Complexity and criticism

This blog is part of the keynote talk ‘Inside out/outside in: design as open’ I gave at the Spaces of Learning conference, April 18th in Toronto about how the nature of nowadays design has become fundamentally ‘open’ in nature and what impact this has about we deal with design.

This talk is divided in 4 seperate blog posts:

‘Design as open’ is not just something which just broadens the playing field of design. It fundamentally changes the nature of design and thus has a big impact on how we think about design, how designers behave and how design education should look. Design critics have begun starting to worry about a backlash this paradigm shift could have on design: as design spreads itself out further and further, the danger is that it becomes hollowed out as a profession.

Designeducation as a lab

As the Dutch Fund for Creative Industries writes about the Dutch designers that presented during the Salone de Mobile in Milan this week:

Design has become an additive sum,the outcome of a process. Whether it concerns the preparation of food, nature conservation, journalistic research, the development of sustainable energy, the design of a label or a chair or opening a hotel, solutions are being devised and moulded into a form. The designers of today no longer focus on the design of just ‘a thing’, but embrace the whole sum of things. Design has become a process, a network of ideas.

But how should this broad nature of design, in the fields and expertises that it conqueres as well its methods, be reflected in design education? Head Graphic Design at the HKU Erwin Slegers asks this question in the documentary ‘Het Nieuwe Ontwerplandschap (2015) in which he interviews several people in design education.

Is there still something like the graphic designer? How should you deal with your clients as they’ve become partners and are involved in the process? Should you teach your students still learn skills? And who should be teaching students? Should this be designers, or maybe also biologists, sociologists or journalists and should design education move from a top down approach to a lab like setting, in constant interaction with clients? How should you educate your students for a field that is so hybrid and in movement, the risk is that their knowledge and skills become obsolete before they even start working?

Overbloating, yet starving of context

But not only in design education hard questions are being asked. Critical sounds about the complexity, fragmentedness and the lack of vision of ‘design as open’ have been heard.

Sam Jacobs of FAT design describes for example in a column on Dezeen a ‘design tsunami’: ‘design became monstrously voluminous: uncountable and uncuratable. The sheer volume and scale of design has outgrown any of its previous states, bursting the seams of the definitions that we used to clothe it with’.


Instead of trying to get a grip, to construct narratives or ideologies, Jacobs notices only a whirlwind of images, short snippets, narratives with no top, no bottom, no start or end. An overbloated designculture surrounding the complex design as open. Never before in history were there so many design blogs, magazines, books and information on the internet, but according to Jacobs it’s just an endless binging on images and information without context. And so design’s high-gloss diet overbloated on images and information, yet starving of context. As Jacobs writes; ‘Contemporary design culture consumes as though it were at a Roman vomitorium where nothing is digested, where everything is swallowed for the fleeting pleasure of consumption itself only to be thrown up to make room for the next course.’

An empty shell

In line with Jacobs criticism, Dutch designer Hella Jongerius and Louise Schouwenberg, head of the master departent Contextual Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven, put out an manifesto during the Salone de Mobile (2015) in Milan. ‘Beyond the new. A search for ideals in design.’ In this manifesto they state that design has become an empty shell, devoid of meaning and substance. Design has become a goal instead of a means to an end.

Design is flourishing. But the field has not benefited. What most design events have in common are the presentations of a depressing cornucopia of pointless products, commercial hypes around presumed innovations, and empty rhetoric.

Beyond the new

They see the reasons for the decline of interesting developments in design are the lack of cohesion between the many facets of the profession, and the prominent role afforded to economic returns. And so they advocate for new ideals in design.

A renewed all-encompassing approach to design will not simply mean returning to past ideals, but will deal with today’s challenges and possibilities. It will embrace a rich layering of qualities and not necessarily lead to simplicity in design, nor will it be a heavy moral burden that stifles the imagination. An idealistic agenda will rather be a liberation from the schizophrenic subdivision of our field and the stifling rut in which users, designers, and producers have been caught for far too long. It’s time to rid ourselves of the obsession with the new.

Design bubble

While design has been emptied out and lacks cohesion, context and bigger narratives and ideals, the Dutch/German design critic Lucas Verweij states that design has been overburdend by unrealistic expectations and promises.

Because of the fact that design has immersed itself in so many fields, and the fact that creativity has become the magic word in creating solutions for all kinds of problems, the expectations and promises of design have become unrealistic and cannot be met. We are in a design bubble; it’s a matter of time before it will burst.

That became no more clear than in the discussion about the Mine Kafon, a design of Massoud Hassani who graduated in 2012 with this design from the Design Academy. The poetic design of the dandelion minesweeper which moves through the wind sparked a fiery discussion among design critics in the Netherlands.


Timo de Rijk was among the most furious critics of the Mine Kafon because he believed that it employed a false promise of safety. ‘Its illusion of safety will only cause many casualties if it is deployed in a war zone.’ The Mine Kafon was in his eyes a way of design that affects many Dutch designs: they don’t prove themselves in reality, but more on the platforms of the visual arts. He saw his point proved when the Mine Kafon was bought by the MoMa. After his comments a heated discussion broke lose on how to judge this design: should it be judged on it’s cultural value, market reality, social relevance, practical use? A lot of opinions were heard and many voices spoke, but no real conversation took place. Indeed: How can one discuss what good design is when everybody has their own definition of design?

The need of finding common ground to talk about design, becomes even more urgent when working with people who differ from you. As design conquers many areas, its workingfield exists of ‘others’ – its clients, stakeholders, collaboration partners. And because the relationship to these ‘others’ is not just topdown anymore and the design process has opened up, it’s important to understand each other well. The Social Design for Wicked Problems research (2014) from Het Nieuwe Instituut has thus tried to sketch the first outlines of what might me a new language designers will have to learn to speak.

The opening up of design to the world is not only a gain, something with makes the design profession more fun than ever, but it involves also risks and complexities. It’s time to take a time-out from the playing field, take a break to reflect and then move forward again.

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