First, a quick introduction
In these fast-changing times, it’s more than ever important to reflect on the power of design. The writings by claimed design critic Alice Rawsthorn over the years have proven to be reliable source of contemplations for designers worldwide. She carefully dissects and demystifies the world of design, stripping it down to the bare inner core. To get to know her a little bit better, we asked Alice a few questions.
Alice, you have a background in art history. How does your background as an (art) historian influence your perception of design?
I discovered design while studying art history at Cambridge University in the late 1970s. I found the course frustrating as it was very old-fashioned, but the faculty library was fantastic as it had subscriptions to cultural journals from all over the world. Among them was Domus, which was then edited by Alessandro Mendini, with Ettore Sottsass as the art director. Domus gave me a brilliant introduction to design by depicting it as a dynamic force at the intersection of politics, art, psychology, literature, ecology, film, fashion, music, activism, style culture and other things I loved. That’s how I’ve seen it ever since.
So these magazines by the great masters Mendini & Sottsass made you develop your attitude towards design. In your work you connect design to social and cultural issues. How do these topics affect each other?
Design is a complex and elusive phenomenon that has had many different meanings at different times and in different contexts, but I believe it has always had one elemental role as an agent of change that can interpret changes of any type – social, cultural, ecological, political, economic, scientific, and so on – to ensure that they will affect us positively, rather than negatively. All of these developments are inextricable from one another. One of the joys – and challenges – of writing about design is that, as it is constantly in flux, it is impossible to have a fixed perspective on it, which is both demanding and exciting.
On Design Indaba 2019, you talked about the importance of acknowledging bad design. Interesting, especially since we tend to only focus on the ‘good’ things. How can bad design help the future of (good) design?
It has always struck me as odd that when design is discussed it is generally in terms of “good” design. The blunt truth is that very few design projects can be accurately described as “good”. Most design is mediocre, and much of it is downright bad. We rarely talk about bad design, but we ought to, because it has at least as much – if not more – impact on our lives as good design, not least because it can require so much time effort and energy to repair the damage it causes and to extricate ourselves from the problems created by, say, an illegible sign or a sloppily programmed app. Unless we analyse bad design, how can designers learn how to stop repeating the same mistakes? And the rest of us work out how to avoid the problems it creates?
So bad design is an opportunity to improve future design. In recent years we have seen more developments, such as the growing role of technology. How do you see the future of design in the light of these technological developments?
Developing constructive applications for new technologies, and protecting us from their dangers, has been one of design’s most important roles for centuries. It is more important than ever as we live at a time when technology is advancing at unprecedented speed and scale. The logistics of our daily lives have already been transformed by digitisation, and we are now poised for equally dramatic change wrought by artificial intelligence and other neuromorphic technologies. The extraordinary power of these technologies makes it essential that they are deployed with intelligence, sensitivity and prudence to ensure that they will make our lives better, not worse. Design will play a critical part in that process. The recent media scare stories about AI may seem sensationalistic, but they serve as useful and timely warnings of the dire consequences of sloppy design.
Talking about media. Last year you published ‘Design as an Attitude’, an influential book on design today that everyone should read. Which design attitudes can you define right now?
Design as an Attitude is a phrase coined by the Hungarian visual theorist László Moholy-Nagy in his 1947 book, Vision in Motion. It refers to design’s original guise when it was practised instinctively and unknowingly long before a word was invented to describe it and design practise was formalised in the industrial age. The book describes how a new generation of designers are liberating themselves from those constraints thanks to the availability of fairly basic and affordable digital tools - from crowdfunding and social media platforms, to continuing increases in computing power – that enable them to operating independently in pursuit of their own social, political, humanitarian, environmental and entrepreneurial goals. By doing so, they are reviving the improvisational spirit that inspired Moholy-Nagy.
There are lots of examples of attitudinal design in the book. Some are the work of professional designers, like the Dutch design engineer Boyan Slat, and his ongoing efforts to develop the Ocean Cleanup, in the hope of solving one of our biggest pollution problems, by clearing the plastic trash that’s poisoning the oceans. He has raised over $40 million from grants and crowdfunding to design, prototype and test the system. Other examples are of vernacular design projects, which were not “designed” in the conventional sense. One of my favourites is the symbol of the raised fist, which has signified strength and unity in the face of adversity for over 5,000 years: from ancient Mesopotamia, to Black Lives Matter. It communicates its meaning clearly and precisely, not least because the physical action of clenching and raising a fist really does make you feel stronger.
DDW19 has as theme If not now then When? How do you see the role of design in helping solve some of the most pressing problems the world faces today?
The word “helping” is critical. Design is not a panacea for the climate emergency, refugee crisis, deepening inequality or any of the other major challenges of our time. But it is one of the most powerful tools that can help us to address those problems and to develop constructive solutions working in collaboration with specialists from other relevant disciplines: anthropology, ethnography, law, psychology, statistics, economics and others. Those collaborations should be genuinely open, honest and treated as mutually beneficial learning exercises, and design must always be applied as sensitively, and intelligently as possible.
DDW19 is one of the biggest design festivals in the world. What do you think DDW19 will bring to the global conversation surrounding these topics?
Historically, one of design’s weaknesses has been the relatively low level of discourse around it compared to, say, art, literature, film or philosophy. This is a legacy of the largely commercial role design played in the industrial age. As digital technology has liberated design from those constraints, design practice has become increasingly ambitious, eclectic and ideological. Events like DDW19 can foster the rigorous, constructively challenging discourse that design needs to fulfil its potential.
You’re one of the ambassadors of DDW19, alongside Studio Drift, Jalila Essaïdi and Stefano Boeri Architetti. Why do you think you are an ambassador for this year’s DDW?
I always enjoy Dutch Design Week as a source of surprising and compelling interpretations of design. I look forward to discovering more at DDW19. Equally, I admire the breadth of DDW’s audience and its ability to engage the general public, as well as the design cognoscenti. My hope is to reinforce that at DDW19 by introducing the voices of people from outside the design community whose work, I believe, has had a profound impact on our understanding of design. The more perspectives the design community – and the public - hear on design the better.
Alice Rawsthorn is an award-winning design critic and author of the critically acclaimed books Design as an Attitude and Hello World: Where Design Meets Life. Her weekly design column for The New York Times was syndicated worldwide for over a decade. A leading public speaker on design, Alice has spoken at important global events including TED and the World Economic Forum in Davos. Born in Manchester and based in London, Alice is chair of the boards of trustees of The Hepworth Wakefield art gallery in Yorkshire and Chisenhale Gallery in London. A founding member of the Writers for Liberty campaign for human rights, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for services to design and the arts.