“Forgoing design synthesis doesn’t mean giving up generalism – it means giving up genericity, a vagueness that makes practitioners feel groundless.“
Essay by Silvio Lorusso. Part of Episode #1.
In 2004, the world-famous designer Bruce Mau sketched a simple diagram on a napkin. It showed that in the past design was the smallest of a series of concentric circles representing business, culture and nature. Not anymore: design had become the biggest circle. It now included these domains. In Mau’s view design had turned into a ubiquitous force shaping the world as we know it.
Design’s ubiquity makes it hard to pinpoint. I’m reminded of a medieval definition of deity which sounds almost like a design brief: “God: an infinite sphere, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere”. With an indeterminate center, design can easily reveal itself in between other disciplines and cultural domains, linking them. For instance, Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus School, understood design as “a new unity” of art and technology. While art and technology remain two distinct realms, design emerges amid them, producing a novel understanding of both.
As design becomes a cultural phenomenon in constant restructuring, it aspires, more and more consciously, to be the whole that exceeds the sum of its parts. That is, the very relationship between them. As design events show, any domain, any practice can be plugged into it: not just art and technology but also journalism, craftsmanship, obscure traditions… We can legitimately talk of design hyperconnectivity.
What consequences does hyperconnectivity have on how designers view themselves? In his 1971 classic Design for the Real World Victor Papanek advocated for a cross-disciplinary team where the designer acts as “the bridge between the disciplines”. Notably, he saw the designer as a synthesist; a producer of wholes, one might say. For him, designers would have the epistemic last word.
Cross-disciplinarity is not exclusively a design virtue. Cybernetics, for instance, was a successful bridge between scientific domains which built its own vocabulary grabbing terminology from disparate fields. We can also position the cross-disciplinary ethos within a prolonged criticism of specialization. Inaugurated by Adam Smith, it reached a peak with the 1960s anti-bureaucratic counterculture. In 1973, sci-fi author and aeronautical engineer Robert Heinlein made one of his characters, Lazarus Long, assert that “specialization is for insects”. Many designers and design theorists would agree, but only on the condition that design would provide the foundation of general activity. It is thus worth looking at the larger context of the quote:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
The emphasis is mine. In this list, designing is not the prism of generalism but simply one of its manifestations. Here, design does not provide synthesis, it is not presented as a placeholder for human activity at large. Instead, it is humbly connected to a specific artifact. Design is a part, not the whole.
Design can be presented as a meta-knowledge, but it can also be conceived as a meta-ignorance that eludes the narrow precincts of expertise. According to human-centered design guru Don Norman, “the trouble with experts is that they know too much and they think the same way other experts think.” Designers, instead, know nothing, and that’s exactly why they’re brilliant. This is a common idea: designers can be candid, devoid of preconceptions, free from the past. However, designerly candidness is itself a preconception which simply displaces what is known, believed or assumed. The risk is evident: instead of developing a productive non-knowledge, designers might just turn a blind eye to their own biases. As a result, what they don’t know they know might act in the world in ways they can’t determine. The past would still cast its invisible shadow on the present.
For anthropologist Arturo Escobar, design has contributed to manufacture a uniform, ever-expanding “One-World World”. The OWW threatens to eradicate what’s left of the pluriverse, which is where “things and beings are their relations [and] do not exist prior to them”. To sustain the pluriverse, designers have to relinquish their synthetic monopoly. To maintain the wealth of preexisting relationships–be they historical, political, or cultural–design should resist the temptation to formalize, to abstract, to be the relation.
This endeavor might also have a positive side-effect. Forgoing design synthesis doesn’t mean giving up generalism – it means giving up genericity, a vagueness that makes practitioners feel groundless. Authentic generalism offers instead a solid, fertile ground, one that doesn’t rest on design alone, but it requires an engagement with things, beings and practices on their own terms. Generalism is the opposite of specialization, but it thrives on specificity.
- Book of the XXIV Philosophers (Editio Minima). 2015. Cambridge, MA: The Matheson Trust.
- Escobar, Arturo. 2018. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. London: Duke University Press.
- Heinlein, Robert. 2021. Time Enough for Love. Ace Books.
- Mau, Bruce. 2004. “Massive Change: The Future of Global Design.” https://web.archive.org/web/20051027160019/http://www.massivechange.com/whatisMC_02.html.
- Norman, Don. 2012. Video Conference at Koç University, October 4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_7Go53Zc-Y.
- Papanek, Victor. 2016. Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change. London: Thames & Hudson.
- Turner, Fred. 2010. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.