Designing the Present

In the early 1970s, designer and pedagogue Victor Papanek banged his fist on the table of modern design and urged us to start designing “for the real world”. The days were now numbered for design in which form prevailed over function – for unsustainable design at the service of the market and not the user. The hermetic and elitist design world opened its gates, giving way to social, political and environmental concerns. Design had to be less individualistic and more collective. It could no longer continue being an exercise in aesthetic virtuosity at the service of a few wealthy consumers. From now on it was to be considered as a tool to start transforming an ever changing world. Designing for the real world presented us with a great challenge: firstly we had to understand people’s needs, possibilities, limitations and desires. Secondly, we needed to offer solutions to alleviate or improve their lives. As a consequence, the designer transitioned from practitioner to researcher – before designing for the real world, the designer had to understand it.

Many real worlds

With the distance of time, it is easy to dispute some of the ideas that underlie Papanek’s work, and we could quickly fall into complacency and point out the mistakes of the past. This is not the aim of this article. But, facing a crisis whose magnitude we can barely glimpse, it is important to think about what it will be like to design for the real world after confinement. We cannot stop wondering about the world that this pandemic will leave to us. Can we still think that there is only one world? Will we have to design for a broken world or for a world in which everything remains the same? Was our old normality leading us relentlessly into a world in danger of extinction? The real world that Papanek was telling us about is increasingly complex. Faced with the need to understand it, we have to accept that in each society, each geographical area, in each world, there are many worlds, many societies, many different realities whose interests will not always converge. There is no one real world; the world instead houses multiple worlds.

What I mean by this is that, as soon as we start to pay attention, we notice worlds crossed by power relations, very unequal living conditions, privileges, forms of poverty and precariousness. Human and animal societies. Societies of bacteria, private societies and corporations. Worlds marked by very different interests, in which the well-being of one social group, unfortunately, implies the discomfort of others. The excesses and privileges of humans have too often been at the cost of environmental degradation. Technological progress is paid for with the destruction of mineral resources. The world of tuna is different from the world of people with functional diversity. The world of migratory birds is different from the world of informal garbage collectors. The world of nursery schools is different from that of nursing homes. The world of those who have is completely different from the world of those who hardly have enough to eat. Paradoxically, these worlds are interconnected, united in ways that are twisted and difficult to imagine. We go from one universe to the pluriverse. It has been said that the flap of a butterfly’s wings, occurring at a given moment, could alter a sequence of events of immense magnitude in the long term. A bat from a Chinese market can affect the global economy. Learning to design for the real world implies learning to design for a plurality of interdependent worlds. We must stop seeing a fragmented world, our world, to be able to understand the links and tensions that structure a common world. A world, as the Zapatistas used to say, where many worlds fit. A world in which our actions will have consequences on the others’ worlds. A constellation of worlds that we have to learn to care for.

Ontological design

Design theorist Anne-Marie Willis, in her article “Ontological Designing – Laying the Ground”, argued that a double ontological movement is produced in design – we as humans design the world but the world also designs us. Each design project has the power to inaugurate a world of users, habits, trends, but also to perpetuate forms of discrimination, reproduce existing problems and perpetuate social and political hegemonies. Inventing email means inventing a world with many emails to answer. The materiality of design objects makes them act on us. They affect and sometimes determine our behaviours. If design is the practice that revolves around the creation of objects, messages, experiences and sensations, we can easily extrapolate that contemporary design practices not only create these objects, messages or experiences but also contribute to the creation of the worlds in which these objects exist. Whoever designs a car also contributes to creating a driver, a highway and a traffic jam. Whoever designs a server contributes to the rise of global warming. In this context of crisis, we don’t risk much by demanding that design practices are able to imagine and take over the worlds they help to create. Designing is contributing to unfold these worlds. To fix these present worlds. To inaugurate futures. To open lives that are about to happen. Taking accountability of these worlds is to start designing for a world that has not yet been realised, but that can be. Designing is accepting the challenge of responsibility. And, for this, it is necessary to agree on what kind of worlds we want to inhabit. In other words, to practice politics.

Politics and design

For years now, it has been stated that we as humans have believed that the world belongs to us. That we were the species that was above all the others. We developed a kind of selfish politics. We made decisions as if we were alone on this planet, as if there was no tomorrow, as if everything was always going to be fine. In challenge to this, Bruno Latour urged us to design a “parliament of things” that would oblige us to practice politics in consideration of the interests of humans and non-humans – to listen to and respect non-human needs, agencies and propensities. A more pluralistic parliament in which those who give speeches do not make decisions about those who make actions. A parliament to give voice to the beings whom we share the planet with and whom we only have an instrumental relationship with. He reminded us that it is necessary to learn to make decisions that take into account the opinions and needs of those who don’t know how to express themselves like we do – those who do not have the power to speak. We must also address and work with the biological and geological world that we have tended to ignore. Does it make sense to plan beach resorts without taking into account the channels of the rivers and streams on which these will be built? To establish fishing policies without understanding the reproduction cycles of the species that we will exploit? To pollute the biosphere in order to travel faster? Can we design cities without taking into account the bodies of the most vulnerable, the bodies of those who are not going to spend their time working? Should we design artifacts without taking into account the social life of all of its components? This parliament of things seems to be getting too small. More and more worlds, interests, entities, agencies are unfolding. The politics of humans for humans has little to say.

In a similar line, Isabelle Stengers urged us to practice “cosmopolitics”, that is, to explore forms of politics that consider the plurality of agents that are affected by the decisions that will be made. To practice politics thinking both of the beneficiaries of and those disadvantaged by the decisions that are taken. To practice politics with experts and laypeople, with politicians and clowns. Plural politics for increasingly complex worlds. Engaging in a politics that considers the communities concerned by decisions taken. This is why it is interesting to question oneself whether it is possible to make cosmopolitical design. If it is possible to design by inviting and enabling mechanisms so that communities of concern, non-human beings and less favoured subjects can express themselves. Design in the plural. Design in community. Design by inviting, not deciding for others. To design is to practice politics.

This would imply design must leave personal interest aside. Design as a way to common the world. Design without thinking that this planet belongs to us. Design recognising that many of the beings and species that surround us feel threatened by our comfort. Can we design aeroplanes and commercial routes without thinking about the viruses they will help mobilise? Can we design health systems meant only for the ones who can afford them? Can we design fashion collections that allow for all materials to be locally produced? Can we design recipes which don’t involve a global food import and export network? Each design mobilises worlds and reproduces privileges and forms of inequality. To design is to practice politics through artefacts, through things we put in movement. Designing is materialising power relations. By designing we put different forms of politics – material politics, technological politics, love politics – into action.

We come from a historical era strongly shaped by individualism. We come from a market system, neoliberal capitalism, based on competition between subjects and extractive exploitation of resources. Exploitation of resources without consideration of the repercussions this will have. Should the future of design perpetuate this production model? Do we want the real world of tomorrow to be the same as the world we had yesterday? Can we afford to sustain what we used to call normality just some days ago? I don’t think so. I sense that we should stop being guided by personal interests and start designing with more of a global conscience. In this context, does it make sense to keep thinking of ourselves as individual subjects obsessed with maximizing personal profits by minimising the gains of others? Accepting that others’ discomfort, sadness or insecurity affect us is to start accepting that our consciences are more intertwined than it might at first seem. To accept that our lives are embroiled with the lives of others. To acknowledge that our cognitive bias – thinking that we are independent individuals – has defined the ways we relate to reality. We are beings who affect and allow ourselves to be affected. We are crossed by energies that we sometimes share and sometimes block. Sadness is as contagious as happiness. Exiting individual consciousness to start designing with a bigger, more intersubjective and more generous consciousness is a good way to start breaking away from the tyranny of individuality’s selfishness.

Design for decreasingly modern worlds

We are transitioning from a linear and pyramidal world to a multitude of chaotic and horizontal worlds. We are moving from using binary categories (man/woman, nature/culture, reason/emotion, centre/periphery, north/south, black/white, good/bad), to the need for nuances, scales and new terms to understand reality. These ways of thinking and ordering the world, inherited from modernity, have given rise to stagnant disciplines that we still have to deal with – very specialised knowledge disciplines incompatible with each other. If we are to face the complexity of what we are living through, there is currently no discipline that can understand all the facets and implications that need to be resolved. This is why we need to get rid of the heavy modern yoke to elaborate undisciplined and promiscuous forms of knowledge, capable of approaching this muddle using humility and uncertainty. To design with both critical perspectives and love. To accept that this crisis is going to affect human and non-human beings in very diverse and unequal ways – that the comfort of one social group can be the origin of the disadvantages of others. The solution to a problem may be the start of a new discomfort. That which is a problem for humans is a blessing for birds. What is being presented as an economic problem at the same time has positive consequences for the environment. We need to see that if we do not organise, there will be many losers and a handful of winners emerging from this crisis. That poverty will spread and that wealth will be concentrated. We can no longer raise linear questions or debates; we need to learn to work from complexity, with wicked problems whose solutions will always be provisional. Design that transforms has one mission: to learn to inhabit this complexity without renouncing the need to prototype and experiment with partial solutions. Design needs to forget its certainties and dare to hesitate. To mess around. To lose its arrogance in order to approach the problems without guaranteeing to be able to solve them.

We have spent too many centuries thinking that we are independent beings, separate from the environments in which we live. We see ourselves as autonomous subjects whose lives do not affect the lives of others. The idea of the liberal, autonomous and independent subject has penetrated deep into our imaginations. Only by accepting that we are fragile, vulnerable, that our bodies get sick and need care, can we begin to end the fiction of individuality. There is no person who is not a system of different entities. No person who does not contain genes from other beings. There is no subject that is not a dense meshwork of other beings and needs. There is no human without oxygen to breathe. There is no subject without water to drink. There is no person without bacterial flora and fauna. There is no human who resists stopping eating. No one is born without other people existing before them. Accepting that we are interdependent is the first step in changing from an individual to a collective consciousness. To stop thinking that we are special and to understand that we are just another being amongst others living on planet earth. Audre Lorde reminds us that “Only within that interdependency of difference strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.” Interdependency does not subtract agency but is the basis of our power. We are strong because we have always been a multitude. Only by accepting that our strength of being comes from the capacity to be in common will we be able to gather enough energy to transform reality. The design which is incapable of acknowledging and taking this interdependency as its starting point is a design condemned to repeat a paradigm from which it is necessary to escape. The individualistic, signature design, which disregards the needs of the community, is a nostalgic design, which longs for the past in which the individual was thought to be more important than common interests.

When we exit this confinement we should develop design practices from the premise that without care there is no wellbeing. That without health there is no life. That skilled and strong bodies are not the norm but the exception. That we all are much more fragile than we would like to believe. This pandemic reminds us that we are much more responsible for the well-being of those around us than we tend to assume. Our actions and negligence can kill the people next to us, those who we love the most. Our selfishness and our living based on self-interest is the vehicle through which an unparalleled destructive capacity is moved. To care implies the loss of freedom. It means not going to the second residence for Easter holidays, it means cleaning our hands frequently, it is about not putting the lives of others at risk. Designing with care, from care and responsibility, is no longer an option, it is the only path to follow. Designing caring about people, non-human beings, the environment, ourselves and the different realities with which we are going to inhabit these real worlds.

A present with many futures

“Straying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings” Donna Haraway


Walter Benjamin wrote that “there is no document of culture that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” As times goes by, any book, film or song will reveal forms of inequality, violence, privileges and forms of discrimination which were normal in the times it was made. The signs of freedom for one generation look like a form of coercion to the generation that follows. This crisis has made design objects that we used to find interesting some days ago now appear to be the result of the most absolute banality. The real world we designed for yesterday has ceased to exist. What used to seem important is now revealed as an exercise in exhibitionist narcissism. The problems we faced yesterday will be different from the ones we encounter today. Design that seemed relevant a few days ago is now completely superfluous. The world that seemed solid yesterday seems unreal today. When we get out of this confinement we will find a world where many people will be missing. A world affected by a brutal economic and social crisis. A world devastated by sadness and pain. Design can no longer afford to fall into nostalgia for what it once could have been. It cannot focus on speculating on futures that may not be. Design requires presence. It obliges us to attend, understand and care. To establish connections and links. To put our energy, inventiveness and creativity into designing new presents. To delve into increasingly complex, more plural, fairer, more subtle, more interdependent, more humble, more shared worlds. It is up to us to design a constellation of presents that begin to weave a better world.

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