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In a time of overwhelming social, economic and environmental crises, it’s worth questioning if design is an integral part of the problem. Design schools continue to produce students who excel at designing chairs, lamps or well meaning but ill-fated objects that perpetuate instead of ameliorate our decline.  Is social design any different?


This essay by MA Social Design thesis supervisor Michael Kaethler, is also published in 'Questioning Design', a magazine made by our Master departments. A copy of the magazine can be requested by sending an email to

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“Is tear gas a design problem?”
In her research ‘Lexicon of Everyday Exception’, Mariangela Beccoi explores objects of protest and reveals a disconcerting asymmetry between the hyper designed objects of crowd control and the simple improvised objects of resistance.  Her inquiry leads to an unsettling reflection: designed objects are predominantly positioned on the side of the oppressor.  Where, one could ask, are the designers to support the cause of protesters—holding power to account?  Does design as a practice favour certain social classes, ideologies and power relations, furthering their causes at the cost of others?  Without a critical socio-political reflection on the relationship between design, designer and the context, design is bound to remain in the anaemic albeit comfortable embrace of the predominant ideology.  Is teargas a design problem?  Yes, if designers are dedicated to social transformation.
The western tradition of design has been serving up myths of the status quo for nearly two centuries.  While critical and radical design movements have existed, often side-lined, design has played an important role in preserving and disseminating the logic of capitalism.  Much of what we accept as design was forged by the furnace of free-market capitalism in the kilns and workhouses of the 19th century.  Design was a crucial fixture in industrialisation and vice versa; it was pivotal in a scissor-like manner of streamlining production processes to create new products quicker and more efficiently, while simultaneously driving up the demand for these products.  In other words, capitalism relies on design to both improve the production of goods and to insure their eventual consumption.  
Mariangela Beccoi - Lexicon of Everyday Exception. Image by Femke Rijerman ​
Designing outside of the vacuum
Despite this conjugality between capital and design, there is a prevailing view of design as neutral, without context or historical rootedness.  Design, however, does not exist within a vacuum. Objects, relationships, materials and processes are made manifest in the ‘real world’ with real consequences and culpabilities.  In terms of shaping the world, design punches above its disciplinary weight.  Design is a practice that has political and ethical repercussions; it intervenes, it compels changes in behaviours, relationships and ways of thinking, or as Adrian Forty put it, “it can cast ideas of who we are and how we should behave into permanent and tangible forms.”
Design has a way of moulding not solely the physical but also the thought world, imbuing myths, assumptions and values so that these seem incontrovertible and beyond reproach.  Design is social, it mediates our social realities, the way we think and interact with the world.  However, at the same time, designers are rarely conscious of this social layer and its implications, unaware of how designs interact with, for example, power structures. This friction between capacity and cognizance is visible in practices within the ‘social design’ realm where, unlike many other design practices, there is an explicit emphasis on designing for a notion of social good.
The cultural theorist Edward Said famously remarked,  “ideas, cultures and histories cannot seriously be understood or studied without their force, or more precisely their configurations of power, also being studied.”  The same can be said of the intention of bringing about social change through design; it is crucial to understand the context (or forces and configurations of power) at play in order to: first, grasp what needs to be addressed and second, know how to address it.  Without an understanding of the broader ideological agenda, social design is doomed to remain superficial and recklessly naïve.  Social design can lead to forestalling social change or at times to perpetuating social decline by unconsciously becoming the material mouthpiece of the predominant ideology of the time—the status quo.
Whitewashing Design
A cursory look at the projects and images associated with social design show mainly self-satisfied white people interacting as if some magical new gadget has lobotomised their critical faculty.  Pointless participatory design projects are praised as innovative and ‘game changing’ because they consider a token of public input (how democratic!). Books aimed at promoting social design, such as, the pompously titled “Looks Good, Feels Good, Is Good” provide answers in the form of design solutions for questions that are febrile and delusory. One could be forgiven for thinking that social design is the design world’s version of whitewashing, such as corporate social responsibility (Nestle giving a fraction of its profit to help poor communities or Wal-Mart building green roofs for its megastores), where large companies redirect the public gaze away from their otherwise destructive practices by highlighting positive initiatives.  Social design appears all too often to be a chaste attempt at making design more palatable than the object-obsessed and material-centred design mentalities that came to populate much of the 20th century.  Is social design a version of ‘caring capitalism’, a shiny veneer concealing a caustic underbelly?
Indeed, a considerable amount of what is considered social design can be slotted into a pastel coloured catalogue of well meaning do-good projects often disconnected from a larger reflection on the act of making, such as social relations, material ramifications, power or ideology.  There is an abundance of social design projects, which are neither good design nor properly addressing the social—in effect, the worst of social engagement and the worst of design.
The ‘Hippo Roller’ is often heralded as a prime example of social design.  It’s an elegant solution to a problem faced by many around the world.  Transforming a water container into an easily manoeuvrable push-barrel relieves the burden of carrying water long distances for villages without access to clean water.  This meets the ‘needs’ of some individuals but it does not address crucial systemic and institutional problems related to the ‘rights’ of individuals to access clean water.  By diminishing the encumbrance of transporting water it potentially relieves the State of its duty to provide water through the necessary infrastructure—thus failing to fulfil core legal obligations enshrined in the constitution for its citizens.  As such, the hippo roller, at least in some contexts, is part of perpetuating the status quo, weakening the obligations of the state and diminishing the capacity for meaningful social and political transformation.   In other words, the Hippo Roller, while providing a useful temporary fix for accessing water may also be contributing to much broader and substantial problems leading to exacerbating the conditions of the very people it is seeking to assist. 
Elisa Otañez - Yellow Spot. Image by Marica De Michele
In contrast, Elisa Otañez’s work ‘Yellow Spot’ engages with a similar type of problem—female urinals in public space—contextualising it within the scope of institutions, rights and power.  Like the Hippo Roller, she provides a design solution to meet short-term needs (in this case, women’s public peeing).  However, unlike the Hippo Roller, her urinals are intentionally and explicitly designed to be temporary, acting as both a short-term functional stopgap and as a provocation and political statement for the city to recognise the rights of women in public space.  Her work acknowledges that without the temporality in her design and without explicitly linking it to a larger ideological framework of the rights of women in public space, her project runs the risk of contributing to business-as-usual, in effect letting municipalities off the hook by using her design contribution as the permanent solution as opposed to providing permanent municipal provisions.  It is this extra level of reflection that distinguishes her work from well-meaning but naive design projects.
The above two examples deal with clear and current socio-material concerns.  It is important to stress that social design is not only about tackling obvious social concerns. There is a danger that social design falls prey to the pitfalls of pragmatism and neglects the immense power of aesthetics and material forms that are potent and persuasive. Intangible or less problem-oriented projects have the potential to illuminate issues that we didn’t even know were there.  Speculative approaches, for example, are able to design new perspectives, ideas and ways of seeing.   Projects such as the ‘Gouda Embargo’ by Anastasia Eggers exemplify this. Her work provides a rich and nuanced exploration of the recent socio-political trend of nativism.  She uses food as a medium to explore this, setting it in Russia in the year 2032 when there is a food embargo with the rest of Europe.  She exposes the lengths one must go to produce the Dutch cheese Gouda in Russia, tracing the contradictions between two competing desires—globalisation and nativism.  Her designs are frightening and absurd, taking nativism to its logical conclusion and challenging the growing global phenomena.  Design in this case generates, analyses and gauges political thought, bringing to the fore contradictions and frictions that we are often hitherto unaware of.
​Anastasia Eggers - Gouda Embargo. Image by Ronald Smits
Towards a critical approach to social design
Most definitions of social design are short, vague and mention words like change or transformation without detail or elaboration.  Despite not wanting to provide an exhaustive definition, the following are important features of a critical approach to social design.  First, social design seeks to unfasten the long-fingered grasp of the market on design.  In doing so, social design provides an autonomous space to conceive design as an innately human act of giving meaning to the world around us (and not only of giving meaning to the consumption of goods), emphasising it as a practice of signification.  This unfastening alters the direction and objective of design and allows for a greater crossover into social or cultural arenas that reject or challenge market oriented logics such as socially engaged art, protest culture, social movements, and so forth.  Additionally, it further opens up the designer’s relationship to materials, loosening the constraints of cost and efficiency, the need to appease style or fashion and in the process creates natural overlaps with many artistic and ecological practices and approaches.  Second, and as a partial result of the first, social design is more open to employ speculative practices, which create processes and outcomes that do not fit easily within conventional design settings.  Third, social design situates its own contribution within the body of theory and practice—gauging how it builds off of or contests existing work.  Lastly and most importantly, it recognises its disruptive or conducive forces within the real world—aware that design intervenes in a world of interrelated dynamics with very real consequences and seeks to bring about societal transformation, whether subtle, indirect or explicit, through recognising the bigger context in which it is introduced.
If we are to take a critical approach to social design, it is imperative that those involved in design recognise their tradition’s own lurid past, its transgressions as a medium for economic and cultural expansion and with it a considerable amount of exploitation of individuals and materials across the world—from cobalt mines in the Congo to sweat shops in Bangladesh.  For the designer to avoid sustaining the ‘coloniality of power’, what Anibal Quijano describes as the structures of power, control and hegemony that emerged from modernity, whether through unconscious decision making or through grand gestures of trying to save the world, it is necessary to acknowledge one’s own individual and cultural location and position, values and assumptions. This implies taking a reflexive position as a designer and in designing.
An important starting point, it follows, is learning to ask the right questions.  Jan Boelen, the head of the Social Design department at the DAE is often heard asking the question, “If design is the answer, what is the question?”  This is a provocation; design is usually too busy providing answers to ask questions.  Self-reflection is not part of the design tradition; its predisposition is to provide the answers that are demanded of a brief, not to pose the questions that could destabilise the brief.   In this way, it is natural for design to view itself as neutral—ideologically bereft.  Without questioning the fundamental logic of producing objects it will continue to produce the objects of the predominant ideology. 
‘Lumps of Clay’ by Thomas Nathan asks some of these questions in a poetic manner.  He argues that given our perilous state of global affairs and the incrimination of design, we need to question the act at the very heart of design—making.   However, to do away with making is to deny a fundamental human urge, we are homo faber (man the maker).  Thomas works with this contradiction, seeking to develop a new relationship with the act of making through an intimate process of shaping tiny lumps of clay—the smallest tactile object with which to make, whilst limiting unintentional consequences.  It is a deliberate work of meditation, exploring the homo faber and the logic of design through tiresome repetition.  In the end, a ceramic object emerges, poetic in form, critical in process, representing a search for an ethical passage for making.  Thomas picks apart the relationship between the designer, the material and the broader world, in search for a new rapport and an ethical juncture, by stepping away from mainstream design practices and developing a reflective and deeply intimate design process. 
Thomas Nathan - Lumps of Clay. Image by Nicole Marnati
Charles de Gaulle is quoted as saying, “Politics is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians.”  It can be argued that design is too important and powerful to be left to designers, a group who have shown, with some notable exceptions, a remarkable disregard for a world on the brink of major crisis.  However, despite this paper’s rather critical take on the social design field, there are immense design possibilities for radically reshaping the world.  On one hand, social design runs the very real risk of self-delusion, whereby it continues to reproduce the structures responsible for crises while patting itself on the back for its good efforts.  On the other hand, social design, as highlighted in many examples in this text, can provide a rich critical exploration of the objects, relationships, materials and processes in our society.  This opens up a range of possibilities, knocking design off its dependency on the market and into a world ripe with inspiration, materials, relationships and approaches.  Moreover, a critical and contextualised approach renders design nuanced and meaningful, requiring the designer to be steeped and integrated into the contexts in which they seek to engage—humility and humanity becoming principle design traits.  Disregarding the centuries of modernist colonial hubris, design can look beyond ideological blinders to practices that are, for instance, outside of the western design cannon, opening up design practice to ways of knowing and being that can alter the fundamental assumptions we have about material or the common good. There are a great many things that design can accomplish when rooted in creativity, intuition and socio-political reflection. Whether it is poetic or protesting, design is an enabler for change, it’s simply the question of what type of change designers desire; reproducing the values of the status quo or disrupting and challenging these power dynamics to work towards a more socially-just society?  Now I ask you, the reader, is teargas a design problem?
Mariangela Beccoi, Thomas Nathan, Elisa Otanez and Anastasia Eggers are former graduates of the DAE Master of Social Design. 
Forty, Adrian, and Ian Cameron. Objects of desire: design and society since 1750. London: Thames and Hudson, 1995.
Quijano, Anibal. "Coloniality of power and Eurocentrism in Latin America." International Sociology 15.2 (2000): 215-232.
Said, Edward W. "Orientalism: western conceptions of the Orient. 1978." Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin (1995).
Published: 05-Dec-2018 10:24


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