Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #11

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Thoughts on the ‘problem’ of design

We are asking the wrong question. Design always is political, because it always is social. It is a powerful and unavoidable exercise in social imagination. Designers are tasked with thinking through how we will live, not how we do live. In that sense, designers occupy a very powerful position in shaping our societies.

The results of designers acting as social theorists in that way can fundamentally change our way of life. Here, using the term ‘design’ broadly is crucial: not only spatial design, such as architecture, but also other forms of design, such as software and product design, are and have been hugely consequential. For example, the design of the iPhone has as much transformed our lives as has modernist planning and architecture.

But that design is (socially) intentional is neither a surprise nor the point here. Not least because design’s intentions can be disguised by all sorts of things, from pragmatic to economic and cultural motifs and narratives. Much more important is that design is “the intentional solution of a problem, by the creation of plans for a new sort of thing” as design philosopher Glenn Parsons put it in his new book.[1]

So in order to end up with something designed, there needs to be a problem this design responds to, a problem the ‘new sort of thing’ seeks to solve. So the crux, then, is who gets to define the problem? And who gets to state that there even is a problem that needs solving? This should be the core question in relation to the ‘politics of design, and designing for politics’, and it is a question that comes way before asking about the limits of design.

Strictly speaking, such a question is no longer about designers and the cultural, economic and political convictions they bring to their profession, but extends to who tasks them with the design process and why. Very often, defining the problem is the business of different kinds of ‘experts’ and their way of claiming and maintaining authority in their professional field and beyond. This, without doubt, is fair enough, as we are ultimately in need of experts if we want to get things done.

But what if we think about design politics as a democratising process: what if the ‘experts’ that define the design problem are not only those who are skilled to build the solution (e.g. architects) but also those who have to live with this design solution? People are experts in their own lived worlds and can give valuable insight into what is really ‘problematic’ and where we might be heading in the future. So why not bring them to the table in the first place – not as part of consultations, but as part of ‘doing design’? If we push this process, then we might find out what design’s limits are in addressing the political.

[1] Glenn Parsons, The Philosophy of Design. (Polity, 2015), p. 11 (emphasis added)