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Designer Žan Kobal describes the shift from techno-solutionist approaches towards critical, performative and post-humanist perspectives in design.

Design, designs

Entering the world of Dutch Design Week (DDW) is like entering into two different realities that, co-existing in the same time-space, occupy different planes that seem to remain completely separate. Characterised by radically different approaches to design, one solutionist and the other critical, they have different motivations, objectives, and audiences. An informed visitor may navigate these intuitively based on their personal or professional interests, but for the casual visitor it might not be so easy. Driven by curiosity, they blindly visit different venues, creating a disconnect of counter-narratives challenging our ideas of design. Titled If not now, then when? the highly fragmented DDW 2019 attempted to define a commonality by “focusing on design of the future and the future of design”. Yet this sentiment highlights a fundamental gap between the two realities, differentiated in their programmes for design.

The Solutionist Approach

At their core, these events promise us a glimpse into the world of tomorrow. They are stages on which designers showcase their newest developments, intriguing solutions, and promise a sustainable future. Bright-eyed, optimistic designers embrace a century of modernist teaching. Guided by the problem-solving mentality of industrial design, they are deeply embedded in humanism, not only focusing on the human as the primary concern, but also positioning these needs above those of non-humans. 

They seem to approach design as a commodity, one that needs investors and clients to reproduce and disseminate it through the market. Showcasing ideas at events like Design Week is an opportunity to attract the attention of investors, helping turn prototypes into products. Innovation becomes a form of seduction, and design week an ephemeral international market where the future is shown, commodified, and sold by connecting designers with the media, clients, and commerce.

The Critical Approach

There seems to be a shift on the horizon. Another type of designer is present here, one less concerned the design of tomorrow, and more concerned with tomorrow itself. These designers turn their attention to critically examining the world to better understand not just our present realities, but also their own positioning within them. Strikingly, they seem to be less preoccupied with design as commodity, looking instead at design as part of material culture. For these designers, speculating about the future starts by digging, examining, and unfolding the complexities of the world.

Design research seems to be the name of the game, its players comfortable taking a plethora of different roles. Drifting between anthropology, sociology, archaeology, quantum physics, and politics, they approach design as a trans-disciplinary practice with the potential to unravel that which is hidden. Finding a solution is not a priority, their objective is to critically engage with and investigate our contemporaneity to better understand where we are and how mankind got here. Design stops being the production of things and rather the production of knowledge.

Championing this approach is the GEO-DESIGN exhibition platform launched in 2018 as a collaboration between Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE) and the Van Abbemuseum. Aiming to foster critical inquiry into the social, economic, territorial and geopolitical aspects of contemporary design, the platform provides space for experimental approaches to design research.

In its second iteration, 18 projects by DAE alumni probed the final stage of design's lifecycle - junk. GEO−DESIGN: Junk. All That is Solid Melts into Trash analysed how waste is embedded into our daily lives at every step. From uncovering hidden wastelands and narrating their changing biomes, to exploring the politics of waste management and its generative force for producing new modes of habitation, the designers approached the world as a multi-layered network of global systems.

The exhibition stitched together these investigations into a comprehensive reading of one of the most pressing issues of today and tomorrow. Design research is not only an act of peeking behind the curtain, but rather tearing the curtain off and shedding light onto that which tries to remain hidden. It is an approach that operates within our realities and abides by its rules, but for some, reality appears too restrictive.

For some designers, design is storytelling. Unlike the Creative Director, working on his next pitch at the marketing agency, this set of designers doesn’t engage with storytelling in a 'how can we create a fantasy around a product to entice the consumer into buying it' kind of way. Nor do they employ image, meaning and narrative power to create powerful iconography. Rather they fabricate objects as devices for narration, physical triggers that create new mythologies around our material culture.

To truly engage with these projects, we are required to suspend our disbelief as the approach resists linear thinking, giving room to paradox and ambiguity. Rather than an exploration of the relations of cause and effect, these authors bend time-space and in doing so erase the line between the two -cause is effect, effect supersedes cause, and engaging with them as a singularity becomes an embodied and relational practice.

It comes as no surprise that this approach featured heavily at the DAE graduation show, as critical inquiry is at the core of the school’s DNA. Its students take what used to seem like an avant-garde stance on design, and instead of participating in the optimistic curiosity that drives modern design and techno-scientific innovation, reconsider their position in the world. In short, they are asked to design design itself.

What is perhaps more surprising is the newly launched contextual design magazine Perspectives after C. As a department, Contextual Design has traditionally been concerned with an object through a lens of cultural critique, the object acting as a mediator between physical environments and wider contexts. It comes as a surprise that a department dealing with physicality and its visual aspects would produce a magazine that is essentially a reader. Its essays deal with various urgencies, its authors opting for words rather than images to reconsider the social, political, and historical realities that underpin the object.

While these approaches are still embedded in materiality, one cannot overlook designers engaging in performance as a domain of design. Performance is not new to design - in 2007, Design Miami/Basel hosted performances by star designers including Marten Baas, Tom Dixon and Martino Gamper, to name a few. Featured under the theme Performance/Process, these designers held live demonstrations of how their pieces are made. Dubbed ‘design performance’, the authors incorporated performance into their creative process, ensuring the uniqueness of the final product and therefore boosting its value. 2007 was a curious time, when contemporary design just started appearing on the radar of art collectors who, above all else, valued uniqueness and limited editions as objective criteria for the viability of a design piece as an investment. Performance was the term given to the designer’s process to ensure the competitiveness of their pieces on the market. It was a novelty, one could argue a gimmick, or a step towards something - a step towards a product.

More than a decade later, ‘design performance’ has a completely new face. Designers have forgotten objects as the end point of their process, and instead engage with performance as a self-sufficient medium in their design practices. While for some, objects still play a central role and are used as a vehicle for engaging the body in a performative way. As opposed to being standalone pieces, they are tools for designing a new programme, one that shifts from ‘design performance’ to ‘performance design’.

Possibly the most daring venture into the world of performance design is The Object is Absent, an exhibition on new perspectives in the relationship between objects and us, deliberately positions the ‘thing’ as the other by removing it from the venue. In its absence, designers took centre stage, blurring the line between representation, action, player and spectator. Through acting, singing and dancing, design is dematerialised, giving space back to people, and daring us to reconsider our perception of 'things'.

The Friction

One cannot deny the importance of these new trajectories, enriching and furthering the field of design towards its full maturity. Yet they come with their own problems - they further complicate the long-held conversation on design, not only among the public trying to figure out design but also a discussion within the field. Instrumental functionality and reproducibility stop being design's most important conditions.

As experimental approaches not only move away from ‘natural boundaries’ of design but transition into the immaterial, non-factual and intangible, they perpetuate the division between 'industrial' and 'conceptual' design, the first often seen as antiquated, and the latter criticised for its artistic tendencies. Questions like, “Is it art or design?” and, “Where does design end and art start?” not only proliferate but become increasingly hard - perhaps even impossible - to answer.

Maybe they don’t need answering. The division of knowledge and practices into disciplines has been at the root of academia since the days of the Enlightenment and humanism. While Bauhaus and modernism saw authors drifting between disciplines, - architects delving into sculpture and furniture design - their understanding remained separate as standalone entities with their own set of rules and methodologies.

Far from being contained to academia, this fragmented view is mirrored in our understanding of the world. When envisioning their utopia, Modernists conceived an anthropocentric world of human emancipation and efficiency. With the human firmly at the centre, they reinforced an ideological separation of nature and culture.

It is important to note that at the time design greatly profited from this division of knowledge. It allowed for its emergence as a standalone practice, or better yet a profession, liberated from the domains of architecture and craft. After a century of following the modernists' design programme, it is high time we take a step back and re-evaluate its paradigms. In the wake of a potentially cataclysmic environmental crisis, a problem-solving attitude and an attempt for sustainability through retroactive approaches, still centring around human needs, might not cut it anymore.

The Post-Humanist Approaches

It seems almost obvious that we cannot rely on the same approaches that brought about this man-made crisis in the first place. We find ourselves at a moment when it is imperative to search for new programmes and trajectories in design, but also to make an ideological shift. Design can no longer be a practice catering only to humans but needs to become inclusive, considering humans and more-than-humans as equals. While post-humanism has already established itself as a serious theoretical framework, it has only recently emerged as a valuable basis for contemporary designers in their work.

While in no way a common practice, DDW saw its fair share of projects exploring the post-humanist perspective. Interested in neither product nor prototype, these designers aimed to decentre the human through non-exploitative practices. They explored a world of multiplicities, disengaging with our physical reality through the productivist lens that subordinates our environment into an endless supplier of material. Multiplicities entangled into cross-species connections, each of them with their own relevance, modes of operation, and spheres of influence, but ultimately working collaboratively.

Student-led collective Het Collectief tackles this with their Border Objects series. Asking what a more-than-human design practice might look like, they use collage to facilitate a combination of realities to create new paradigms. Rather than making sculptures, search for systemic or object solutions, they produce probes – improbable artefacts of reflection and empathy. They explore the unknown, from The Matter Scanner, used to read the composition of human and non-human agents that surround us, to utilising the human body to return movement that was stripped away by controlled water currents.

To truly engage with a world of multiplicities, post-humanist designers are required to switch freely, not only between methodologies - fully crossing the boundaries between art and design - but also to expand their practices into science. These are not trans-disciplinary anymore as they completely dismiss the frontiers that divide disciplines, rendering the distinction between art, design and science obsolete.

So varied in their nature, finding a commonality between these approaches seems counterproductive as each is a fragment of a more inclusive understanding of the world. Yet it is precisely this that makes them niche and easy to dismiss. The apparent lack of commonality in post-humanist design prevents designers from forming a united front, one that is legitimised through a shared programme and understanding of what post-humanist design is. Quite a paradox. An approach finding its basis in the understanding of the world as existing in multiplicities would need to find its singularity.

Perhaps, though, it is the other way around. As the field gets more and more diverse, maybe it is time that we mirror this understanding of reality as a multiplicity back into design. Instead of evaluating the validity and relevance of different approaches, we can start to acknowledge them as individual pieces of a larger mechanism, each equally valid and integral to our understanding of, and engagement with, the complexities of contemporaneity. The different realities seen at DDW indicate that we can no longer consider design as a singularity, but we must recognise it for its multiplicities.

Žan Kobal

Žan Kobal is an industrial designer from Ljubljana, Slovenia, and is currently based in The Netherlands. Kobal’s work finds its basis in the investigation of objects as narration devices, exploring how the material and discourse co-create reality. Currently studying for a master’s degree in contextual design at Design Academy Eindhoven, Kobal is one of the founders and an active member of Het Collectief, a collective of master’s students formed during the Neuhaus programme as its independent satellite. The collective is developing a toolkit of probes and instruments that reveal the invisible entanglements of objects with non-human agents.