Monday, 10:00am
13 May 2019

Not at your service

The Design Philosophy Reader

Edited by Anne-Marie Willis, Bloomsbury, £26.99

Anne-Marie Willis has assembled a compelling collection of essays that address the ways design and philosophy can change our lives. Review by John O’Reilly

Bloomsbury’s new reader on the crossovers of design and philosophy asks us to question the traditional service role of professional design, writes John O’Reilly

I first came across ‘design philosophy’ as an undergraduate back in the 1980s. It was a second-year course in a branch of philosophy called ontology – meaning the study of ‘being’, more of which in a moment. Every Saturday morning, I would travel for an hour, often feeling a bit Kraipalê (crap, hung over, in the ancient Greek) to listen to the then head of department talk to us about medieval philosophers such as Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. This was Ireland in the 1980s and in many ways Aquinas’s world felt quite contemporary. Condoms were made obtainable without prescription for the first time in 1985 and then only in chemists. Recreational sex was now possible over-the-counter, so to speak (‘forgive me Father for my lewd thoughts’). Our ontology lecturer was a grey-haired, pipe-smoking priest, with a doctorate on the French philosopher Nicolas Malebranche (1638-1715) and the unknown intelligence of angels, a subject whose deviance from the norm struck me at the time as far more expressive of the divine spark than Aquinas’s ‘Argument by Design’. Aquinas’s argument proposed that the complexity of our world was such that there must be an intelligent designer. A God. Aquinas was eventually proved right: there are plenty of intelligent designers out there; many earn a good living; and faced with an impossible brief and even worse budget can create the world for a client in even less than seven days.

When Prof Desmond Connell, our head of department, became the Archbishop of Dublin in 1988, Irish Times journalist Fintan O’Toole wrote that an article by Connell in the 1950s reflected ‘an impatience with the modern world in which mass communications gives all sorts of people the right to be heard on subjects he believes they know nothing about’. Which brings me back to design.

Spoiler alert
Here we are in 2019, light years away from the godlike designer, a world in which ‘everybody designs’ according to Ezio Manzini. Design in the professional world is no longer exclusively about products, fashion, buildings, landscapes or publications but is also about services, systems, interactions, experiences, publics and policy. Most of all, in a weird, unfathomable twist to my own history of design, design really is ontological. One of the essays in The Design Philosophy Reader is Tony Fry’s ‘Design as an Ontological Question’. Fry writes that ‘ontological Design is a theory and a practice concerned with the being of things (designed objects, environments, processes, texts or appearances) and the way these things create and sustain the time of the future. Ontological Design brings into question the very division between embodied and disembodied matter by an exploration of reciprocal relations. It renders problematic the separation between us and things, subjects and objects, designing and being, world, self and others.’ So here I am, looking at my thoughts talking to me on screen in default 11pt Calibri, guiding me to how I might begin ‘designing’ a review of a design philosophy reader for other readers who have also found themselves here now, perhaps by design, perhaps even by intelligent design (thank God).

There is no Thomas Aquinas in the Reader but there is Aristotle (think of Aristotle as Helvetica, Aquinas as Arial) whose ‘Science, Art and Practical Wisdom’ sits in one of the eight sections, ‘The Practice of Design’. Editor Anne-Marie Willis’s own practice of ‘designing’ the Reader is demonstrated in the introduction to this section, where in just two pages the she gives a richly considered, potted-history of philosophy, showing how notions and practices of design and philosophy are mutually implicated.

As she writes in her general introduction to the book, ‘Design Philosophy is a meeting of design and philosophy; it could be written as Design/Philosophy to indicate a non-hierarchical relation, a condition of give and take, wherein one moment of a dialogue philosophy is dominant, at another design is dominant.’ That said, the boundaries between the two are often only visible in bad design and bad philosophy – ‘bad’ in this instance means thinking and making that comfortably repeats familiar patterns and current flavours, thoughtlessly and carelessly. Good design philosophy changes the world for the better but also makes us different, too. As Fry writes in his essay, ‘Design, when linked to sustainability, does not function with certainty but with learning to change.’

The other section titles are: ‘The Essence of Design’ (spoiler alert: there isn’t one); ‘The Ethos of Design’; ‘Design and the Other’; ‘Being Designed and Things’; ‘The Designing of Technology’; ‘The Designing of Visuality’; ‘Designing after the End’. Willis, who is professor of Design Theory at the German University in Cairo, has had practice at designing this kind of thinking. She was editor of Design Philosophy Papers (DPP), which ran from 2003-17 and included many writers contributing to this volume. The issues of DPP are available online and the themes from ‘Sustainability’ in Volume 1, to Volume 14 ‘Power and Social Design’, to Volume 15 ‘Design after Design’ demonstrate where Design Philosophy positions itself.

Willis writes in DPP’s Volume 13 issue on ‘Transition Design’ that in order for us to understand how design shapes us and the systems we live and work with, design needs to locate itself in systems that design it and which it helps design: ‘many Graphic, Product and Media design graduates think that just because they are Designers, they can operate at the higher levels, designing systems, strategies, change-campaigns, and so on. What they and many of their teachers do not recognize is that conventional discipline-based design education cannot contribute to substantial change unless students are inducted into understanding theories of power, social structure and social change, and the like.’ (‘Transition Design: the need to refuse discipline and transcend instrumentalism’). In 2019 as we begin to clearly see the impact of climate change, inequality and the implosion of democratic institutions, the vision sitting behind Design Philosophy is that business-as-usual, design-as-usual, ‘simply contributes to the continuation of unsustainability: educating in error for designing in error. If “everything is designed,” and “the designed goes on designing” and this, predominantly continues to drive unsustainability forward into defuturing, then design must become a far better informed, thoughtful type of practice.’ The book calls time on the traditional service role of professional design, which emerged from industrialisation, and the kinds of knowledge, used to continue practices that decontextualise themselves, their clients and the work.

Knowledge maps
The Reader contains older, essential design-related texts from philosophers such as Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jean Baudrillard, Henri Lefebvre, Martin Heidegger, Gilbert Simondon, and more recent significant thinkers such as Bruno Latour, Bernard Stiegler, Rosa Braidotti, Isabelle Stengers and Judith Butler, on subject matter that ranges from artificial intelligence to the Anthropocene, to decolonising knowledge, calligraphy and affordances. Essays such as ‘Ethics in the Making’, by Bodil Jönsson, Peter Anderberg, Eva Flodin, Lone Malmborg, Camilla Nordgren and Arne Svensk (rehabilitation designers and an interaction designer), illustrate the way design practice can create its own, new knowledge maps. Such maps are made, they explain, through reflective documentation, a narrative supported by reference to thinkers who extend the design imagination and attentive elaboration of case studies.

Screenshot from the Strelka website, 2019.
Top. Cover of The Design Philosophy Reader, 2018. 

Strelka screenshot

The book contains essays that should be required reading for both research and professional work, such as Benjamin Bratton’s ‘Outing Artificial Intelligence: Reckoning with Turing Tests’. Bratton, author of much-lauded tome The Stack and programme director at the Strelka Institute in Moscow – one of the most interesting experiments in design education – shows how much current debate around Artificial Intelligence (AI), as with our debates around traditional ecology, is based around an extraordinary misplaced belief in the centrality of the human to life in general. ‘Should complex AI arrive,’ he writes, ‘it will not be humanlike unless we insist that it pretend to be so, because, one assumes, the idea that intelligence could be both real and inhuman at the same time is morally and psychologically intolerable. Instead of nurturing this bigotry, we would do better to allow that in our universe “thinking” is much more diverse, even alien, than our own particular case. The real philosophical lessons of AI will have less to do with humans teaching machines how to think than with machines teaching humans a fuller and truer range of what thinking can be.’ It’s worth noting in this machine context that one of the earliest explorations of design and philosophy (designers might now all it co-creation) that foregrounded the idea of ‘ontology’ was between Stanford University computer scientist Terry Winogrand and Chilean philosopher Fernando Flores was the 1986 book Understanding Computers and Cognition: a new foundation for design. Prior to his work as a philosopher Flores had been Finance Minister in the Allende government, working with British management cybernetics expert Stafford Beer on Cybersyn, a computerised network that has been described as an early Web 2.0. (Flores was later imprisoned by the Pinochet regime, psychologically tortured and Cybersyn was shut down.)

Cameron Tonkinwise’s essay ‘Ethics by Design, Or the Ethos of Things’ is as good an entry point as any to understand what is at stake in Design Philosophy. Along with Terry Irwin and Gideon Kossoff, Tonkinwise was one of the key initiators of Transition Design when he was Director of Design Studies and Doctoral Studies at Carnegie Mellon. The quote below from the essay is inspired by philosopher Bruno Latour’s exploration of the idea of the ‘social’, and I have used Tonkinwise’s essay with my own postgraduate students on a client project to help us rethink conventional human-centred notions of ethics. Tonkinwise writes, ‘There must therefore be an ethical force hidden beyond what we now call “the social”, in other words, in things. Things must be acculturating or ethos-generating. What things design, that is to say, the intentions, actions, understandings and relations that things are designed to design, that they design beyond what their designers intended, and that they are redesigned to design by those who use them, must be a vital part of any ethos with a future. With this in mind, the question is not, “what can material design learn from the philosophy of ethics?”, but, “what must the philosophy of ethics learn about design and the axial role of designed things in conserving, promoting and altering what is ethical?” Not, “how can design become ethical?”, but, “how can design be understood as already ethical, as making things ethical?”’

A significant difficulty in working with young designers and with clients working in the field of AI, for example, is the belief that we must start with an abstract idea of ‘philosophy’, or a ‘code of ethics’ that can be applied onto professional work. More generally we might want to distinguish between: ‘applied knowledge’ which is useful but like anything off-the-shelf, is not most attuned to the languages and ecologies in which it finds itself; and emergent knowledge or ‘research through practice’ in which concepts, practices and relationships are designed on-the-move. We need to learn how design constructs the ethical, or the harmful, rather than jumping in with pre-designed frameworks of thinking – bad philosophy and bad design.

Willis’s curation of the Reader is compelling, not least because she has a critical vision; this is not a sample of work, or just a collection of the great and good. While she gives space to many different voices, if there is a guiding perspective it is the work of philosopher Martin Heidegger – his work on ‘dwelling’ and ‘the thing’ (which features in this volume) has made him especially popular among post-graduate researchers in Architecture, where philosophy is used as a creative resource both in research and professionally. However, there are other ways of designing design and philosophy. I wrote a paper for Deleuze and Design (ed. Jamie Brassett and Betti Marenko), which takes philosopher Gilles Deleuze as a starting point. The most significant contribution to how we might think about the relationship between philosophy and design in terms of ecology, social change and the decolonising of design and philosophy is Arturo Escobar’s Designs for the Pluriverse.

And I am currently going back to school again, this time to art college, doing an MA in Academic Practice in Art, Communication and Design, about the relationship between criticality, care, and decision-making as a practice in innovation. My supervisor is a designer. No priest. Or angels. Just designing my transition.

Dr John O’Reilly is Course Tutor on MA Innovation Management at CSM. He is editing a book with Dr Jamie Brassett on Anticipation for Routledge which will be out in 2020. He is co-editor of Aeffect, The Journal of Innovation Management. 

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