Thought Pieces on the Limits of Design: #8

Designing is, ultimately, an act of reducing the diversity of reality to a plan, a model, or a convention for the realization of an objective. Design, whether in its modernist aspirations of absolute control or in its post-modernist attempts to organize contingency and be open-ended, remains a process of simplification and schematization. Design operates by reducing the complexity of reality to models, and through those models attempts to reorganizing it. It always imagines another reality: other forms of living, communicating, behaving, producing, loving.

In this sense, design has the same relation to reality that politics has to the political. Politics, in fact, is an institutionalized system that aims at governing, organizing, and codifying the political, which is a much larger field of action, one that often defies politics’ attempts to codify it. Politics, like design, involves planning, decision and law-making and, like design, it is always an act of remaking reality through reduction. Similarly, both politics and design are bounded and haunted by this reduction. The messiness and complexity of reality always trumps any attempt to shape it, to compose it, to design it. In this sense, design-reality and politics-political exist in the same relation that the plan has to the city: needed in order to achieve certain objectives but, because of its reductionism, bounded to remain little more than a suggestion, a scribble, a starting point – clean and perfect on paper, messy and impossible to control out in the world.

As a result, design becomes limited – and counterproductive – when encountering the political unless it recognizes its reductionism, which is effective yet bounded to sclerotize and to ossify reality, or becomes aware of the political-economic implication of its own label. Calling something an act of design (as much as calling something politics) goes well beyond a technical or aesthetic judgement; it becomes an act of legitimization. And, as any act of legitimization, it entails an act of exclusion. As a result, when a fishermen fidgets with a net and comes up with a more effective way of weighing it down or a slum dweller devises a better system of water drainage, their acts are classified as ingenuity, practical sense, or local know-how. Conversely, when the well-dressed university-educated cappuccino-sipping “creative” builds a chair, that act is of “design.” Exactly the same way in which, when in a riot the unemployed loots a betting shop or a shopping mall, hundreds of voices raise to define such act as non-political, and corner it into irrationality, blind rage, or shopping with violence, while celebrating riding a bike to work as a political act.

So to conclude, two elements are central to this analysis of the relation between design and the political. Firstly, we need to recognize the very use of the label “design” as part of a political and economic order, in which value and legitimacy are created. Design as a category, therefore, does not just relate to the political, it is its own political-economic project, one in which value is generated through uniqueness. The proliferation of the word “design” conjures and it is symptomatic of a post-Fordist system of creation of surplus value, one in which the uniqueness of a piece, the ingenuity of its design, and what the resulting object comes to signify and represent in terms of identity is celebrated, and valued, over the mass production and celebration for seriality that dominated Fordist modes of production, circulation, and consumption. Secondly, we need to acknowledge that design is an act of reduction, and therefore of institutionalization, that creates a reality. In this sense, the ultimate political act is not that of designing, but rather of hijacking, hacking, and cracking the design, of finding its limits and backdoors and opening them up to challenges.