This summer, an unexpected design installation arrived in my neighbourhood: a series of Bike Share Toronto stations were installed outside up and down the main thoroughfare, linking bike path corridors with community parks, with retail and commercial areas, with residences and schools, and with the western beaches of Lake Ontario. The bikes themselves have a sturdy touring frame and a safety light and are adjustable for a variety of possible users. There are no tricky gears needing constant repair or advanced user training. The solar-powered parking station connects to a web-based rental system so renters don’t need to fumble with cash when they want to borrow a bike. The user-interface makes the process fairly easy to understand, although I do not know the perspective of the users. From my perspective, the visible presence of these bike stations communicates a unified message about the livability of my urban environment. I marvel that our local politicians, city planners, manufacturers, purchasing committees, and business owners were able to work together – at so many scales of design – to make a positive impact on our designed environment. Of course urban designers (location), industrial designers (bikes and docking stations), graphic and user-experience designers (communicating the rental system) were at the project’s core. Any discussion of design’s impact on our world, however, demands a much broader framework of analysis.
This kind of analysis of design is available, has a recent heritage, and needs a more presence in our popular discourse. I’m referring to the multi-disciplinary approach to thinking about design and its context called Design Studies. Design Studies considers design not only as practice in history (a set of disciplinary skills deployed professionally), or as an object (to be evaluated aesthetically), or even as technological wonder (design solution), but as a site of interactions between designer and client and consumer/user operating in our material and cultural world.
Recently the journal RACAR published a special issue (2015 vol. 40, no. 2) titled: Design Studies in Canada (and beyond): The State of the Field. Guest edited by Keith Bresnahan, Brian Donnelly, and Martin Racine, this issue contains twelve articles (available online in full-text here) authored by Canadian academics. The spectrum of design topics covered and analytic methods used is broad; nevertheless, together the essays provide insight into an expanded scope of design discourse. An Introduction written by Keith Bresnahan touches on many important themes that one encounters in Design Studies. This wide field looks at all design disciplines using lenses that could include material, aesthetic, technological, social, economic, political, ethical, or even philosophical points of view. Bresnaham correctly points out that Design Studies is quite young and under supported in Canada as compared to Britain and some parts of America. This is despite the expansion of design studio courses in Canadian Colleges and Universities. Nevertheless, as Bresnahan points out, Design Studies is important for improved design practice in that it can “imbue future designers with a deep sense of criticality.”
In the studio, in history class, and in the press, our admiration of design simply for its star-crossed practice, its novelty, or its improved technology often goes uncriticised. Design Studies asks us to move beyond innovative design’s formal properties, or the spectacular entertainment value of its promotion, to consider the production, consumption and mediation of design. A critical inquiry into design and its context can reveal biases and unearth overlooked practices. It can reveal deeper systems and relationships that need to be challenged. We need to ask questions about how social and cultural imperatives may have impact. We need to better understand design’s changing role in our world. Such an expanded perspective helps us to see beyond mere reproduction of an accepted cannon or a narrow set of today’s values.
Until recently, students, designers, and interested Canadians have had few opportunities to engage with design as a field of inquiry rather than a functional or aesthetic solution. This is despite record levels of interest in the topic as seen by popular entertainment media’s efforts to fill the gap. For example, this past winter (2017), the CBC ran a radio program called “Disrupting Design” that was itself perhaps a response to the long-running American podcast “99 Percent Invisible.” Gary Hustwit’s 2007 documentary film “Helvetica” explored the history and impact of a typeface, and set the stage for Netflix’s recent (2017) multi-disciplinary documentary “Abstract: the Art of Design.” Given the clear demand for this sort of content, it is surprising that we don’t support more public conversations about design in broader terms.
But that could be about to change. This week in Toronto, the Design Exchange is poised to open EDIT, an immersive exhibition about the future-oriented intersections of design, technology and innovation. Azure magazine has been busy promoting it (here). I have written about it here (link). There is sure to be an unprecedented level of exciting design content presented during a short time. But when it closes, how will we sustain a deeper level of inquiry into the context and production of design in our world? How can we use the goodwill and energy behind EDIT as a platform to build upon?
I think that there needs to be more critical inquiry, more support for scholarship, and wider opportunities to engage with Design Studies – either through the academy, the popular press, the specialized media, professional development mandates, or even in the studio. We need to learn how to ask more questions, include more voices, and expand the conversation about our designed and built world.