Battle in Print: The problem with design

Colin Davies, 15 November 2007

In a recent essay, Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger, academic and commentator on globalisation Arjun Appadurai comments on how the West is increasingly dominated by a fear of the lone bomber with explosives strapped to their chest. To me, a more rational fear would be the panic of spotting the lone designer with a portfolio, packed with high problem-solving principles strapped to their chest, and walking towards me in Hoxton Square (each city will have its own analogue of Hoxton - a breeding ground for the designer-as-problem-solver).

Problem-solving is the methodological bedrock of design and the semantic key to designers’ belief that they are in a position to change society. Social problems and design form a symbiotic relationship, something which politicians and cultural commentators alike have found alluring, leading many to a fascination with the role of design in contemporary culture. This role of designer-as-cultural-mediator has an established history in the West: in Britain you can trace a clear line from the Great Exhibition in 1851 to the Festival of Britain in 1951. During this period, the designer’s role as cultural mediator - capturing the zeitgeist - has evolved into the ‘problem-solving’ or ‘social engineering’ conception of design we increasingly witness today. The trouble with the notion of problem-solving is its contingency. The problem in question could be anything: global warming, social housing, over-consumption… even ‘the Jewish problem’. Indeed, the scar of the Holocaust is incised, in part, by the work of designers who (often unintentionally) created the blueprints for mass killing. Today, it should be remembered that one person’s problem is another’s home, or fight for freedom, or means of transport…

Much contemporary design has taken on the role of cultural beautician or plastic surgeon. This provides a global parlour plied with consumer goods, manicured with designers’ good intentions, plucked from a repository of standard modernist thinking. It is like 1980s Alessi, with a social conscience. Recently, Wallpaper magazine listed the Ten Commandments of good design: at number four, ‘Good design helps a product be understood’, and at number six, ‘Good design is honest’. Here - albeit fashionably repackaged and editorialised - we have the old modernist dichotomy; design’s raison d’être of moral instruction alongside its decorative, consumptive self.

And it is here, when you begin to pick at the stitches, that you find the dilemma for all design: its relationship to commodity and the dialectical tensions between use and life-function. Every design will add to the flow of design, creating an ever-greater distance between its actual use and the symbolic order it falls within: an upturned box, a picnic table, an Ikea table, a Habitat table, a John Lewis table, a Heal’s table, a Marcel Breuer table etc. The list expands and design becomes a series of eBay ‘tag’ words; and meanwhile your dinner plate falls to the floor! Likewise, a pair of non-branded trainers or an anti-globalisation T-shirt validates the very system it is intending to critique. But this is a well-trodden trail for criticism, so let us move on…

Given the dilemma faced by design in a modern capitalist world, where the route to direct social influence is pockmarked with the fallout of political spin (remember Cool Britannia?) and the unrealistic assumptions of design and its public impact (e.g. the Millennium Dome) - what voice can design have?

Design will need to go beyond the rhetoric of manifestos. The manifesto has become the bored patter of fingertips on the table while you wait for your coffee to arrive and the next big idea to come along. Design needs to be a series of small ideas - mini explosions; eureka moments - which atomise and settle in unexpected places. Think of architectural collectives like FAT: Fashion, Architecture and Taste; or muf, a collective of architects, theorist and artists; or designers like M/M Paris, Front Design, and the long established Droog Design - all of whom share more than a love for fashionable mono-syllabic/acronymic names. Altogether, they present work of completely different and often opposing stances as to how design should live in the world - whether architectural or product, art or utilitarian. All share a love of the ‘process of design’. Their work is as much about ‘process’ as problem-solving.

Front Design, a practice of four Stockholm-based women, has created a collection of work which, although eclectic and often ephemeral, has a coherence shaped around exposing the invisibility of process. They use the latest technology in digital processes and rapid prototyping to provide work that can be violent, whimsical or performative. In Sketch they take the motion capture software created for the animation/gaming industry and fuse it with rapid prototyping technology (RPT), allowing them to create sketches with a pencil in thin air that are digitally captured and materialise via RPT into physical products. They have also produced work which resonates with our violent times, including a lounge chair - created from the mould left by dynamite detonated in the woods outside Stockholm - and a lamp shade - its stretched material perforated by a salvo of live bullets. These brutal production methods echo a theme established around a decade ago when Droog Design introduced brutality into the home with its Do collection. Its product designs included a metal armchair that owners bashed into shape with a sledgehammer and a rubber-lined (and unbreakable) porcelain vase that gained character the more it was dropped or smashed against a wall. Droog was investigating process, not commenting on a global condition. But they are equally likely to engage in ‘changing the world’. A current Droog project is Urban Play, which is described as ‘an international project ... [that] believes that street-level inventiveness, energy and innovation is the future of creativity in the city ... [c]reated as a catalyst to inspire creativity in the public domain’. Both Droog and Front Design are interested in new materials and the cross-fertilisation of technologies and processes. For them, design is quintessentially a temporal phenomenon - a ‘moving forward’.

FAT meanwhile balance any earnestness in their work with a self-belief and a mocking critique of the world they live in, like their artefacts designed for the Konran Shop - a series of products exhibited and for sale at the V&A Museum which mimic design icons like the Apple iPod. Made out of clay and rudimentarily formed, the items only make sense in the realm of commodity fetishism, their weight and blank form taking on a surrealist, nightmare quality. FAT’s architectural work is always technologically precise and cognate, but the overall impression is filmic, a collage of the visual objet d’art of urban experience, remixed and presented back to us, to love or to hate. The Blue House, an office/apartment building in London completed in 2004, has become one of their iconic works. The FAT practice, and its methodology, is the antithesis of New Urbanism. The latter is a movement that uses the paucity of ideas in much contemporary architecture as a cleavage to colonise with old thinking, old architectural forms and old class divisions. New Urbanists often argue that their gated communities are in response to the needs and wants of their occupants, rather than the top-down communication of the modernist building programmes of the 1950s and 60s where, the argument goes, ideology was imposed on the dwellers of new housing projects. Small practices like FAT and muf are aware of this criticism and their work is designed to grow from the middle; it is about communication. muf’s small-scale urban design projects are a good example of this working ethic. Design needs to look to its role of reflecting the mores of its times rather than producing a banal B-movie of an imagined community.

Networking and a cross-fertilisation in methodology between the digital and analogue worlds (which is a separate thing from inter-disciplinarily practice) will become increasingly important to design thinking - whether it is the new digital networks of Facebook and MySpace, or the more tangible network of projects in inner city areas across the world. Good design develops incrementally, and in an unavoidably globalised community, good design projects bounce off of other ones. In these small explosions of technical nous and creative spirit you will see the materialisation of over-arching social concerns - environmental issues, globalisation, consumerism, ethics etc. - not as doctrinaire monoliths, but as small, individual investigations into contemporary culture.

A designer’s social responsibility - if he or she feels the need - is to ask questions rather than to place emphasis on problem-solving. Designers need to stop making simplistic overtures to saving the world; stop the mantra for ‘socially-responsible design’ that ignores the issues of religion, politics and personal taste; and stop seducing the consumer into believing that the choice of one particular design over another equates to sound ethical/political judgement. Finally, designers must stop measuring the impact of design solely on how big is the problem and instead focus on how important is the question.


Colin Davies is head of MA programmes at the School of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton, and is co-founder of the website He is currently researching for a forthcoming book, Design and Violence: From the Enlightenment to 9/11.


Levit, R. and E. Levy (2006). ‘Design Will Save the World!’ Harvard Design Magazine. Spring/Summer.

Mumford, L. (1934). Technics and Civilization. New York, Harcourt, Brace and Co.

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