Impact fixation

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Image taken from the Design Council’s ‘Design delivers for business‘ report (2012)

Clive Dilnot has a nice line on criticality in design: in theory designers should be the most critical of us all, because designing means being able to discern between different possibilities and choose the best one. However in reality (he says) the choices we make in design practice have been long disciplined by the logic of the market – which in turn shapes the language of design, much like that of management in general, to focus on impact, effectiveness, productivity, growth etc. And it’s always delivered in normative terms: how design should be done to achieve the best results. This is to be seen everywhere in commercial design practice – fair enough. But I’m starting to worry about how much of a grip it has on design research and academia.

Ezio Manzini recently lamented that ‘mechanisms and effectiveness’ seem to be the only basis on which people are capable of researching and discussing design. There are some exceptions: this doesn’t apply so much to design history, and there is a growing ‘design culture’ field that seeks to embed contemporary practice in a wider socio-economic and political framework. But if you happen to be researching in that mode it seems you are apt to be constantly misunderstood by others.

I’ve had the experience three times recently, on submitting three different papers (one to a conference and two to journals) of being told that I (or we in the case of one written with Lucy Kimbell) haven’t done enough to say what should be done, or what designers as readers should take forward or do differently. I’ve been warned against taking the ‘barren position’ of critic standing outside of practice.

Why, I wonder, is critique such a problem? And why can’t a thought-provoking critique, or an exploration of possible theoretical interpretations, stand on its own?

The papers in question all reflect in different ways on what might be going on behind the use of design in policy – exploratory pieces that draw on theories of capitalism, neoliberalism, governmentality, politics, etc. My favourite case of misinterpretation concerns a paper that builds on Boltanski and Chiapello’s idea that capitalism absorbs and defuses critique/ dissent, to suggest that the infiltration of design into policymaking might be seen as an example of that mechanism. The reviewer’s criticism implied that they thought we were promoting the absorption of dissent as a selling point for design in policy.

Maybe we weren’t clear enough. Or maybe the paradigm of design research providing prescriptions for design practice is just that strong. But why should all design research end in ‘implications for design practice?’ Isn’t that just another example of the absorption of critique? Not all problems can be so easily solved. It makes me even more defiant, to want to say ‘no you can’t just disable this with some platitudes about reflective practice – it’s uncomfortable and you have to live with it’.

The broader point here is that there’s not nearly enough critical research going on if, when confronted with it, design academics don’t know how to read it. As part of thinking through my PhD, I’ve sketched out the framework below as a short-hand for distinguishing between different kinds of design research. There’s not much of the fourth column going on, and I’m curious as to why this is.

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There is admittedly a large overlap between researchers and practitioners – many people do both, which encourages a certain perspective. If design is about problem solving for an organisation, institution or system, then design research also seems to be predominantly asking questions about how well it does that job, rather than reflecting on the container within which design activity sits. And when design research identifies a problem the designerly brain wants to solve it. Perhaps the design mentality can’t brook the idea of not doing, not acting – which is what critical discernment implies. If you really thought about it you might choose not to act – but if you stop does that mean you cease to be a designer? Reflecting on whether to act might trigger some kind of identity crisis.

A final point: as a design practitioner I find that the thing most design research is useful for at the moment (when it’s not just a show-and-tell of design projects) is in providing some theoretical underpinnings that help articulate to clients why this isn’t all just playing with post-its, but is serious work. In other words, we co-opt research – sometimes even critical research – to keep selling. What’s visibly lacking, given the increasingly confusing times we live in, is anything that sheds some light on what’s going on in public life and the political sphere at the moment and how designers are implicated in that. More of that sort of thing would be very welcome.

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