Design, is it not merely politics?

The association between “design” and “politics” is not a straight forward one.

Typically those working in the design field (engineering, architecture, software, systems, etc.) do not necessarily see the link with politics. And those working in politics do not necessarily see the same link with design.

However, in researching (web search – Thank you Google!), one can find that the topic of “design and politics” is indeed being addressed at the philosophical level through the works of people like Tony Fry, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) as well as students like Marcel Münch along with many others.

Ton Fry focuses on sustainability and the role of scientists in politics in his book “Design as Politics”. His point of view is well described in his book which is a heavy read and one that I can only really take  in bits and bites. Honestly, I am currently still digesting this particular work. However, it should be noted that there are at least two points of view being expressed on the web with respect to Fry’s “Design as Politics” work.  One review (Keith Owens) suggests that  “The book packs a wallop and extends the thinking Fry voiced in two earlier works,  A New Design Philosophy (1999) and Design Futuring (2009)” and underlines that “Fry argues that designers should answer this challenge by transforming themselves into politicized change agents who will confront blinkered forms of ecological thinking and who can overturn many long established and deeply entrenched political, economic, ideological and technological foundations upon which rest human’s current self-negating ways. ”.  On the other hand, another review (Mohsen Shahmanesh) underlines the need for humanity to pursue sustainability as described by Fry as well as highlights that Fry’s point of view on democracy  as “…But when Fry goes into providing what he sees as a road to solution he goes badly wrong…   …Moreover, despite his repeated assertion that his solution is the only one that is not utopian, the world of Design as Politics is essentially built on a series of unsupportable assumptions.”.

Luhmann is credited as being a pioneer in developing and applying a “systems” point of view for the design of social systems which comprises systems theory as societal theory, communication theory and evolution theory.

With respect to Marcel Münch, I should note that his blog post “Systems theory for design thinkers” pointed to Luhmann. Münch’s blog treats many interesting subjects. However, the point that I found the most interesting was found at the end of the Luhmann post. There Münch underlines that “Ultimately this (systems theory) leads us to the question if design itself could be a system, in line with Luhmann’s theory…   … Design seems to be omnipresent and intrinsic to every system. One could even interpret it in a way and say the binary code of a system is design”.

However, design is indeed a system.

There are a number of different definitions and points of view on what is design especially when referring to technological development and innovation. Further, the range of such definitions can be multiplied by a few magnitudes if the point of view of different practitioners were to be included. I am no different.

For me, design is a system that is composed of a number of interactive and interdepend components that work together to accomplish some desired task (see “Why Rock n Roll?” post). The design system components can be defined as “recognizing a need”, defining the problem, gathering information, developing alternative solutions, evaluating those solutions, detailing the design and implementing it.

Recognition of need and phrasing it in so many words often constitutes a highly creative act because the need may only a vague discontent, a feeling of uneasiness, or a sensing that something is not right.

Joseph E. Shigley, the Later Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering, “Mechanical Engineering Design”

One way to illustrate the interactive and interdependent relationships between these design system components is through the development of a concept map.

Figure 1 Creative Tension

Figure 1 Creative Tension

Consider a desired yet undefined state (fig 1). As time moves forward the distance between where one is and the desired yet undefined state increases creating a form of “discontent”, “uneasiness” or some form of creative tension. At some point, this forces one to start to recognise what is the source of this tension or need. At that point the design process starts (fig 2), followed by problem definition, information gathering, etc. and finishes with the implementation of the design and hopefully meeting the desired state.

Figure 2 The Design Process

Figure 2 The Design Process

The process is driven by a design environment which in turn is driven by a client which can be an organization or society at large and a designer “master” of the design process and associated tools and methodologies.

Considering that the design process as described is a dynamic between people (designers) living in society (client), is not design merely politics as defined as “the total complex of relations between people living in society”?

One thought on “Design, is it not merely politics?

  1. Pingback: Design as Politics under review as part of Design Talks book club | Design Talks

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