Adapt or plan? Where do we go from here?

I just returned from Nottingham, UK where I presented a paper for Cumulus 16, In This Place. The paper was entitled Design Fiction: A Countermeasure For Technology Surprise. An Undergraduate Proposal. My argument hinged on the idea that students needed to start thinking about our technosocial future. Design fiction is my area of research, but if you were inclined to do so, you could probably choose a variant methodology to provoke discussion and debate about the future of design, what designers do, and their responsibility as creators of culture. In January, I had the opportunity to take an initial pass at such a class. The experiment was a different twist on a collaborative studio where students from the three traditional design specialties worked together on a defined problem. The emphasis was on collaboration rather than the outcome. Some students embraced this while others pushed back. The push-back came from students fixated on building a portfolio of “things” or “spaces” or “visual communications“ so that they could impress prospective employers. I can’t blame them for that. As educators, we have hammered the old paradigm of getting a job at Apple or Google, or (fill in the blank) as the ultimate goal of undergraduate education. But the paradigm is changing and the model of a designer as the maker of “stuff” is wearing thin.

A great little polemic from Cameron Tonkinwise recently appeared that helped to articulate this issue. He points the finger at interaction design scholars and asks why they are not writing about or critiquing “the current developments in the world of tech.” He wonders whether anyone is paying attention. As designers and computer scientists we are feeding a pipeline of more apps with minimal viability, with seemingly no regard for the consequences on social systems, and (one of my personal favorites) the behaviors we engender through our designs.

I tell my students that it is important to think about the future. The usual response is, “We do!” When I drill deeper, I find that their thoughts revolve around getting a job, making a living, finding a home, and a partner. They rarely include global warming, economic upheavals, feeding the world, natural disasters, etc. Why? These issues they view as beyond their control. We do not choose these things; they happen to us. Nevertheless, these are precisely the predicaments that need designers. I would argue these concerns are far more important than another app to count my calories or select the location for my next sandwich.

There is a host of others like Tonkinwise that see that design needs to refocus, but often it seems like there are are a greater number that blindly plod forward unaware of the futures they are creating. I’m not talking about refocusing designers to be better at business or programming languages; I’m talking about making designers more responsible for what they design. And like Tonkinwise, I agree that it needs to start with design educators.

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