The State of Design: An Interview with Susan Yelavich
by Andrea García Cuevas
June 7, 2016
Currently Susan Yelavich is one of the most important researchers on design. Through this interview she dwells on the purpose and place of contemporary design, its relationship with the future and the social responsibility of designers.
"I am especially interested in the work of fashion hacktavist Otto von Busch, who also teaches at Parsons, as he identifies systems and codes and shares them with others so they can use them too. "
"Conflict Kitchen, where design is used to draw people together to eat the cuisine of nations where the United States is embroiled in wars."
"Jenny Sabin [...] experiments with textiles as responsive architecture."
"Michael Murphy: for working with local communities in places like Rwanda and Haiti to create architectures of health and beauty."

Currently Susan Yelavich is one of the most important researchers on design. Through this interview she dwells on the purpose and place of contemporary design, its relationship with the future and the social responsibility of designers.

 

1. Although it seems like a commonplace subject, it is still relevant to question design’s function nowadays. Especially in regards to two aspects: overproduction and the responsibility designers have towards their context. What is the state of the discipline at a time when consumerism and overproduction are shaping everyday life?

 

Design faces an enormous challenge in responding to this question. The habit of gratuitous consumption and the economy’s relentless pressure on companies to grow and ‘innovate’ is now deeply ingrained in daily life. What is needed is a cultural shift. Indeed, this was the impetus for the Design Studies MA program at Parsons.[1] We need to spend as much time (if not more) looking at the contexts and questioning the consequences of design as we do designing. 

 

To put consumption in a historical context, we need to remember that it is rooted in ancient trading, and was often how we came to learn about other cultures. Today, consumption serves less of a cosmopolitan role and operates more as entertainment and distraction. Experiencing difference through the purchase of something new is now less important than the confirmation that we ‘belong.’ The challenge is to devise new ways of consuming that acknowledge that people will always have desires (stopping consumption is not the point) while shrinking the carbon footprint involved in satisfying those desires. This can be addressed by design in several ways:

 

  • making more enduring products with adaptable features;
  • designing more sharing systems (i.e., Uber) but also making sure workers’ benefits are built into those systems;
  • modeling examples of DIY, salvaging, and repair;
  • using communication and social media design to advocate for more modest forms of consumption that aren’t punitive, i.e., think of shops like museums, everything you desire will be replace by another ‘exhibition,’ another product line that can offer aesthetic pleasure without the burden of ownership;
  • lastly, when we speak of over-consumption, we are either speaking about relatively affluent people or less-affluent people who purchase very cheap goods in quantity to compensate for status, i.e. in the U.S., places like the Family Dollar Store.[2] But we also have to keep in mind those who live with the consequences of over-consumption, i.e., wearing discarded clothes and foraging in landfills for computer parts.[3] These people are, in essence, denied opportunities to design for themselves. Designers need to address the problem from the opposite perspective here by encouraging making. Failing that many countries fall into  “an imitation trap, productivity and wages are relatively low in that sector, thereby mitigating incentives to invest in higher education. In turn, the lack of highly educated workers constrains production in design activities and prevents the exploitation of externalities associated with knowledge networks.”[4]

 

2. Through time, the designer’s role has been changing. During the Industrial Revolution designers were inclined to be associated with the figure of the inventor, while in the 20th century they were akin to aesthetic practices thanks to the relationship between art and design. How would you define the 21st century’s designer?

 

It is easy to forget that the 20th-century was not entirely driven by aesthetics. In the late 19th-century and especially the early part of the 20th century, the design imperative was to create more affordable products, to create affordable housing, and to advocate for the rights of the worker.  Yes, the design movements of that time had an aesthetic (the Bauhaus and Jugenstil movements certainly did) but that aesthetic was integral to the social ambitions of the designers involved. (One of the more compelling, if naïve, arguments of modernism was that it would be simpler to maintain and reduce the labor of housework.) That those same high modern products and buildings never did really have true mass appeal—and are now costly and fashionable—should not obscure their social ambition.

 

The difference today is that designers have found that declarations about aesthetic movements are not the best means of engaging people who are not designers (or, even like-minded patrons and companies.) Instead of creating affordable objects meant to trigger social reform, now designers who are dedicated to social and environmental justice are more apt to consider objects and situations and people (who some continue to call ‘users,’ as if they were addicts.) This is a far more challenging dynamic, since these variables—objects, situations, and people—are always in flux. In this dynamic, designers are not authors but coauthors who recognize the provisional nature of their work and don’t make big claims for finite solutions. I believe that even more attention should be paid to what happens to things and places once they leave the drawing board and become embedded in the world. In fact, this is the subject of my next book. Below is a brief excerpt of my discussion of Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge on The Drina (1945), which makes my point. (Note that the bridge’s kapia is a circular space in the middle of the bridge. Once designed and built, it had a profound affect on people’s lives.)

 

Every bridge is an architectural interlude, an interim space between two embankments. This one, with its kapia, facilitated far more than traffic, it provided a forum. Its very shape enhanced the innate cosmopolitanism of the bridge where Višegrad’s Muslims, Christians, and Jews rubbed shoulders on a regular basis. In the embrace of its kapia they made deals, philosophized, quarreled, and reconciled. Teenagers flirted and children played around it; wedding and funeral processions passed through it; even soldiers quartered in the town lingered from time to time. Above all, the kapia was a place to rest, to have a cup of tea. It was a parenthesis in time.  (Yelavich)[5]

 

This idea of building a place of rest in the middle of a two-way bridge is ancient (this bridge was actually built in the 16th century) but it is an idea that has been reprised in Serbia today!  Thinking of the social life of things and places is not so new and much as it is re-embraced.

 

This can also happen with temporary structures and situations. I’m thinking of a small take-out restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, called Conflict Kitchen, http://conflictkitchen.org/ where design is used to draw people together to eat the cuisine of nations where the United States is embroiled in wars.[6] The point is not so much the colors on the restaurant’s exterior or the menu design, but the interactions they spark.

 

3. Design as praxis has an impact on different fields: science, fashion, urban planning, etc. Does design have the ability to impact in a critical way, or can design be critical without being influenced by decorative or aesthetic aspects?

 

There is no more eloquent way of describing the range of design’s criticality than Parsons design studies scholar Clive Dilnot’s characterization of design’s capacities. As his chart makes clear, those capacities range from the normative to exploratory to the poetic. No category excludes another, but I think the most potent is the second: mediating and attuning relationships.

 

Some Design Capacities

 

Those to do with organizing/planning:-

Organization                                   Planning       

Programming                                  Schematics  

Scenarios

Those to do with mediating and attuning our relationships:-

Negotiation                         Mediation    

Attunement                        Resonance   

Reciprocity

Those that have to do with moving from existing to preferred situations/capacities of intervention:-

Translation                          Intervention

Transfiguration                   (Re-)Configuration

Disposition

Natalic capacities; those involved in bringing something new  into the world

Possibilities                         Propositions

Origination                          Invention

Innovation  

Transfigurative and Poetic Capacities  

Transformation                         Revelation

Transfiguration                         Poetic gauging of existence

Aesthetic Discovery          

 

4.What kind of power does design have over society? I’m thinking particularly about activist design, or the relationship between design and violence as it was presented in Design and Violence, the exhibition curated by Jamer Hunt and Paola Antonelli.

 

True ‘activist’ design rarely makes headlines, and often doesn’t get recognized at all because it is embedded in larger projects, i.e., the UN Habitat projects around the world. Plus, sometimes activist design is conducted by non-designers and their work isn’t publicized as ‘design.’ I’m thinking of journalist Alexander Eaton, who translated his concerns for resource-deprived farmers in Mexico into an amazing product: a biofuel system in a rubber bladder called Sistema Biobolsa. (https://www.clintonfoundation.org/blog/authors/alexander-eaton) Architects in general do a better job of getting the word out about their initiatives and are thus visible to be judged as effective or not. I’m thinking about the Aga Khan Awards, the work of MASS Design, and that of Brian Bell’s Design Corps, to name only three of the many socially-driven practices I know of.

 

Efforts like that of my friends and colleagues Jamer and Paola, plus that of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, and the students they have taught, are extremely important for stimulating consciousness within the design community. This is no small thing, as their influence will shape practice and practice shapes the world. However, there is one thing that we would all like to do and that is to reach a broader public and go beyond preaching to the converted. But the jury is out as to whether this can happen in a meaningful way when the ‘change agents’ are writers, academicians, and curators. (I include myself among them.) With so many media outlets, blogs, forums, it is near impossible to communicate ideas to a large audience, i.e. “consume more modestly.” Though I always hold out hope that the design community can find new ways to promote and model sustainable practices that will be as effective as, for example, the no-smoking campaign has been.

 

5. I would like to address the concept of “the new” from two different perspectives. The first one is the concept of “the new” that was described by Louise Schouwenberg and Hella Jongerius in their manifesto: “Beyond the New: A Search for Ideal in Design.” The other perspective is “the new” as it was analyzed in your book Design as Future Making. Both theories are defiant of each other; while Jongerius and Schouwenberg are opposed in considering “the new” as a unique category when defining design production, you understand “the new” as a choice. How should this concept be understood?

 

I’m glad you asked this, as it gives me the chance to clarify my view of “the new” in a design context. I would characterize it as a shift in emphasis of how we think and practice design—which I’ve already mentioned in response to your second question. In fact, I’m not sure I used the word ‘new’ at all in Design as Future-Making. Instead as you can see from the excerpt below, I place the emphasis on ‘emergent,’ which suggests that the work I care about comes from a recombination of sources and resources.

 

Design as Future-Making offers emergent models of design that are much needed today.  It positions contemporary practice within a pan-disciplinary framework.  This is especially critical now that virtually every object, place, and phenomenon is understood to exist in an ecology of forces and counterforces.  Of course, it was always so, but the situation is far more complicated today.  Networks are no longer metaphors, but a vast agglomeration of cables, extruding untold billions of electronic exchanges that can and do alter the world at breakneck speed.

 

 

Note the italicized sentence above. I believe that nothing is sui generis, or brand new, and that we are always extrapolating on the past, just under different conditions. (For example, in my essay “Petrified Curtains, Animate Architextiles” in Design as Future-Making, I write about Loop.ph’s luminous pavilions in the context of traditional lace making.)  So, in fact, I am in complete accord with Hella and Louise’s views. I especially like when they point out: “Cultural and historical awareness are woven into the DNA of any worthwhile product.” I often use the DNA metaphor myself. History may be elliptical or cyclical, but it’s never a straight line. A world of the ‘new’ would be a world of amnesiacs.

 

 

6. Should designers have to think of the future while designing? In accordance to your book, what is the relationship between design and the future?

 

Ah, now I see! You’ve equated ‘future’ and ‘new.’ This question helps explain the last. 

 

When the cellphone became a smartphone, I’m not sure we saw something new. What we found was that our cameras and computers were now folded into a single product. Though people’s behaviors did change. There’s a famous cover of the New Yorker Magazine showing parents’ taking their children out for Halloween; instead of watching their kids, they’re all looking at their phones. New? Or just a new level of distraction?

 

The designer’s job is to not only consider the ergonomics of the phone (or any other product) but also all the other factors that they are aware of: distracted behaviors, changes in working, as well as the phone’s materiality, disposability, economics, and social equity. Of course, no one person can control or should try to control all of these factors, but individual designers of conscience can (and do often) work with others to address these issues.  If there is anything ‘new’ today it is the quantity of information at our disposal. We can’t pretend we don’t know the affects of design when we can see them in the media all the time.

 

7. Nowadays design is engaged in the interactive processes, DIY practices, and technologies that invite people to get involved in process of making. At times like this, can we still talk about "consumers"? How would you define “consumers” or “users” of today?

 

As I mentioned earlier, I have a problem with “user” as a term for human beings. “Consumer” is not much better. “Prosumer” seems to be the word of choice to indicate that a person has more than a passive relationship with his or her purchases. There is also much talk of a ‘maker movement,’ which can mean informal knitting groups or three-dimensional printing companies. “Hacker” or “hacktavist” are more aggressive terms of art. I am especially interested in the work of fashion hacktavist Otto von Busch, (http://www.selfpassage.org/) who also teaches at Parsons, as he identifies systems and codes and shares them with others so they can use them too.

 

In general, I think that speed, price point, and social signifiers seem to govern consumption for most people. Online shopping is frighteningly easy. (The environmental costs of shipping are never advertised.)  Yes, there are a growing number of very conscientious firms like Fairphone, Everlane, and Zady that are transparent about their materials, labor, and profits; but their customers tend to be relatively affluent or at least well educated. Again, design may first need to get better at propaganda to maximize the impact of these virtuous efforts.

 

Lastly, to some extent, we have to acknowledge that we are all adaptive. The ways in which we personalize products now may be as shallow as choosing a different pattern for your cell phone cover but if you look around your home, you’ll also see other adaptations that really make a difference in how you go about your days. I’ll bet you’ll find a table that’s also a desk, a frigde that serves as bulletin board, a box that doubles as a table, or an empty can serving as a place to keep your keys. If we could call more attention to these tactical uses of things, we might find even more things that can be multi-purposed.

 

8. I’m very interested in the concept you propose of regarding design as a discipline. Design as a discipline and design as praxis are two different entities nowadays. What is your outlook on this subject? Do you think that designers should think of design more as an integral, historical and social discipline and not just as savoir faire?

 

I think most designers, certainly those coming out of school in the last five to ten years, think of their work contextually. Professionals, who work in academia, for NGOs, non-profits, and/or companies with non-profit divisions, are more readily able to put their ideals into practice. But an art director of a magazine that promotes fishing, or a product designer who works for a packaging firm (to name just two examples), faces a bigger challenge. I recognize the limitations of the job market and the need to find employment, so I always tell my students who don’t have the luxury of staying in academia or being supported by an ‘angel’ that they need to have two jobs: one to pay the rent and other to keep their souls alive!  (Full disclosure: I waitressed at a fast food chain and worked in a down-market textile design company—hardly models of sustainable consumption—before I landed a position in a museum and then at Parsons.)

 

9. Finally, could you please name a few young designers you find interesting and why? 

 

- Otto von Busch: for his joyous approach to helping people become “fashion-able” (vs. fashionable.)[7]

- Jenny Sabin: for her experiments with textiles as responsive architecture.[8]

- Ivan Kucina: for his work in Belgrade, Serbia, on informal ways of making and claiming space.

- Lorraine Wild: for her exquisitely intelligent book designs.[9] 

- Chris Conley: for balancing his corporate work with his work with local communities in Chicago.[10]

- Michael Murphy: for working with local communities in places like Rwanda and Haiti to create architectures of health and beauty.

 

 

 

Susan Yelavich is an Associate Professor and Director of the MA Design Studies program in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons The New School for Design. She has also taught at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, Milan, Italy, and The New School’s Democracy & Diversity Institute in Wroclaw, Poland, and most recently been a guest of CENTRO in Mexico City. Her current research explores the parallels between design and literature and the relationship between textiles and architecture. Yelavich is the author of numerous articles and books, including Design as Future-Making (2014), Contemporary World Interiors (2007), Pentagram/Profile (2004), Inside Design Now (2003), Design for Life (1997), and The Edge of the Millennium: An International Critique of Architecture, Urban Planning, Product and Communication Design (1993). She is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome (2003-2004). Previously, she was the assistant director for public programs at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.

 

 

 


[1] Design Studies MA. Parsons the New School. Web 26 May 2016. <http://www.newschool.edu/parsons/ma-design-studies-research/ >.

[2] Family Dollar Store. Web 26 May 2016. <http://bit.ly/1ORjHGR>.

[3] Texas in Africa. Web 26 May 2016 <http://bit.ly/1qBrSvv>.

[4] Excerpt from Agénor, Pierre-Richard, Otaviano Canuto and Michael Jelenic. “Avoiding Middle-Income Growth Traps” in Gökhan Karakuş .“ Dead-End Design - Designers and the Middle Income Trap in Turkey”. Jan 19, 2016.

[5] Yelavich, Susan. “Things and Places in Literature: Reading Writing Design.”

[6] Rubin, Jon and Dawn Weleski. Conflict Kitchen. Web 26 April 2016. < http://conflictkitchen.org/>.

[7] Busch, Otto von. >Self_Passage<. Web 26 May 2016.< http://www.selfpassage.org/>.

[8] Sabin, Jenny. Jenny Sabin. Web 26 May 2016. <http://jennysabin.com/>.

[9] Wild, Lorraine. Green Dragon Office. Web 26 May 2016. < http://greendragonoffice.com/>.

[10] Conley, Chris. Gravity Tank. Web 26 May 2016. <www.gravitytank.com/team_profile/chris_conley >.