And I am nothing of a builder

But here I dream I was an architect

And I built this balustrade

To keep you home, to keep you safe

From the outside world

But the angles and the corners

Even though my work is unparalleled

They never seemed to meet

This structure fell about our feet

And we were free to go

Here I Dreamt I Was an Architect

-The Decemberists

The Triumph

“Entrepreneurs don’t need to understand designers better. They need to be designers.”

-Roger Martin

Over the last twenty years, in parallel to the profound transformation brought about by the irruption of digital technology into our lives, design has been occupying new territories, redefining its role and considerably increasing its impact on the development of new social and economic paradigms.

Design overflowed its natural space, traditionally associated with the creative industries, from graphic design to fashion, to integrate itself within the innovation, technology and business environments.

From being perceived as a set of creative and technical disciplines, design has become a diffuse and permeating intentionality, a qualitative accent on the entire productive structure, principles and a way of doing things aimed, among other things, at increasing the functional, differential and competitive capacities of companies in the new economy.

Design is the key to the success of the large platforms that monopolise our attention and our relationships. These digital platforms that dominate the world depend on the adoption of new consumption habits by their users. Behaviours that are shaped through interfaces that captivate and convert the passive consumer into a value-producing agent, thus feeding a virtuous circle that seems to go on ad infinitum. Conceiving and enabling this circular process of seduction, consumption and empowerment is the engine of the digital economy and one of the great specialities of contemporary design.

The culture of Silicon Valley understood perfectly the power of design to tame the intangible, capturing the full spectrum of digital consumption, embracing design processes as a way of scaling creativity and applying it to the demands of a system whose survival depends on its ability to relentlessly explore and colonise new virgin spaces for the market.

Perhaps we can say that design has triumphed, that it is taught in business schools as part of their MBAs, that it occupies spaces in the media, in the heads of executives and entrepreneurs, in the wide-open seats of management committees. That the great companies that define the present and shape the future are already being built from design. Or we can also think that design is, from its voluntary and blind innocence, one of the great tools of domination of our inevitable technocapitalist reality and the most sophisticated and unconscious accelerator of its consequences.

The new certainties

“Today’s prevailing ideology is not a positive vision of some utopian future, but a cynical resignation, an acceptance of how “the world really is.”

Slavoj Žižek

The consensus says that the defining characteristics of contemporary reality are its volatility, its increasing complexity, its ambiguity and, above all, its uncertainty.

But this uncertainty, perhaps the variable that best sums up the state of affairs, is nothing more than a conscious and powerful source of postmodern power. Uncertainty is an instrument that makes us incapable of giving answers, a tool of social and individual disarticulation. In the fog of uncertainty we can only take small, vague and insecure steps with the direction defined only by anxiety and the constant fear of losing our balance. And without answers there is no capacity for action. Nor imagination.

We are in a moment defined by the realist principle that imagining the end of the world is easier than imagining the end of capitalism. The system hides behind the confusion of uncertainty to evade and deflect its responsibilities onto us and reduce the possibility of imagining a future beyond the limits set by its own ideological beacon. But in the end, behind this conformity built on this uncertain nothingness, which floods the space of the real in the form of post-truth, the solid always ends up appearing in the form of clear, tangible and cruel certainties.

It is true that we are witnessing an accelerated loss of biodiversity in parallel with human-induced changes in the global climate. It is also true that the systemic dysfunctions of this late hypercapitalism appear in the form of the alienation of large sections of society. A reality caused by rules of the game that bring with them inequality, precariousness and individual, social and cultural insecurity, not as an externality, but as a fundamental device of its success. A dynamic that seems to lead irremediably towards this populist and authoritarian drift that is taking hold all over the world. Economic and social freedom no longer go hand in hand and the ageing myth of the marriage between capitalism and democracy vanishes at every point of growth in the Chinese economy and in every Donald Trump tweet.

The liberating and democratising promise that emerged from the hallucinogenic dream of 1970s California in the form of digital technology has turned into its dark dystopian mirror. Automation, which could also liberate time and hands, has become a race for competitive efficiency where the machine, as in an old gladiatorial fight to the death, is pitted directly against us under the entertaining gaze of corporate elites. And the global network, once imagined as an open and democratic bridge to knowledge, has been transfigured into a network, meaning network in its pejorative sense as a trap for the unwary.

The surveillance economy now appears as the internet’s natural business model, populated by digital doubles that are born from our data and that now serve as a predictive zombie-mould on which our desires are created and our behaviour is decided, even apart from ourselves.

Certain is the death of truth by saturation, the trivialisation of facts in the face of belief and opinion. Deepfake as a portrait of this age of artificial and conning uncertainty. Just as true is the rise of anxiety as a global epidemic, as an evil directly associated with the precariousness of life and the rapid absorption of meaning by the mechanisms of the market. And it is true that the great advances in education, poverty reduction or global improvement in health cannot serve as a conformist parapet to avoid becoming aware of the serious systemic risks hidden behind the distorting veil of uncertainty.

The story is not over. Today, as always, there is solid ground on which to base our principles, ground sown with certainties that will allow us to recover our imagination as a tool to break through the invisible framework of uncertainty and once again use design as a vehicle towards the materialisation of new possibilities.

Design in uncertainty

“One of the fundamental tasks of design is to help people deal with change.”

-Paola Antonelli

While new certainties were taking hold, design had been positioning itself as an ideal and timely response to the context of uncertainty. Design methodologies, dematerialised in the form of design thinking, propose a conception of design as a process. The design thinking that was born in the technological innovation environments of Silicon Valley is successfully conducted in uncertainty and has therefore opened up an important gap in companies, giving the designer a new status as an interpreter of the context and a thaumaturge of success.

On a second reading, we see that design has served, above all, as an alibi. On the one hand, design has made it possible to introduce people as an objective variable in corporate innovation processes, creating the illusion of empathy. On the other, it has helped to validate uncertainty as a real possibility of existence.

But this great gaseous and triumphant expansion of design into the fog of uncertainty also gives us the opportunity to rethink its nature and its role in shaping new and better possibilities for futures. Over the years design has begun to understand its power, perhaps it is time to make sense of it and begin to put it into practice.

In the age of certainty, design is a relevant catalyst for change; let’s find a way to wrest it from the lap of ambiguous postmodern uncertainty that renders it useless and restore its capacity to respond to what is certain.To explore this transformative purpose of design, let’s start with an important question that we tend to curiously avoid: Why do we design?

Serena, why is design so important, I asked, because everything is broken, she answered.

In its most essential form, design is a way of confronting a reality that is always presented to us in the form of conflict, a world that is broken, a world that is hostile and alien to us. The response to a mythical estrangement from the external that is even more pronounced in modernity, manifesting itself in this separation between being and thinking, between material reality and an increasingly dematerialised human reality. A conflict that we are constantly forced to resolve in a desperate search for the harmony lost after our collective expulsion from paradise.

Design is inseparable from the human condition. We are human, in fact, because we design. Because to be human is to be condemned to repair that great rift between us and the world, to heal that wound that defines our accursed idiosyncrasy. To be human is to be condemned to design. Or it is also possible that we are condemned precisely because we design.

The creative impulse would be the body’s reaction when it wants to resolve that perpetual state of restlessness in the face of the broken, in the face of the other. Creativity would not seek to build, but to recompose that balance that we sense has existed in the past or that we believe should exist in the future. Design, as an action derived from this creative impulse, is also born as an innate response to this state of perpetual discomfort.

While the subject of art is the wound itself, art attempts to understand and occupy the space left by separation, the intention behind the act of design is healing, creating bridges out of compassion, like sutures, between ourselves and the ever-strange other. The space of design is where creative impulse and empathy meet. A response to the perpetual original unease from the always incomplete perspective of the other.

Design is an adjective

“[Khlebnikov] did not stop at the referential surface of the word, but wanted to capture from language that which makes it capable of producing, its world-changing chemical power.”

-Franco Berardi

This rehabilitative purpose of design materialises as an adjective, as a way of making compassionately human our relationship with the cold, hostile and unfriendly indifference of the world. As the artificial expands and occupies all dimensions of the real, design stands between us, and this constructed reality mediates between people and the artificial, between us and objects, technologies, organisations, cultures or ideas.

All design is an act of negotiation that seeks to reconstruct our relationship with the world on the basis of ergonomic principles, an attempt to adapt reality to what is properly human. There would not be an object of design per se, but design appears as a transforming capacity of the nature of the subject. Design presupposes a subject prior to it and acts on its qualities, making it more beautiful, more useful or more comprehensible, more attractive or efficient, making it more sustainable or habitable, making it more relevant, pleasurable or responsible, making it more accessible or more significant.

And perhaps that is why the most transcendent function that we can now grant to design as a relational interface and adjectiviser of the world is that of becoming a mediator between us and that future that already appears to us as a cold, hostile and unfriendly stranger. A future that has to be designed by endowing it not with things, but with carefully cultivated adjectives.

Critical design

Louis XVI of France went through the Palace of Versailles from top to bottom and found that there was nothing to change in France.

-Comment by user Richard Kerr in Quartz

Design being an instrument of defining the adjectives that shape the possible through imagination for the purpose of rehabilitating the place of the human in the world, we have to be aware of what that place is and what the wound is. Therefore, the prerequisite of design has to be critique, the need to tear the imposed veil of uncertainty. If the space of design in this triumphant era was bounded by the financially viable, the technologically feasible and the individually desirable, we must now begin to design from what is ideologically invisible.

The design process has to understand how this invisible framework affects and defines the field of action of what is designable and consequently what is possible.

Design starts from a position of submission as a tactical tool at the service of the dictates of the market, humbly placing itself at the end of the value chain. In recent decades, design has climbed up the hierarchical ladder of the system, rising through its structures to become a strategic component of the new modes of production and key to its successes.

Beyond the strategic, the critical perspective can push Design along a path of emancipation and transformation. The answers to a problem are implicit in the framework established by the question. Therefore, for this emancipatory journey to be possible, design has to become an uncomfortable generator of new perspectives and new questions.

Let us also put these questions at the service not of industries but of society, and let us orient empathy not so much towards users or consumers, but towards people in all their dimensions and complexities, as vulnerable and interdependent citizens within the social system; a system that forms part, in turn, of the delicate planetary balance to which other species as worthy as our own belong.

The third culture

“No problem can be solved by the same level of consciousness that created it.”

-Albert Einstein

Perhaps the key to the power of emancipated design in this age of certainties lies in its transversality, in its capacity to launch bridges between the extremes of the duality that confronts the great areas of knowledge, occupying a diffuse, conductive and permeable space between the sciences and the humanities.

Terry Irwin defines design as the third culture, occupying that intermediate void that, beyond the rationally quantitative of science and the sensitively qualitative of the humanities, is capable of synthesising the best of human intention on the basis of what we consider appropriate.

Design links art and science as desire links love and sex, offering us a heightened vision of the whole capable of transcending the partial understanding provided by specialists on both sides. Design connects meanings and functions through bidirectional ideas that allow us to manipulate concepts as objects and, as Lego claims, also teaches us to think with our hands.

The importance of this bridging work becomes more critical when technology seems to have already occupied all the space of the imaginable; the more technologised the world becomes, the more important it is to use design as a source of balance, relying more on art and the humanities to compensate for the cold hijacking of the future by this unique and uncertain history promoted by the dominant axioms of technocapitalism.

Above all, this unique capacity of design as a synthesiser of the whole should allow us to have a vision outside the imaginary imposed by the ideological, economic or cultural context, to construct unexpected questions and to respond outside what we unconsciously take for granted.

Strategic sensitivity

“Through the experiences provided by the humanities, we learn to imagine other worlds. But the humanities give us much more than that. For when we can imagine other worlds – using cultural knowledge and explanations from our human experience – we inevitably develop a more insightful perspective on our world.”

-Christian Madsbjerg

In uncertainty, challenges appear fragmentary and simple, built on the linear and reductionist structure of the industrial world. But if there is one thing that defines certainties, it is their irreducible complexity. Design, understood as that third force that links sciences with humanities, allows us to approach these challenges in a systemic way and to connect technical and human components, economic, social and cultural contexts in actionable syntheses without having to renounce their complexity and, consequently, without having to change the nature of the subject in order to offer solutions.

As the world allows itself to be dragged along by the technocentric vision, we must bet on giving form to these emancipated capacities of design, as a creative bridge of new possibilities, seeking inspiration in art. Drawing methodologies adapted to the context of complexity that discard analytical processes as the main mode of knowledge and seek sensitive immersion as a method of creative apprehension of the real. Adopting processes that identify the stories contained in this open chaos of the world, in the text that connects ideas not yet verbalised, in the form of narratives that delve into the layers and nuances, in the environments, in the plots and actors, to seek and find the hidden meanings behind things among the words. And that synthesise, without reducing, these meanings as a manifesto and declaration of intentions, of purpose and principles that must dictate the action of design, the action of the future.

Sensibility, sense and synthesis as a methodology of strategic embrace of the world, which mimics the human way of relating to its environment, replicating the irreducible complexity of the world in the irreducible complexity of our mind.

Design and the possible

“Innovation emerges from the interaction between the real and the possible.”

-Vittorio Loreto

If innovation emerges from the interaction between the real and the possible, design is defined in the interaction between the possible and the desirable. The possible is an emergent property of the interactions that take place between the components of the system that shapes the present, which leads us to think that the possibilities of the future, that all innovation, seem to be contained in an almost deterministic way in the current conditions of the system.

The ideal of contemporary innovation, manifested in Facebook’s internal maxim “Move fast and break things”, is based on a single principle: whatever is possible must become, above all other considerations. Innovation is the vehicle of the only destiny of the possible, its materialisation beyond consequences, with no other criterion than the value of its own existence.

Faced with this dynamic between what is and the irremediable force of progress without conscience, design can act in two ways.

The first is to select from among all that is possible that which is desirable to us. Design would be above all a filter, a healing tool that, based on certain criteria, allows us to choose that which is conveniently adapted to human needs and desires. The value of Design would be in its ability to influence the choice of possibilities based on certain criteria. Rob Girling, designer and founder of the American agency Artefact, proposes that in order to identify what is worthy of being we must focus on what he calls the “preferable consequences”, choosing from among all that is possible only that which promotes self-confidence, lifelong learning, what has durability, what makes us happy, what fosters civic engagement, what increases wisdom, what makes us free, what includes us, what promotes dignity, what gives us autonomy, what is open to all, what generates health and well-being.

To contrast this intention with the reality of the technological innovation we are witnessing is in itself a disconsolately illuminating exercise. If the role of the designer is simply to ensure that these preferable consequences are present in innovation processes, if design, like an attractive Trojan horse, manages to introduce the empathetic and meaningful charge of consequences into the heart of the system, it would become an even more relevant and radically transformative discipline.

The other way in which design can act on this dynamic of interaction between what is and what is possible is by affecting the present to extend and vary accordingly the range of what can become. The aim would be to go ahead of conventional processes of innovation by creating desirable alternatives and thus altering the narrow vision that technological and corporate dynamics offer to the creation of futures and that always seems to drag us towards dystopia. Designer Stef Silva puts it this way: “Designers have the capacity to evoke visual and mental images and therefore have the tools to expand the collective imagination and consequently extend the range of the possible”.

Imagination is the fundamental strategy for hacking the future. Whether it is selecting from what can be or imagining alternatives to what is, design is an act of an intrinsically political nature. To design is to decide on the qualities that define the constructed reality, to create the framework of the desirable and to choose a future from among all possible futures. We have to be aware that design is not innocent, it is a decision about what is imaginable and, consequently, what form the future will take. At best, design is a powerful form of activism; at worst, it is irresponsible.

Faced with the apparent impossibility of solving the big problems, the big certainties, too big, too complex, I wonder: can we imagine a design process that does not focus on designing things, but on establishing a set of rules that transform the relationship between us and the world with the intention of activating emergent behaviours that generate a positive impact on these systems?

Designing relationships rather than objects. Designing from principles of interdependence. Designing by imagining impacts and consequences rather than outcomes. Designing by letting solutions emerge on their own. Designing for immediate and proximate effect. Designing to spread change. Designing with respect for the nature of things and contexts. Designing movements. And above all, to design by changing the rule of self-interest that defines our reality for the innate rule of generosity.

Desires and revolutions

“The role of art is to make the revolution irresistible.”

-Toni Cade Bambara

In the age of certainties, design has to be the activity that makes the unthinkable imaginable in order to make it possible, ensuring that only that which is desirable emerges from the possible. An unstable alchemical process in the liminal territory of desire.

The quality of design depends, above all, on what we can and want to desire; the quality of design is the quality of our desires; the design process begins with us, there must be no design without understanding that we must also be designed.

To emancipate ourselves as designers in order to face the new certainties that demand an emancipating design, capable of treading on the solidity of the world in order to respond by endowing the present with hope, meaning, kindness and enjoyment. A design capable of including us not as individuals, but as a vulnerable and interdependent part of citizenship, society and the planet. Capable of transcending the transactional and utilitarian and creating bridges and profoundly transformative relationships with things, with the world and with others, of critically altering the framework of the present, unveiling the invisible frameworks of power that limit the range of the possible. Capable of rescuing the imagination from its kidnapping and returning it to society, to which it belongs, of finding the appropriate adjectives that make possible the construction of desirable realities, of creating from the sensitivity of the human algorithm, from ambiguous data and from natural intelligence. Able to reconstruct our broken relationship with the world, guiding us through the blindness of progress. Capable of closing the wound, of rebelling from the radical manifesto of a commitment, that of trying to make every day a tomorrow that is kinder, a tomorrow worth loving.

A design centred on dignity whose most important role in this era of certainties is to make the inevitable revolution irresistible.

This structure fell about our feet

And we were free to go.


Article originally published in Matador magazine, December 2019