In your text ‘Beyond the Ability to Respond’, you look into the political dimension of designing, and introduce the notion of politics as action, based on the work of German thinker Hannah Arendt.
What is the story of your text? What prompted you to write it?
It is somewhat a review of the much larger work I presented under graduation in 2006, called ‘Design Ex Machina’. As a brief review, it aims solely on one problem found during my investigations on the political dimension of design: the means-to-an-end logic intrinsic to the design-with-a-cause type of argument.
I made myself an opportunity to write it when I found the ‘Design Philosophy Politics’ website, basically inviting myself to contribute to Anne-Marie Willis’ editorial. But what urged me to write it was the need to quickly make one of my key points understandable to anyone – that’s why it is written in a much more provocative and instructive way in relation to my monograph. During the years between these texts I learned a lot about the way designers and architects think, mainly because of the study group about the same issue I maintained with some friends. I found out that the way I used to present ideas directly through authors was effectively wrong in that context. So, in this small article, I tried to start from some basic notions expressed on daily talks and to move on towards the fundamental problems of a philosophical consideration.
But your graduation was in graphic design, right? And yet you chose to work with ‘pure reason’ and produced a long rational argumentation in form of text.
Why did you choose this particular format to communicate your ideas? Why not for example use illustrations, moving images, sounds? What is so special and unique about text?
Curiously, you have already put ‘text’ without any privilege among other media. That’s a good start. Maybe I could make my point in any other way, but, considering that there is no message free from media, this would be to make another point. I agree with you that writing was a choice, nevertheless I don’t believe there’s a difference between doing something and thinking about what is done – rational argumentation is also an action. So painting, for instance, is a kind of reflection.
Graduation in graphic design should not only accept writing as a media, but encourage the use of ‘pure reason’ in all occasions. After all, what’s the underlying principle of University?
One could argue (as many do) that design does not belong in the University, but in the workshops and ateliers; that it is closer to the arts & crafts than to the sciences. (The difference being that crafts can rely on rules-of-thumb and hypotheses, while science by definition requires empirical verification.) This discussion – ‘is design Art or Science?’ – seems to go on forever in an infite loop, because design doesn’t fit into these definitions and separations.
In a previous conversation, you were telling me how you prefer to use the term ‘designing’ instead of ‘design’. Is this to indicate that design is an essential dimension of everything we do? That ‘designing’ is as fundamental as ‘thinking’ or ‘communicating’? Or, paraphrasing Descartes and Watzlawick: ‘I design therefore I am.’ / ‘We cannot not design.’ ?
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that designing is most fundamental for our mind existence – something like ‘I only am while I design’. Frankly there are other ways of being. We could modestly say that designing has its own logic, which renders the question whether it’s Science or Art quite inappropriate. Or, as Herbert Simon argued, if design is a Science, then it is radically different from the Natural Sciences – he defended design as an Artificial Science. Either way, what’s at stake here is the purpose of a human activity that is not merely theoretical. Hegel said that all we do is human only because then thinking is in action.
The education issue then follows the reconsideration of designing as autonomous activity. Probably the first lesson is to recognize the difference you pointed out: ‘design’ can be ambiguous, meaning sometimes a professional activity or a discipline, while ‘designing’ is just a kind of action. So, even if we deny design into our Universities, we are still able to talk about designing in itself. Regardless of any kind of scholarship, we are necessarily part of a community of rational beings, which make public use of reasoning – that’s at the core of the Enlightenment. The public is not the market nor the school.
Is design/ing restricted to humanity? In what way are human activity and human-made things different to those of other living species?
Authors such as Edgar Morin and Maturana & Varela seem to have argued in the opposite direction, developing their theories about humanity ‘up’ from the physical and biological worlds.
Is a non-anthropocentric theory of design/ing possible, or desired?
As theory it is already ‘human, all too human’. Strictly speaking there’s no way we can talk about ‘nature’ from an absolute neutral point-of-view – there’s always interest in discourse. ‘Reality’ independent of any human artificiality is contradictory. ‘Nature’ is already a derived concept from our activities.
In that sense I would say that design is opposed to the process found in autopoietic systems. Although we believe the gene appeared by accident, our cities are still a consequence of our choices. It is very dangerous to think there’s a historical or natural mechanism manifesting itself through our actions. If there’s no choice, then there’s no action.
Even if autopoiesis is the cause of autonomy, the latter surpass the former through its own activity. Autonomy is the process of self-relating, despite its cause. The son is not fully contained in the father, otherwise, there’ll never be any newness.
So, you put human autonomy at the center of your definition of design. This is great. And it raises another question:
As designers, we need to balance our individual autonomy with that of our clients, and their customers. And, as you have indicated in your article, this is essentially a complex political process.
It is not uncommon for professional designers to equate ‘serving the client’ with giving up their individual autonomy to conduct the design process. This leads to an instrumentalization of designers and design by other fields (in particular marketing/propaganda and economy).
At the same time, there is a well-established understanding and acceptance in society that individual autonomy is essential to the Arts. To the point that it is tempting, for designers, to reframe their work as ‘art’, in search for greater autonomy.
I am interested in hearing your thoughts about the relationships between art, design, and human autonomy. What are your personal strategies to bring more autonomy to your design practice? Is that the purpose of your writing?
With Arendt’s philosophy it becames clear that there is no such thing as an individual autonomy. Freedom is not negative, that is to say, freedom is not just freedom to do whatever is not against others’ freedom. Plurality is where our actions take place. People think and react differently, or else they would be versions of the same person – we need to fully accept this condition in order to design. In that sense, to assert a fundamental difference between designers and clients is to face the question as a matter of corporatism: designer is then an specialist to be blindly followed, whose mastery should not be questioned. Or, symmetrically, clients’ opinions would always count as truth, and designers should only execute decisions in which they didn’t take part.
However designing is not exclusive of any profession. Many people often do design, although they are not recognized as designers. In fact, it is misleading to ask who is responsible for a project – your client is also designing with you. It is essentially a collective effort, with many dimensions. João Doria, a great friend of mine, once said something like ‘there is a project only because people met.’ We should not pursue a balance of forces or an equality of rights. The project is not a battlefield. And art is not refugee camp for the defeated, nor a private property.
Maybe our misconjecture about the concept of autonomy is already present in the Arts & Crafts movement: architects and designers should then behave as if the rest of the world was in need of aesthetic paladins. But can we define beauty objectively? Under whose authority functionality is attested? Is there a special class of people for whom goodness manifest itself purely, scientifically? Is there something like ‘the most beautiful’ or ‘the fittest form’? Besides, autonomy is not authorship, and we should not expect to be rewarded or applauded for it. Autonomy is a free exercise among peers.
I am most interested in meeting people’s considerations. As a designer I must be able to listen, but also to judge. Not only to respond to others’ claims but also to propose and to share my views about the project. There are no guarantees in the process. There is always the risk of failure, and that’s ok. Despite being a professional I must trust those with whom I work, and not their titles and positions. In fact, is better to distrust them if credentials are constantly shown – you see what I mean? To consider yourself nothing more and nothing less than a professional is to fall in bad faith. Each and every step, in each and every case, could ask for a political kind of reevaluation: ‘Is it worthy? Should we quit now? Can we change the course of our decisions? Can we make new decisions?’
Comparing to this, writing can be extremely solitary. But I can share what I write: these are not just my thoughts. And I can talk about my writings. At end, I’m trying to make myself understandable to a public. And eventually, because of my attempts, conversations like this can rise.
Written as an email exchange between 16th April and 1st May 2012.