Design needs an operation!

By Geert Lovink and Mieke Gerritzen

In today’s design consciousness, the image does not hold a prominent position. We notice that the designer of 2016 does not make any visual statements about difficult issues, but prefers to look ahead, eyes firmly fixed on the future. Design passion is limited to the social values of new techniques and the product-oriented design world. Design seems to have become a preparatory task, a prior stage of the future product. Research-oriented designers investigate the possibilities and forms of new smart materials, and deliver their studies as design products – sometimes as a prototype for use by the industry, often as a design for debate and source of inspiration for the commercial market. Smart homes, smart cities and smart people – that is the niche that designers have occupied. The resulting practice most resembles what we have come to refer to as industrial and urban design.

Digital design is everywhere, and has finally detached itself from computers and the concomitant interfaces. Digital communication is finished. Computers and graphic software programs have more or less been developed as far as they can be. We are done with designing the digital world of websites and information; the standard system programs can do the rest of the work. Everyone can use those programs now. Social media are permanently fashionable; the main thing is to make sure you look good in pictures and build up a reputation on Facebook. Not surprisingly, the requirements for visual communication are taking a nosedive. Globally speaking, everything is starting to look literally the same, with the same gestures and poses, the same camera settings and filters, published in the same templates. The result is a homogenization of images, which is apparent to everyone – and to which no alternatives present themselves, not even in the underground. The image is disappearing from view, and with that, from design as well. Indeed, this may sound contradictory in view of the popular trend of designers experimenting with new materials, but design without the image is like a house without a home. The visual statements that designers make with their personal opinions, their styles and their own languages have disappeared in 3D printing, on Instagram and in the straight jacket of other information platforms. We are proud that we understand the libertarian agenda of Silicon Valley, but we do not want to be constantly bothered by our troubled consciences. And thus, we allow the designer class to succumb to the impact of the digital superpowers while we watch.

The Maker Labs, equipped with the latest 3D printers and other techno tools, are mushrooming everywhere, in schools, in neighbourhoods. People are working on prototypes en mass, which – due to their uniqueness – can go straight into a museum as soon as they’re done. Even our own quantified self data are visualized there. Now there’s a market for these tools. And what really matters are the aesthetics of new smart and sustainable materials. But these material explorations have not (yet) led to a Maker School. The approach is still a technical one. In the maker labs, designers primarily just make pretty things, but feel no shared responsibility for the social and ethical sides of design. One hundred years ago, Dada saw the advent of the systems approach that eventually spawned the computer (“Anyone can do Dada”). These artists were obsessed, driven by passion and faith, convinced that the world was about to change. Their disruption created a powerful, alarming image. Due to design’s current inadequate agenda on the visual front, however, we have no idea how to respond to the privacy issues that are constantly popping up. The data streams flow incessantly, and we have come to see ourselves as victims of the inflation of information. How can this withdrawal of design be reversed?

The Emperor has no clothes, and we are him. Can we still change anything? Designers, click on the links with consequences and become truly social. Ignore the standards and join forces to stand at the helm of technology. With images, with words, and with deeds!

This article was published in The MOTI Visual Culture Paper 2016/2017