Change: Design as advocacy/activism/agency

The Design Studies Course

Industrial Design has a rich history of challenging orthodoxies of material, technological and cultural production. However, the discourses and practices that constitute this history are often obscured where design is considered through the pervasive lenses of style, market and technical efficiency that permeate popular understandings of the discipline; where meanings of design are encountered and constructed through cultural locations such as ‘the shop’, or the ‘magazine’.

Alternate ways of apprehending the discipline are critical for designers who take seriously their roles in change-making. For instance looking at design through a political lens exposes a practice concerned with control and compliance; an aesthetic lens exposes a linage of fetishistic materialism and illusions of pleasure and status; a functionalist lens exposes concerns of usability and durability.

While there are many other lenses through which design can be understood and practiced, all pivot on a shared agenda of design as an act of ‘improvement’, and ‘improving’ as an act of deliberate ‘change’ – be it incremental or radical, ideological, social, economic or technical. While ‘improvement’ in of itself is an admirable aim of design, the compound and temporal effects of positing designed ‘improvements’ into the complexities of our socio-technical systems can have rebound effects and produce new problems, thereby proliferating design actions through the construction of new artifacts, ideas and systems in ways that try to contend with the complexity that design itself makes. Working in such complexity demands a design knowledge that is cognizant of all actors impacted by design actions. It requires designers to understand their discipline as a social and political discourse and therefore a contestation of ideas for change that are inhabited with different intensities: advocacy, activism and individual and collective agency.

Challenging and altering the status quo requires a deep understanding of why things are the way that they are, what they ought to be, and importantly, how design contributes to the contexts and cultures we exist within. The more we pursue change through design the more central a capability of ‘change’ becomes for design.

Where ‘change’ becomes ‘design’, ‘designing’ therefore becomes a practice of ‘changemaking’ and the need for ever-new capabilities for change in design gives rise to new movements in design theory and action. Design thinking, social design, social innovation, open design, disruptive innovation, service design, sustainability and responsible design loom large in this literature of change, and are evidence of design perhaps being re-rendered by its own proliferating discourses, while at the same time making claim to particular types of socially acceptable proliferation. But proliferating is different from change-making. Proliferating is ‘doing’ for the sake of ‘doing’ and ‘differentiation’. Change-making demands a different criticality of practice. If the previous two paragraphs scared you away the tutorial will make it plain! You will be introduced to a range of theories, ideological positions and methodologies for design practice that are proactive in seeking a change to the status quo through practical exercises in understanding the complex states of problems, socio-technical practices and contexts. It considers Industrial Design from a meta-level philosophical position that is then elucidated through grounded design research and generative processes.

Activities including immersions in various activity theories, fieldwork, observation and basic ethnography and participation in change actions at different scales.

Reflective and relational thinking will be undertaken so as to provide you with a disposition toward an engaged-thinking that can be applied into future design projects.

A thinking for change-making and a vocabulary for doing it!

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