when it comes to big-scale products and services, but the School’s non-commercial autonomous practitioners rarely deal with them. Here’s a depressing truth: for all the talk about design’s role in society, the big-scale impact on the world left by designers as a demographic cohort lies less in the design work they do than in the consumer choices they make. The laptop they buy counts more than the poster they design with it.
Let’s now consider another Papanek’s diagram, which states that the designer’s share of a certain problem is rather small. In the interplay of these two diagrams lies the cognitive dissonance present in the School: the student is encouraged to explore the whole pyramid while being aware that they will mostly be confined to its tip or, more realistically, to its basis. The scope may feel exciting and liberating at first but also turn tiring and disorienting.
Here, a necessary distinction must be made between an educational context and the outside world. The School offers a safe space for systemic thinking, an invaluable exercise from which the student undoubtedly benefits. But there is also a more worrisome consequence. It takes the shape of an anti-solutionist nihilism: problems are too big, multilayered and wicked to even attempt to solve them, what we can offer is interpretation by means of critique, Frankfurt School-style. A critique that—it is painful for me to say this—is sometimes mired in conformism and superficiality. A critique that seems to take a morbid pleasure in portraying its object. A critique that, as said before, rarely reaches a public larger than the designer’s crowd. We should ask ourselves: what degree of agency do these modes of inquiry provide? Where are they supposed to land? Are there environments which are receptive to such approaches? If so, how can we nurture them? And are we able to identify locally-bound situated problems that speak to larger systemic issues?
The modernist tradition of design was tied to a god-view perspective. The designer would observe the world from above. Now, the grand metascale of the problems tackled by the School perversely renews such perspective, but the sight couldn’t be more different. Modernist universal values turn into the School’s “reductio ad absolutum”: designers are now urged to engage directly with the megamachine, the hyperobject, the Stack… with Capital itself. This novel synoptic view resists synopsis: it doesn’t show, like in the past, the illusion of an orderly terrain, but a stormy sky heaving on a frightened practitioner. This scenario might have contributed to the emergence of the counter-currents of design intimism (“the world is scary: I focus on myself”) and even design revanchism, the latter mostly performed on Twitter (“design is useless: I want revenge”).
The stormy sky is not just theoretical dramatization. Reality is indeed complex and multifaceted. In one word, scary. The School shouldn’t deny this but it must be able to provide guidance. It should attempt to bridge the scales, showing how the macro is in the micro. It should resist the grandiose General Theory, but also prevent a defeating relativism. The role of the School is to make big things approachable and small-scale gestures valued.
“‘In the beginning was Design’, obviously, but not industrial design.” wrote Papanek. Designers argue that everything can be design, only then to reclaim their monopoly on it. Through the decades, this generalization took another form: design became understood as a sort of glue between disciplines, a bit like cybernetics. As a result, designers started to see themselves as mediators facilitators interpreters… What about the vocabularies needed to fulfill such roles? I don’t even bother, the list would be too long and controversial. What I want to point out here is a double movement: on the one hand, designers try to become polyglots to communicate with various experts; on the other, they relinquish an intimate relationship with specific crafts. This is not just the outcome of the field’s volition but also an aftereffect of the digital banalization of competences, e.g. typographic knowledge being crystallized in software.
Deskilling, which is another name for superficial overskilling (knowing a little bit of everything), goes hand in hand with softskilling. The designer is not anymore an expert of craft, process and method, but an expert of mediation, articulation and framing. Their environment is the meeting room and the conference panel more than the laboratory or the studio. Their main medium: the slide deck or the video essay. Here, we find a parallel with the tertiarization of work where soft skills, both social and managerial, are trumping the hard skills of craft and making (in this respect, the overuse of the term “empathy” in service design comes to mind). At best, this can be seen as an intellectually rich interdisciplinary frontier; at worst, this might appear as a cerebral post-medium, post-craft territory. All of this takes place with the backdrop of a more general crisis of competence: experts aren’t trusted anymore. Papanek called for an anti-specialized design education. In his view, the problem was “too much design” in the curricula. Four decades later, the School has indeed become a school of generalists, but I’m afraid he would consider much of what is produced there “‘self-indulgent’ anti-design”.
Within this epochal change, the School rightly encourages the student to exercise care and considerateness, as well as to organize and facilitate the work and the hard skills of others, to become a sort of impresario who holds a vision. Next to this explicit level of valorization, there is also an implicit one where other soft skills matter: enthusiasm, proactivity, confidence, resilience, flexibility. This begs the question of how much the School is itself considerate toward characters that do not fully adhere to the attitudinal norm it sets.
A student meme reads: “I went to art school and all I got was this fucking attitude”. I find the attitudinal emphasis at the expense of craft a bit disconcerting. I’m afraid that the soft-skill, post-craft ideology of the School might be rooted in entrepreneurship, or even worse, on outsourcing. In fact, it is not infrequent for a student to use online marketplaces like Fiverr.com to complete their project. The general devaluation of skill-specificity is also worrisome because, in a society that cherishes work above all, craft is often one of the few stable forms of identity making: the mastery of a craft goes way beyond a professional title. “A good job well done” can be an island of personal stability within an ocean of impostor syndrome and self-doubt. Furthemore, craft goes against radical, make-believe horizontalism by showing the positive side of hierarchy: a workshop master-apprentice relationship is not in itself an exploitative, abusing one.
Once, a semiotician told me: “design schools train students to become whatever they want, except designers.” Given what can be considered as an expansion (or even a dilution) of the design field, the School can no longer be seen mainly as a site of professional reproduction but rather as a forge of attitude. The School allows the student to materialize their cultural and subcultural interests, their hobbies, their nerdiness. Part of the Promise lies is the opportunity to transform all these identity features into a portfolio of projects. To turn cultural consumption into cultural production, cultural capital into economic capital. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s a development worthy of reflection. Shall we call it the adolescence turn? After all, the design field is kind of young. Adolescence is self-referential by definition: it is more about the self than the world. And anyone who used to wear a RATM shirt during their teenage years, knows that politics is one of the various forms of identity building.
The School actively encourages this form of identification: being “political” is a plus. There is, however, an idea of politics which I find slightly reductive: politics as what the work says more than what it does. The statement, the manifesto, the invective are more positively scrutinized than the inner logic or the social relationality of a work. Politics as a badge rather than a process, with the further risk of turning it into a fetish, a formal requirement, a norm. The design field at large is still imbued with ornamental politics: the radical slogan, the activist posture, the glorious declaration are adopted as decorations of purely autonomous practices, that is, cut off from the murky waters of micro and macro politics. Often—not always—the political is reduced to the equivalent of Che Guevara’s pin on an Invicta backpack.
In 1998 Mister Keedy wrote on the pages of Emigre: “Today’s young designers don’t worry about selling out, or having to work for ‘the man,’ a conceit almost no one can afford anymore. Now everyone wants to be ‘the man.’ What is left of an avant-garde in graphic design isn’t about resistance, cultural critique, or experimenting with meaning. Now the avant-garde only consists of technological mastery: who is using the coolest bit of code or getting the most out of their HTML this week.” In the context of the School, quite the opposite is true: explicit cultural critique comes at the expense of “mastery”, which is deemed as narrow-mindedness. I’m not saying that the School should reject politics and pretend to be neutral, because we know that there is no such thing as political neutrality. What I’m saying is that political orientations shouldn’t become passe-partout. The student should not be pushed to inject politics for politics’ sake into the work. And politics should be understood broadly: a political work, understood as a work with explicit politics, is not superior to a “formal” work, which implicitly enacts its politics.
The School resists formal structures, even conspires against them. Within its environment, a suspension of disbelief towards formality is produced: the School is amnesiac to the very fact that it is indeed a formal institution. Somehow, it has digested decades of self-organized educational initiatives. The School conceives itself as an anti-school, a parallel school, an unlearning and a relearning site. This self-image is part of the allure it emanates and the spirit it projects. Informality doesn’t just come natural but is the product of a proteiform intentionality, corroborated by a broader distrust of bureaucratic structures. But this informal turn goes hand in hand with an inflation of managerialism, which is a type of bureaucracy that is able to mobilize informality. Being put to work, informality becomes the School’s new formalism.
Designer and writer Jacob Lindgren recently published a piece in which he criticizes the rigid structure of current graphic design schools. “We need the common, the occupied, the appropriated, and the lesser governed spaces”, Lindgren writes, quoting “A Letter for the Academy” by Parallel School. This could have well been a statement issued by the School itself. Informality doesn’t like numbers, it prefers words—only certain words actually, and “student” is not among them. Instead of grades, it generates a multiplication of feedback forms and conversations. Despite wanting to be holistic and horizontal, informality does not erase the intrinsic power imbalance between teachers and students (and even more, between teachers and management). New forms of validation, no less messy and abstract and obscure than grades emerge: individualized collaboration opportunities, good words, friendships. Validation becomes interpersonal rather than institutional. Charm acquires prominence. Emotion work becomes at least as important as productive labor. Governing forces feel too human to bear.
Validation also affects the teaching staff, partially fueling the Promise. The School’s teacher (often called “coach” or “mentor”) is generally a practitioner as well: they’re able to make a living out of their practice, or at least so it appears. While teaching, they also substantiate their research. Sometimes, it is the very income derived from teaching that makes their professional persona possible and real. As students logically aspire to build such a professional persona for themselves, the School, like an ouroboros, offers the Promise of itself. To what extent is this form of validation in line with that of the industry and society at large? To avoid that “no grades” turns into “no jobs”, the continuous effort to bridge validation systems, internal and external, implicit and explicit, should be one of the School’s main concerns.
This is not to say that the student is uninfluential or uncritical. It might well be that a generation of students develops a wariness towards the kind of persona that the School encourages. There is a metabolic relationship between the School and the student. The former exerts explicit or implicit power on the latter, while the latter influences and reshapes the former, bringing new conceptual energy to it. If the opaqueness of validation is informality’s negative side, an ease of reconfiguration is its positive side.
To what extent is the School actually attentive to the future? The temporally and geographically distant, and therefore safe, canned futures of speculation are favored over the tedious and mundane present-like pseudo-future of life-after-graduation. Again Papanek: “It is also in the interest of the Establishment to provide science-fiction routes of escape for the young, lest they become aware of the harshness of that which is real.” As this prospect is grim in the most unspectacular way (this is what makes it terrifying), the School recasts the Promise as something oriented to the present: a promise of space and time, protected from the idiotic frenzy of the work grind. In fact, several students arrive at the School after years of professional activity.
Present-orientedness makes sense: if the School is truly a site of cultural production, what it has to offer are mostly the relationships that take place within its shelter. Not cultural production, then, but the production of a culture. Some would call this “prefigurative politics”, a sort of controlled experiment that is meant to be later implemented on a larger societal scale. If this is the case, the issue of individual sustainability should be central. Exiting the sandbox, would the student fall into an abyss?
This is the humble urgency that even students themselves tend to postpone to the last months of education (if they are not preoccupied with things like visas), in favor of more epic and apparently noble urgencies dictated by the agenda of the museum-festival complex. One does not even have to wait for graduation to encounter the unfashionable urgency of circumstances. A proof being the crowdfunding campaigns to afford concluding one’s studies in cities with rocket-high rent and a housing crisis, or even beginning these studies in the first place! A new “design challenge” is getting traction: craft a GoFundMe to sustain your design studies in a fancy cultural hub.
To conclude, let’s to go back to Mills’ paraphrased question:
What varieties of [practitioners] now prevail in this field and in this period? And what varieties are coming to prevail? In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted?
In this text, I tried to problematize a series of developments of design education. I focused on my own niche context, but I suspect students and educators outside of it will recognize some of the issues I dealt with. Among them, the ascendance of a biographical style. I provided various interpretations for it: a way to stabilize oneself within increasing complexity and professional dilution, a problematic interface for cultural diversity, an intimist disengagement from the world, an identity-making process based on the mobilization of a certain cultural or subcultural capital, and finally, a form of self-indulgence.
It is risky for an educational organization to engage with biography, especially in a time when individualism is forced upon individuals. Not every facet of biography should be scrutinized by the School. And the ones that deserve attention, shouldn’t be personalized. To manage this complexity, the School should become able to navigate intimacy, privacy and confidentiality. Most of all, it should avoid flattening a life story into the project-practice surface for evaluation or promotional purposes.
The Promise has to do with the design of the self. Self-design can be umbilical, pathologically self-reflexive, asocial. It can be unsettled by an essence that is not there. It can obsessively measure itself with the ghost of identity. This is its fixed idea. It is not difficult then to understand the desperation of those students who come to school to engage with a system of thought, and instead find themselves placed in front of a mirror. Through self-design, biography relates to the notion of autonomy (shall we then, keeping in mind autofiction, speak of autodesign instead?). But autonomy can mean exile. Self-direction can lead to isolation. The variable-tweaking process that constitutes a design practice might resemble micro-targeting advertising: as specific as to address one person only. It might be that “at the intersection of” (an expression commonly found in designers’ bios) there is no one else other than you. Autonomy can adumbrate precarity and insidiously replicate the much despised design protagonism. In which case, that is not autonomy but wishful thinking. Fauxtonomy, if you will.
Modernist comfort might be gone for good, but postmodern disorientation is here to stay. Complexity looms over us. What are we to make of ourselves? Identity crisis is not just personal: it exists at many scales. The presentiment of mundane futurelessness is concealed by the glamour of Big Dystopia. Tempted by overskilling dilution and mesmerized by the multidisciplinarity frontier, avant-garde design education might be abdicating professional reproduction and solid identity-making. Instead, it might be disseminating existential self-doubt and confusion.
To avoid succumbing to the multilayered identity crises driven by fauxtonomy and futurelessness, it’s time to put self-design aside and rebuild the Field. The Field is the space inhabited by a series of connected communities of practice (where practice is not understood as in contemporary art, namely devoid of an authentic communal sense). The Field doesn’t shy away from problems. Instead, it constantly redefines its own set of issues and concerns: functional problems, ethical problems, problems of method, of access, of inclusion. The Field deals with complexity but doesn’t try to tackle it in its entirety. Through the specialized knowledge it produces and the situated activity it performs, it glances at complexity without being blinded by its frightening god-like appearance.
The Field is a political entity, but not because it regularly issues statements and manifestos (even though it might do that as well). The Field is political because it is busy with its own organizational politics, as well as the politics of the artifacts it designs and circulates. The Field is preoccupied with tangible, lower-case futures. The future rests in its surroundings, but also in the broader effects that interventions on these surroundings have. It is thus embedded in a gradient of scales.
The Field is not a scene: its main motor isn’t visibility. It might even unconsciously limit the exchange with the outside. But if it is too self-referential, that’s not the Field, it’s a club. The main interface with the outside and between its members is a physical space: the Field is aware of the insufficiency of online-only communication.
The Field is not a school: while learning takes place within it, scholastic hierarchies, both implicit and explicit, don’t apply there. This doesn’t mean that it rejects hierarchy completely: its structure is based on the healthy, reconfigurable hierarchies of apprenticeship, amateurship and curiosity.
The Field isn’t a school and the School isn’t the Field, but they benefit from each other (collaborations with local collectives, self-organised spaces, etc). What the School gains from the Field is a sense of specificity and purpose; what the Field gets from the School is financial resources and the possibility to open up to new publics. But the exchange is asymmetrical. The Field is in a less stable position: collectives come and go, and their sustainability is currently put to the test. The occasional workshop fee is not enough to maintain the Field alive. And yet, given its ambitions and limitations, the School is increasingly dependent on a lively Field. Without the energies of a surrounding Field, the School is doomed to become a managerial graveyard.
The Field is informal in nature, but it doesn’t fetishize informality: it resists character normativity and protects its people from hurtful behavior. The Field is attentive to its flows of social, cultural and economic capital: it is generous with quoting, crediting and remunerating; it doesn’t trust impresarios and creative directors; it rejects inner qualitative distinctions: all the work it needs is essential, interdependent work. Validation comes with effort, helpfulness and mutuality, more than with smartness, talent and bravado. The Field is not a guild: it’s not preoccupied with the protection of its trade. The Field believes in expertise, but it doesn’t worship experts.
The Field provides an activity-based sense of belonging and identity: people have roles and purposes, but these can be renegotiated. The Field understands biographical and cultural differences, but foregrounds them only when necessary. Within an instance of the Field, a practitioner can joyfully forget about themselves.
My gratitude goes to Manetta Berends, Sami Hammana, Geert Lovink and Gui Machiavelli for reading drafts of this text and giving precious feedback. I’m also thankful to Varia, which represents in many ways the community of practice I tend to idealize here. This work is the result of countless discussions, disagreements, misunderstanding with students and colleagues. I wish to thank them all. I do this anonymously as I don’t want the School to be understood as a school in particular: it is not. Each school exceeds the School because actual human relationships are ineluctably exceptional and unique.
Also published on Medium.