Designing, Living and Learning
This second issue continues Zoontechnica's critical engagement with design practice and with the world-as-designed. The topics here are human-centred and inclusive design; design education; and interior design. The authors, though at different stages of their research, manifest a common perception of, and dissatisfaction with, the restricted nature of what is considered as leading-edge or progressive within their respective practice areas. Bringing their concerns together creates unexpected connections with potential to be amplified, and to inform new practices of design futuring.
The first two essays address human-centred and inclusive design, and, as such, their arguments can be usefully connected to the constructive critiques of human-centred and humanitarian design in Zoontechnica no.1, where several essays addressed design's relation to issues of power, ethics, diversity and social justice.
Ian Hargraves and Nassim Jafarinaimi in 'Human-centred Design as Opportunity-centred Design' consider the elusive idea of the 'human' underpinning what are meant to be more empathetic, less impositional modes of designing, as espoused by leading design consultancies such as IDEO. Through discussion of a series of examples, they ask – what is being centred? Design, or the rich complexity of human lives? And what does it mean when opportunities for designing are given priority? They extend their argument by considering ways in which HCD is presented within design education, and argue that serious attention given to ideas of 'care' and 'people mattering' could significantly shift HCD.
Ana Correia de Barros is very much concerned with 'people mattering'. Her paper, 'The Wider Picture in Inclusive Design' registers how design for disability is underpinned by the category of 'need', and how different ways of conceptualizing need lead to different design approaches. She argues that Maslow's influential functionalist hierarchy of needs is too limited and is now being displaced by more complex schemas as formulated by Max-Neef and others. These newer schemas allow for greater variation across cultural and individual difference and can make sense of conflicting needs as well as discriminating between more and less sustainable ways of seeking to meet identified needs. In discussing various real-life situations, her essay quickly comes up against structural over-determinations that put into question the often singular focus of inclusive design.
By foregrounding these big issues of the human, and of need, these essays remind us that while design constantly acts in and on the world in significant ways, to understand what it is actually doing beyond the obvious or instrumental, requires drawing on thinking from beyond design. Sometimes designers take up models from applied disciplines like behavioral psychology; in other instances, designers (and design educators) may draw, less consciously, on a general background of humanist thinking – the 'common-sense' of Eurocentric thinking. What is important to register is that the big categories being appealed to are not fixed, and continue to be contested. For instance, there is a long-standing, substantial debate across philosophy, anthropology, social and economic theory on the category of need – of whether need is ever manifested in a pure, unmediated (a-cultural) form, and thus whether, in an absolute sense, there is actually a difference between intrinsic needs and culturally created wants. Similarly, there are a range of positions on humanism, including questioning the extent to which, in the name of inclusive universalism, humanism actually seeks to impose a specifically western notion of the human being; and from another angle, the anthropocentrism of humanism has been criticized as elevating the human above the animal and disavowing the continued presence of animality in human beings.
Giorgio Agamben is one thinker who has challenged humanism, not least by showing how the reduction of human life to 'bare life' (zoē) persists even in supposedly advanced democratic societies that adhere to humanist principles. Linked to this is 'freedom' to pursue 'happiness' via bio-excitation and gratification. Thus designers get invited into a variety of situations as window-dressers of bare life. This partly characterizes the situation that postgraduate design students Mahmoud Keshavarz and Vijai Patchineelam confronted in a project on 'the last days of life', which prompted them to go to Agamben's thinking to make sense of their uneasiness. The course of events described in their essay reveal the tenacity of conventional models of design even in supposedly challenging situations.
Conventional education of conventional designers is precisely what Rebecca Barnett wants to move beyond in her essay 'Event-based Learning: Urmadic Education and the Pedagogy of Sustainment'. In the context of the need to shift from the dominant condition of unsustainability to one of Sustainment, she argues that we need new kinds of education – different in form as well as content; forms of education than can transform learners rather than just deliver packages of discipline-specific knowledge and methods. Her essay, in effect, takes forward Tony Fry's argument for Redirective Practice: that Sustainment can only happen by design, and for this to happen, design practice, and thus designers need to change. Rebecca Barnett argues that situated learning, in particular event-based learning, has much potential for 'a pedagogy of sustainment.' She revisits the thinking of Paulo Friere, Ivan Illich and other theorists of education. Friere, she argues, has much value, especially his emphasis on "using concrete examples of students' own experience" (towards discovering) "the living, powerful, dynamic relation between work and action, between word, action and reflection."
There is some irony in bringing Friere's experiential pedagogy, formulated in the 1970s, into collision with 'Design and the Politics of Fear – an auto-ethnography on design education' in which Mahmoud Keshavarz and Vijai Patchineelam reflect critically on their experience of an Experience Design program. They mount a sharp critique of a supposedly progressive transdisciplinary research project. They note contradictory positions – at one moment, design is claimed as a unique practice, with its institutional defenders seeking new frontiers and attempting to colonise other disciplines under a banner of transdisciplinarity; and at another, when students question the fundamentals of the project of 'designing a better death', doubting whether design can really contribute to such a weighty demand, their professors pull them back to familiar territory – the designing of distraction and entertainment. This leads the authors to examine a 'politics of fear' operative in educating designers: fear of future unemployability; and fear of the unknown sought to be managed by reaching out for the familiar.
The setting for 'designing the last days of life' was a palliative care centre, and early in the project an audit was made of the sensory qualities of the centre's interior environments. This reminds us that designing health care facilities for patient well-being, and not just functional efficiency, is a well-established practice within interior design. That the interiors of (especially private sector) hospitals have increasingly come to resemble hotels, is a clear example of designing experience. What would it mean for interior designers to really take this on board, i.e., see themselves as designers of experience rather than just of interior spaces? And what if, in addition, the futural question of sustainment was to be brought into the picture? This is the direction of Petra Perolini's 'Bringing Interiority to Interior Design' which is the beginning of a project to radically rethink interior design.
Her essay starts from the basis that interior design is about much more than the configuration and treatment of interior spaces; that it needs to be understood as produced by, and productive of, modes of interiority. This is multifaceted: we inhabit/are inhabited by thoughts and images as we inhabit interior spaces which themselves, are formed through, inflected by, judged according to, images and ideas of what an interior should be; at another level, inhabitations and perceptions of interiors are bound up with less frequently articulated, though often viscerally felt senses of safety, protection, privacy, and so on - all culturally variable and ever-changing. Trying to think interiority in this way, makes it possible to link interior design to other cultural developments and histories. Perolini's essay opens possibilities for re-thinking interior design by linking it to a history of the commodification of domestic space and thus home, engendered by the rise of retailing as spectacle that began in the Parisian arcades of the nineteenth century and developed further with the Department store. Displays of luxury goods and idealized domestic settings were designed to stimulate desire (the real, the material arranged and emplaced in order to create imagined dwelling by those who view it: a designing that reverses and twists the usual order whereby material form is prefigured in the designer's imagination). Her essay shows that these historical developments were as much about the psycho-social as the economic, and bringing this to interiority and the interior design of domestic spaces, leads us to ask: when we are 'at home', where, exactly are we? Certainly, and no longer, in one place.
The essays, taken together, point towards the increasing extent to which our lives, as humans, are designed. The design professions need to fully grasp the extent of responsibility that this situation entails. It does open up new opportunities for design – not as is, but remade as futural.
1 Not counting the promotional 'pre-issue', that is now archived.
last modified 20120625