Design Culture Salons: A Summary

For a profession that deals with objects, images and spaces, there’s a lot of talk in design. Client presentations, team briefings, studio crits, professional practice talks, office chat and so on. These form part of what we understand as ‘design culture’ – the interweaving of things, people, knowledge, resources and the various ways by which these are talked about. Through their constant flux and interaction so design culture shifts its shape, dynamics and points of concern.

The V&A Design Culture Salons provide a forum for discussion as to the role of design in contemporary society, extending everyday ruminations on design into advanced, expert debate and back again. They are organised and chaired by Guy Julier with the support of the University of Brighton, and the Research and Learning Departments of the V&A.

Each salon addresses a specific contemporary question. The 2012-13 season’s points of discussion were as follows. What can museums do with contemporary design? Is ‘making’ back on the agenda?  Design Activism: how does it change things? How does design function in a recession?  How does design produce new publics?

A brief introduction to the topic of the evening by the chair set the polemic for an invited panel of four or five speakers to give their personal responses. Audience participants as part of the wider salon, then entered into the debate, with thoughts, opinions and provocations. Averaging over eighty in numbers, attendance came from academic institutions, as well as those working in public policy and from the architecture and design industries. The liveliness of the discussion was evidence of a highly engaged and well-informed audience.

Although the salons functioned as a forum for public debate in an open and inclusive way, the series also offered an insight into the current texture and tempo of the debate among design researchers and academics from conjoined or related fields. Over the past few years the fields of social design, open design, co-creation, sustainable design, design activism and critical design have been developing in parallel and in relation to one another. The salons provided an overview of how some of these disciplines have become sharper and more defined as well as some of methods by which they are addressing necessary questions of implementation.

As anyone who follows these subjects in their theory and practice will know, approaches and methods are often varied, sometimes contradictory and too disparate to be united under a coherent ‘agenda’. It was therefore interesting, upon reflection, to note the emergence of some dominant themes from the Design Culture Salons. These are summarised in four headings and point to some of the ways in design culture is developing and progressing as a discipline and in practice.

Producer Equals Consumer

A flurry of recent media reports have announced the ‘democratisation of design’ brought about singularly through 3D printing. However, the salons addressed this issue as part of a bigger picture, looking at how the principles of co-design and co-production have been changing the way designers work in a variety of contexts. Sustainable design professor, Ezio Manzini recently stated that the aim to reduce consumption has been matched by an aim to increase ‘something else’. This ‘something else’ has a social quality, which the salon panellists suggested might come from designers facilitating, articulating and sharing concerns through social conversations.  A majority of the panellists were engaging with this approach at some level, with the strongest advocates, Joe Harrington and Paul Micklethwaite presenting compelling evidence of how they have used it in practice. Daniel Charny described the role of the ‘prosumer’, whereby producers and consumers are sharing tools, ideas and techniques. On the other hand, questions of authorship have recently been challenged and Jana Scholze drew attention to the darker inflection of this debate. Citing the example of drones technology, she argued that in many contemporary cases designers are intentionally masking their identity in ways that work outside traditional notions of responsibility and ownership. In these cases, not knowing who has commissioned the work, or understanding in clear terms who it has been created for, poses vital questions about ethics in contemporary design practice.

Drop the ego

Does design activism really change political or social structures, or does it merely reform things within existing parameters? Any reformative zeal was strongly challenged as several panellists urged designers to drop the ego. Irena Bauman and Joe Harrington both spoke of the ego-centric designer-hero as an obstacle to the transformative capacities of design. Entitlement and hierarchies need to be dissolved, egos dismantled. Any mysticism around the concept of making was also challenged. Glenn Adamson provocatively critiqued the ‘assumed permissiveness around making’, arguing that ‘craft could be a tool of social repression’ as much as emancipation. This salon doused some realism on the idea of the designer-maker, with Katie Hill arguing that ‘making comes of necessity’. Designers were urged to get real. Jeremy Till quipped that designers might begin to think about how to work in a recession by ‘getting used to it’. A similar point was made about the role of the contemporary design curator in the first salon. Jane Pavitt stated that ‘public access to an exhibition is not just getting a ticket and wandering around it’, suggesting that curators need to attend to wider public concerns. This idea of being open and outward facing, rather than focused on internal professional issues, was a unifying theme. However, as Louis Moreno stated, it is important that this engagement with the outside works to critique as well as serve the publics it faces.

Tell Stories

Paying close attention to the language of the debates, and in particular, the ways in which designers describe their practices, can give a uniquely revealing insight into how designers work, or perhaps more accurately, want to be seen as working. The language of ‘storytelling’ was used in almost every salon. Nick Gant, discussed his mission as a material activist through making as a ‘way of constructing narratives’. Jonathan Chapman described design activism as ‘in between stories’, elegantly stating that ‘it moves the pages of a story and therefore has the power to nudge the narrative in one direction or another’. On the other hand, Adam Thorpe cautioned that the designer’s capacity to invent and imagine can lead them to ‘run ahead and create fictive publics’. This idea of the designer telling tales and connecting narratives was also alluded to by Jeremy Till, who said that designers are good at being relational- in other words, making the connections between economic, cultural, social and material. It is ironic then, that one of the commonest critiques of the design professions is their inability to get their story heard and understood by outside audiences, as the Design Commission recently argued. As Jocelyn Bailey stated, the government, even when interested, struggles to fit what they view as aesthetic judgements, into policy narratives. Therefore, if designers want to see themselves as good storytellers, they need to find ways to tell these stories in clearer and more engaging ways to those outside- government, client and public.

Slow things down

As Guy Julier pointed out during a couple of the events, the pace at which designers, policy makers and governments seek to act varies dramatically. Policy documents and surveys by design organisations convey an industry in a sense of panic. Much of the rhetoric being spun at government level is concerned with short-term, quick-fixes linked to a political agenda (such was the case with the New Labour Creative Industries policy agenda). But the salon panellists in general looked for a longer-term approach, working slowly and across publics, with collaborators. Noortje Marres encouraged designers to work in ways that were implicated in real issues, outside design, in real time, a suggestion that might reflect the tempo of all sensible debate post-economic crash. Bianca Eizenbaumer and Fabio Franz of Brave New Alps spoke of their mission to pursue this approach, which involves creating and working on long-term social relationships, in the face of the everyday pressures of running a design studio. The salons therefore successfully brought into focus the conflict that runs through many contemporary design practices, as they attempt to work both inside and outside existing systems and networks. As Guy reflected on salon 2, the contemporary designer needs to have ‘an outward looking, connected mindset but also a focus on problems and solutions that are close to hand’. Some of these practical issues are discussed through case study presentations at the Social Design Talks, run by the V&A and Policy Connect .

By the end of the 2012-13 salon series, the five opening questions had therefore inspired a series of fresh questions, pointing out in new directions. Perhaps more significantly, old hang-ups and historic debates within the design profession no longer appear to be of interest. For instance, the question is no longer whether a designer can be an agitator, communicator, activist, maker, strategist. The possibility to be all of these now seems assured. Some of the ways in which design might act as a catalyst for social innovation were confirmed– it is the question of how that is up for debate. The next step will be to reflect on more practical concerns about putting this into practice. And that makes contemporary design culture such an interesting place to be.






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