Almost three weeks have passed without a substantial post here at whitestudiolo, and too many of my comments about the connections between design, history, theory and everyday life are starting to pile up. It’s time to unload!
During this time I have been reviewing my experiences at Toronto’s EDIT (Sept. 28- Oct. 8, 2017) and Montreal’s World Design Summit (October 16-25, 2017) especially in light of exciting new critical themes I see emerging in design discourse and design practice. While this has been stimulating, I have also noticed an aspect of Newton’s third law at work in my world: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I have also been watching the current labour dispute at Ontario’s Colleges (Oct. 16 start) and reflecting on a persistent de-valuing of scholarly/creative labour in face of parasitic administrative forces. This has been depressing. Given the excitement to do things differently in the design world, how is our design education system going to innovate and re-tool if a disproportionate number of post-secondary teachers in the design disciplines face precarious work conditions that pay below a living wage? Partner this condition with the increasingly popular (neoliberal) proposal to increase corporate funding and presence at our colleges and universities – presumably also increasing corporate input into core issues of curriculum and governance – and you have a lot of stuff to think about. This needs some time for balanced critical thinking.
And I’m not alone with these thoughts. At the Congress of the World Design Summit in Montreal, one of my favorite keynote speakers was Lucinda Havenhand. Even though she cited different examples than the ones preoccupying me these days, her talk laid bare similar kinds of competing forces and proposed a change in attitude that stopped me in my tracks.
I confess that I had been looking forward to Havenhand’s lecture. I had found her 2004 article “A View from the Margin: Interior Design” (Design Issues, 20.4: 32-42) refreshing in its willingness to name the gender politics implicit in Interior Design’s marginalized contemporary condition. Havenhand is an academic at Syracuse University, and her remarks at the World Design Summit were prompted by her experience teaching a course in Design Ethics. More so than many of other speakers, however, she used her time at the lectern to respond directly to the key premise of the conference: that design has the potential to help better achieve global, economic, social, cultural and environmental objectives.
Her talk “Always put on your own oxygen mask first: Interiority, self-reflection, and doing good” focused on the need for self-gentling and self-reflection not only as a feminist scholar in an era of divisive change (Havenhand’s experience in Trump’s America) but also as an design educator committed to enhancing design’s positive impact in the world. I interpreted her message to be one supporting the slow process of reflection and inquiry into not only personal and disciplinary values but also the hidden behaviours/beliefs might be holding us back from these goals. What is the oxygen and what is the mask? Havenhand explored themes such as:
- Assumptions (“What assumptions do we cling to?”);
- Talking the Talk / Walking the Walk (“Everything we do comes with future future baggage”);
- Who’s Good? (“Does one ‘good design’ fit all?”);
- Arrogance, Elitism and Marginality (“Are designers the keepers of ‘true’ knowledge? The in-between is an important group to understand. There is power in marginalized positions.”); and,
For me, probably the most important take-away was her point that our current moment is defined by emotion, and that accommodating emotion – often visceral emotion – might lead to an important paradigm shift.
“The shift from rational to emotional is the new zeitgeist.”
We all appreciate emotion as important. But emotion has a messy side that we don’t often tolerate. Emotion includes anger, hate, fear, spite, embarrassment. It needs always to be accounted for in the context of change. How, Havenhand wondered, can we do all that we want to do, and make all these changes for the good of the world, when there is so much emotion? Then she cautioned that rationalizing emotional content, as we are often want to do, is not always the best solution. Over-intellectualizing messy forces like emotion leads to sanitizing and neutralizing it. Instead, she asked, without taming it or controlling it, what we can do with the nitty-gritty stuff of emotion? There is opportunity there. Recognizing that “the shift from rational to emotional is the new zeitgeist”, Havenhand asked an audience full of professional designers and design educators: “How do we deal with the emotions?” How can we reinvent our core processes and values with this in mind?
I’m interested in this new lens that seeks to break down assumptions, open up communications, and think about the unanticipated human futures – both good and bad – for our designs. It seems like a good, reflective position to be in to re-start my own project of writing.