6 Undoing design
This paper considers the notion of undesign by exploring the possibility of suspending or unlearning one’s design knowledge. This may, for instance, be the case when a designer decides to abandon professional criteria, methods or goals in order to pursue alternate paths. This approach may result in new aesthetics or form the basis of critique, but it may also lead to a new perspective on design. This paper discusses the consequences of “undoing” design, and the inherent potential of relinquishing domain expertise.
Is it possible to “undo” design? And if yes, what might this entail? The following takes a distinct perspective on undesign by examining more closely the notion of “undoing” design, meaning a temporary suspension of a professional designer’s design expertise, or even the more permanent “unlearning” of design knowledge. This perspective is meant to supplement and to deepen an understanding of undesign, which has been discussed mainly as an aesthetic movement or cultural critique. More specifically, undoing design here describes a situation in which a designer intentionally abandons professional design criteria, methods or goals. Through this, her practice starts to divert from known paths. She likely begins to struggle with her design approach, trying to counteract her usual professional response. And it might be that this decision has created a situation that is no longer recognisable as a typical design situation but instead one to which her assumptions about what design is and what it can do no longer apply. This idea almost immediately gives rise to the question of why a professional designer would aim to do this? Or more generally, why any person who has invested time and effort in acquiring a certain level of expertise would decide to abandon knowledge and experience, when these could help her navigate the situation much more easily?
Working against the expert within
In order to explore these questions further, we might take an example from graphic design—a logotype developed by Tibor Kalman for the film Matewan by John Sayles (1987). The film deals with the events surrounding the so-called “Battle of Matewan,” a coal miners’ strike in 1920 in West Virginia, USA. The logotype was made to resemble “amateur” design, and its letters are carefully spaced so that it mimics an unskilled – and therefore raw and seemingly more authentic – treatment of graphic elements. Kalman recalls that this was his first attempt at creating a vernacular logo: “We messed up the type and spacing to make it look like someone had tried to do it really nicely, with a lot of time and very little skill” (Farrelly 1998: 12).
When a person already possesses expertise in graphic design, it is in fact quite challenging for her to make something appear unskilled, when her education and practice continuously and repeatedly has been or is geared towards demonstrating skills attributed to her profession or domain of activity. In the case of the logotype mentioned above, demonstrating skill might, for instance, concern achieving balance or harmony in the spacing of letters. This not to say that professional graphic designers always aim to reach perfection, but rather that their aesthetic compass leads them into a certain direction that has been defined by those within the professional field, and which they have defined for themselves, as leading towards professional values in graphic design, such as balance, harmony, legibility and so on. Being oriented towards professional values likely becomes routine, thus making it very difficult to turn a different direction.
Kalman’s logotype is a visual manifestation of the effort to depart from this path, and this effort can be read in two ways: Firstly, as an attempt to stir up and provoke the established design community and secondly, as a means to arrive at a new aesthetic, goals Kalman indeed had (Hall and Bierut, 1998: 396–397; Poynor 2013: 81). But more generally, this logotype was a comment made by a professional designer who possessed a high standing in the professional community and that was addressed to other professional designers, with the twist being that Kalman was not formally trained as a designer but was self-taught (Cullen & Kalman 1996).
In graphic design, the distinction between professional and non-professional is on the one hand important, especially in the wake of its democratisation since the mid 1980s. As professional tools and knowledge became more widely available, professional designers found it necessary to redraw and strengthen boundaries separating experts from “amateurs,” arguing that the field’s increasing permeability has led to situations where, “[a]nyone sitting at a computer loaded with a page layout program and a newsletter / periodical / flyer template can pretend to be a graphic designer” (Heller and Fernandes 1999: 9). On the other hand, this distinction has also become less important, as the semi-professionality afforded through templates and design platforms, as well as the professional appropriation of everyday design, has made it more complicated (and possibly pointless) to determine where precisely the border runs.
With regard to the notion of undoing design, Kalman’s logotype shows that working intentionally against an expertise acquired through formal education or (as in Kalman’s case) professional practice allows one to reflect on and critique this education, knowledge or expertise. The logotype is not simply an outcome of someone being inspired by the vernacular. Meticulously arranging each separate letter to make it seem haphazardly and awkwardly placed in fact questions what designers perceive as being “correct” or “harmonious.” One could, of course, argue that the critique encapsulated in Kalman’s logotype is not relevant for today, nearly thirty years later. The rules of what is perceived as “good” or “correct” in graphic design continuously change. We are, for instance, now accustomed to deciphering low-resolution images, errors, imperfection. But the question of whether it is fruitful to depart from the usual design path is nevertheless relevant.
For designers, everything is design
In their training or education, and through their practical experience, designers do not only acquire theoretical and practical knowledge, but also a designerly mind-set, or designerly view on the world. Designers therefore cannot help but frame political, social, economic or ecological problems as design problems. Problems that need to be solved, and even problems that do not need to or cannot be solved, are then “solved” through design. This pressure to “solve problems,” and to this purpose, to produce something (whether material or immaterial), leads many designers to approach the world as something to be improved or changed. However, the nature of this change is contingent upon the extent to which the professional designer is able to imagine improvement or change as well as to which extent she is confined by the criteria and goals of her profession. Although Victor Papanek, already in 1971, stated that everyone could be viewed as being a designer, and that “all that we do, almost all the time, is design…” (Papanek 1985: 4), the designerly mind-set even of subfields that involve or are addressed to non-professional designers (e.g., design thinking, social design or participatory design) is still the mind-set of a professional designer.
Many participatory design projects, for instance, despite their good intentions of involving and taking seriously non-professional voices, show that professional designers have trouble with letting go of their designerly ideals when they select methods and outcomes according to professional design criteria; instruct non-professional designers using concepts coming from professional design; or adapt contributions by non-professional designers until they more closely resemble those prevalent within the professional design discourse. If professional criteria, concepts, and methods are so authoritative as to even pervade participatory design situations, then it is understandable if professional designers assume that their designerly view on the world, and their particular type of knowledge and expertise, is the only possible designerly access to the world.
Reason without reason
What grants a field legitimacy is that it claims that its statements are true, or at least “reasonable” (Foucault 1981: 53). Distinguishing between “reasonable” and “unreasonable” statements fortifies boundaries between insiders and outsiders, whereby insiders are attributed “reasonable” utterances and outsiders are seen to think and act in what appears – to the insider – to be “unreasonable” ways. Mapping this notion onto design knowledge means that concepts, methods or approaches that have become part of specialist design knowledge are perceived as having been tested and proven, whereas concepts or approaches expressed or adopted by outsiders (e.g., everyday designers) are considered irrational. Hence, everyday designers are often portrayed as being inept and naïve; they are said to work haphazardly and to proceed unconsciously, while their creative production is excluded from the design canon. In my research, however, I have found that the approaches are no more arbitrary, no less controlled than professional design approaches, and that everyday design knowledge has much in common with expert design knowledge (Owens 2012). There are differences, of course. The expert is said to better utilise theoretical knowledge in the form of principles and models, whereas everyday design knowledge can be very pragmatic. Still, both contain a stock of assumptions, interests, preferences, efforts, recipes and routines (Schütz 1970) that aid in framing and responding to design situations.
Immersing oneself in what is considered “unreasonable” may produce interesting results. It might prompt situations that defy explanation, where the coordinates set into place by professional designers not only become disconnected, but completely lose their meaning. This might explain why everyday approaches are also inspiring – by disregarding professional principles or goals, new coordinates can be established. A parallel might be drawn here to art photography, which in the 1970s saw the introduction of the so-called “snapshot aesthetic” through the work of photographers such as William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. The adoption of a seemingly careless attitude towards professional ideals of composition, the use of colour negatives and the depiction of everyday subjects not only gave rise to a new aesthetic, but imposed images on the discipline of art photography that were in a sense inexplicable, as they evaded its definitory grasp.
Whereas knowledge that is excluded from professional discourse may be considered “unreasonable” from a professional viewpoint, we could also conceptualise it as simply another form of design knowledge. To a greater extent than specialist knowledge, everyday knowledge allows for idiosyncrasies. It has no problem with containing contradicting statements, it may involve personal preferences and the approach it guides may be open to whims and irregularities. This means that a design process that is informed by everyday design knowledge may be extreme: extremely pragmatic or overly personal, disregarding common conventions. An everyday design approach tolerates being disconnected from history and can refer to things that have been disproven. It can be based on false assumptions, hunches and major uncertainties. It can result out of a conflict—not with the subject matter, but with the conditions underlying the design task. Also, it does not need to care about producing something for the market, or something new or original, or something other designers will talk about. It may escape analysis and remain unrecognisable. Nonetheless, it is able to generate artefacts, situations and experiences.
When other possible approaches of designerly engagement with the world begin to unfold for the professional designer, they point towards forms of knowing, acting and thinking that were abandoned when being formally trained as a designer or having practiced within the field of design. They are designerly approaches the designer has stopped pursuing or taking into account. In this sense, undoing one’s design expertise may become a tool for analysis and inquiry, in order to understand other designerly approaches, and in turn, to understand more fully the specificity of the approach one has learnt and internalised. This might even lead to a more permanent form of unlearning in which the designer relinquishes her professional knowledge, resulting in a much larger conceptual shift than a temporary bracketing of expertise requires. It is a shift that instead urges the designer to find a new position for herself, at the same time within and outside of professional design.
But can the designer so easily turn away from the field into which she was socialised through participation and practice? How easy is it to stop viewing the world through the “designer’s eye”, which she has acquired through years of hard work and effort? How difficult is it to override internalised principles, to disregard discourse, to disobey habitus? Would she be able to plant a garden, repair a bike, take a photograph, write a letter in a text-editing programme without—consciously or unconsciously—referring to notions of creativity, originality or efficiency; notions common to the professional design discourse? While researching everyday design, I came to realise how challenging this process can be. Professional concepts and modes of perceiving design always stood in the way of approaching everyday design on its own terms. Only through a laborious stripping away of habits and judgement could I counteract my immediate responses, which then led to questioning rules, principles and intentions that guided these perceptions and judgements. The process is furthermore demanding since it requires the professional designer to turn her gaze sharply inwards. Education and practical experience shape how she interacts with the world or attempts to shape it, a view that is not easy to abandon once the designer has made it part of herself and once it has pre-set future interactions.
Undoing design expertise
Many description and analyses of design expertise offer explanations for the acquisition of expertise (e.g., Dreyfus and Dreyfus 2005; Dorst 2008) but never its loss, let alone a deliberate abandonment, possibly since these are not seen as bearing any advantage. Through accumulating knowledge (or more precisely, specialist knowledge), the novice turns into an expert. Having reached this level, a wealth of experience, precedents and knowledge allow the designer to approach design situations skilfully. Just as important, however, is the restructuring of existing knowledge that is evident, for instance, in the refinement of concepts or the more efficient interconnection of various elements of practical and theoretical knowledge. Following this notion, undoing design expertise is not a process in which the designer’s professional knowledge diminishes, but one in which the designer immerses herself in a process that again restructures her design knowledge, resulting in a fundamental shift in perspective.
Moreover, plunging into other designerly approaches require that the designer lets herself be changed by these approaches, similar to the way an anthropologist allows herself to transform through her interactions with others. By undoing her design expertise, the designer does not venture into unfamiliar territory, but instead makes her usual territory unfamiliar. She goes further than making design work appear “undesigned,” since undoing her design approach necessarily demands a deeper questioning. Why does she think about design in the way that she does? To what extent does being a professional designer form part of her Self? When is being “unreasonable” actually the better solution? Far from being able to destabilise fundamental notions of what design is (and thus posing no risk to professional design), undoing design expertise and unlearning professional design knowledge illuminate how the profession perceives itself, how it arrives at its current criteria, principles and objectives, and how these suffuse training, experience and ways of thinking about design. As learning processes, they are able to restructure and renew design perspectives, and ideally, to provide a much broader understanding of what design can be.