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Studio Time: Future Thinking in Art and Design

By Z33, curated and edited by Ils Huygens, Jan Boelen, Heini Lehtinen

Black Dog Press, 2018

In 1939, Legendary industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes outlined a vision of the future in New York. Massive expressways for high speed private cars connected the corners of America. The four design principles which were introduced in FUTURAMA, General Motors’ pavilion at the New York world fair – a separation between lanes of opposite directions, the separation between city and intercity, the expansion of roads and traffic control – have come to outline the way the American transportation landscape has been designed. This has not been a predominant notion. It was the combination of economic interest, federal agendas, a well-crafted approach to public opinion-  a moment after a financial crisis, and a moment before the industrial upsurge of war – and design that have determined the direction of American transportation.

Just a few months later, General motors’ product stood again in contemplation on visions of the future. Thousands of workers had walked out of the huge vehicle producer’s factories, including what was then the biggest tool and die factory in the world, bringing to a halt the production of GM’s cars, a production which was crafted to rely on them in scale and expertise. The strike organizers used this reliance of GM on their production chain, and the way the system was designed to operate on their joint effort, to protest their poor conditions. This strike, known as the “Tool and die” strike, was the one which finally unionized the makers of the GM product line under one body, and was one of the great social victories of the workers’ rights effort of the 20th century in America.

In both cases, it was design, products and their relation to social and technological changes as well as economic powers, that has stirred the future in a new course. Whether the imaginative and well-crafted design of vast transportation systems, or the reliance of society and businesses on mass produced goods and the way their production lines were arranged by utilizing mass amounts of workers placed together, allowing them to communicate and organize as a single body – in both cases, systems and products, with a smart sense for Zeitgeist and politics and the possibility to manipulate them, have had dramatic influences on the future.

It is undoubtable that both achievements had questionable effects on the world, for better and for worse, and both face unknown futures yet again, with the birth of new technologies, designs, interest parties and conflicting agendas. This is the nature of the future – complex and unpredictable. It cannot be foreseen, only explored with the best (or worst) intentions. And again, these times offer a unique convergences of agendas, technologies, challenges and uncertainty to try and explore new futures. And design can play a role – ethical, strategic, and directly functional in the way these futures are crafted.

Yet more often than not, as a mentor and curator, I run across designers who take their position towards the new based the assumption that it will perpetuate the present. Most apparent in my years long research on 3D printing, students state claims against exploring this new technology: “I am not sure it will manifest”, “I don’t believe it will find its place in people’s homes”, etc. These are implementations of a growing lack of trust in technology’s possibility to do good, to have a positive social effect. Because with the complexity and uncertainty of a future vision, designers, seeking clear answers, are baffled with contradicting arguments about technology’s potential. When confronted with Facebook’s contribution to the Arab spring, for example, they are directed towards its results, and to Facebook’s growing invasion of privacy. Since they cannot bet on a winning horse, they don’t go to the races.

And so, these designers stand on the sidelines. Some continue to provide well-crafted services to the existing economic mechanisms, providing sleek designs to a new phone, an egg poacher, or another corporate website, with their briefs defined by marketing departments and UX experts. Some take the role of critics from a distance, highlighting grim futures in the form of scenarios and the design of dystopias, often with the singular narrative approach so familiar with shows like “Black mirror”, avoiding complexity yet again. some craft autonomous fields of interest which shun the future, or imagine autonomous future societies, far from ours, disregarding technology altogether and pushing back to nature, or offer mechanisms unfitting mass societies, with highly crafted natural products or systems of living only attainable to the very few. In doing so, they remain either servants of the present systems, retaining a low level position within it, or detaching themselves from it, and thus leaving the future open to other influences.

This is an artificial separation between “I, designer” and “I, consumer” and a blatant misunderstanding of design’s unique position in the cultural field, as well as in industry. Design, a central pivot of the goods economy as well as the service economy, is not a reflection on popular culture but IS the zeitgeist itself, and is not necessarily a reactor, nor a service provider for economic and technological changes but a propagator of them. Design is a discipline embedded deeply in the economic system, created by it and works from within it. There is no design that works outside the economic machine, be it avant-garde or industrial, whether it resides in galleries or mass retail chains. It encompasses the way living is perceived, broadcasted, debated, sold and utilized into mass audiences – through magazines, commercials, branding, production and sales points. As such it holds the possibility not only to react on an imagined, directed or assumed future, but to influence and direct the creation of a future it rallies for – as it is the main tool with which the future is presented to the public.

This, however, can only be achieved by embracing the complexity of the system design works within – not through a cynical or untrusting view of it, but through a pragmatic one. taking hold of design’s position within the system, and understanding its mechanisms – marketing, economics, logistics, etc. – to be able to undermine it, changing it from within. This is design’s unique position – to embed the social, environmental and cultural agendas within the language of marketing and profit. To be a double agent, utilizing the economic machine to change it for the better.

This effort, of course, is bound to fail. As said – the future cannot be foreseen, only explored. Design is part of the bigger economic machine of global capitalism – unpredictable, all-encumbering and wealthy. But it can stir, slowly and through a mass effort, the ship towards new directions. For this to happen, designers should look beyond an introspective search. Embracing complexity means diving into the harsh, almost unintelligible workings of reality. The research resources of designers which aim at the future should be all that which is not design, but the components that revolve the product. It is the history and rhetoric of market, politics and social movements that comprise and imagine, pragmatically, the ‘butterfly effect’ that allows for a product, business plan, marketing strategy or legislation to create vast social changes.

Above all, and quite simply, the main source of knowledge for these designers should be the daily newspaper, in a constant search for opportunities to create disruptive action. In it, lies both the timing, the players, and the media’s eye for embracing change. This virus position, of using the system’s mechanisms against itself, is not only highly influential, but also profoundly radical – by simply doing its job, Changing, with the best intentions, with an attentive and cautious mind but without a numbing fear of the possible results.