The Double Profile of Design Studies

Author: Susan Yelavich - Published on: January 8th, 2012

In an earlier posting, I promised I’d speak to the question of who the Masters in Design Studies program has been designed for. But to do that I find myself asking:  How is this program designed?  Anticipating who will be attracted seems less the point than articulating what makes Design Studies attractive. I think student profiles are best left as silhouettes of avid writers, thinkers, readers and critics that can will take on dimension as they are filled.  In the meantime, it seems more helpful to assess the character and characteristics of Design Studies.

For my part, I see Design Studies in terms of two broad perspectives—one that focuses inward on the nature of design and one that looks outward to the circumstances that shape it. This is, of course, risky in an age when dualisms of all sorts (mind/body, we/them, etc.) have been all but discredited.  Nonetheless, if we accept the idea that these two halves can be stacked and layered, and that they will inflect each other by virtue of proximity, then perhaps the divisions I outline below will be seem less arbitrary.

1. Let’s call the first half introspective.  This is where students will explore the intellectual history of design and the role of design in intellectual history.  Take, for example, the idea of sustainability and the pressing imperative to find a greater equilibrium between destruction and creation.  Rather than, say, offering a history of technology, design studies takes a long view of our relationship to nature over time (i.e., as refuge or threat), and considers how we continue to design within these paradigms, at the same time we search for others.

It is precisely in these kinds of searches (or researches) that the introspective, discipline-focused nature of design studies avoids the trap of passivity.  Design studies becomes especially active in courses where we study how contemporary practices are fundamentally rethinking design. Here, we engage with a variety of collectives, studios, and offices—ranging from those involved in direct political and social action, to those that innovate within normative conventions, to those that operate through poetics and propositions. The ways in which designers choose to structure their practices, identify their partners and audiences, and determine the scope and scale of their projects are studied as indices of the parameters and possibilities of design today.  And since each of these modes of working is indebted to the larger history of making, we also look at their genealogies.  In a sense, we become curators of practice.

2. Design studies is equally conditioned by what I would describe as an external point of view.  This approach looks at the social and political patterns that flow from design.  Case in point:  Professor Jilly Traganou notes that stadia, promotional materials, and the theatrics of the Olympic Games are complicit in the politics of the nation in a world where national identities are weakened by globalization.  In this outward-looking perspective, issues such as immigration, identity, poverty, injustice, and environmental degradation are foregrounded. Often as not, the work of design has to do with systems of change.

If artifacts do play a role, they are more likely to be seen as catalysts for change, and less likely to be understood as ends onto themselves.  For example, architect Teddy Cruz creates housing to increase the density of social exchanges, not the density of a structure.  Instead of asking what design is, the externalized perspective asks where design can be found, what it does, and what it might do. Here, informal adaptations of objects and spaces take on special meaning, along with any and all means of invigorating design as a practice whose raison d’etre is the reduction of pain and the maximization of potential.

As important as these two orientations are, as critical as the knowledge to be tapped within them is, even more important is its dissemination.  Students of the approaches I’ve just outlined are encouraged to hone their abilities to communicate in ways that are truly affective.  They need to speak fluently to their peers (in design studies and other academic disciplines), to specific constituencies affected by their findings (i.e. designers and NGOs), and to the public at large. One could argue (and I often do) that there has never been a greater need for us to stake a claim to the role of the public intellectual.  Design has been obscured by branding and celebrity at the very moment when its full effects and potentials are least understood.  This is the work of design studies—to raise those possibilities to the fore.

Until next time, cheers!

Original post here.