Contributed by Clive Dilnot


Let’s remind ourselves two things about design. One is that it has to do with capacities. More or less innate human capacities. It’s also a historical phenomenon. It’s the tension between these two, and I see what’s [01:21:00] happening at the University of Michigan and Vassar. A lot of schools are wrestling actually with the underlying tension here. If we think back to, if I do a huge global picture of modes of production in relationship to design it really says, “Look the world up until 1800 is essentially the world of craft production where hand energy is 80, 90, [01:21:30] 95 percent of the energy of the world and therefore we can treat it as a single mode.”

In that mode up until 1800 we know that with some exceptions, architecture enabled architecture perhaps in one or two of the fields. There isn’t anything like the designer as a profession, but there is of course designing but small D, the capacity. A capacity, Dave mentioned a theme of connectivity. In a certain [01:22:00] way what else does designing do but connect us with the things we make? The fundamental condition. Design is in a sense mediation. All our artifacture is mediation. Like the [inaudible 01:22:18] mediates between me and the world. Mediation and in that sense, connectivity and relations are fundamental.

Then we get within designing, [01:22:30] we get designing’s capacity to both reconfigure what is a notion and to refine in the craft, something like tailoring is involved here. The fit. Notions of the fit. How would you fit a thing to it’s context? That’s very important. Gradually within this, I mean of course in most traditional societies it is continuity [01:23:00] not development, but the capacity to envisage comes into this. Then we would say as we move in a sense through the workshop era, the early modern theory of representation and the workshop era, say 1500, 1800. That this notion, this capacity to envisage possibilities becomes rather important. [01:23:30] Then we get the actual development of the design profession. That is a very very Faustian bargain.
On the one side we get the profession starts to happen, what, 1840 let’s say although the science 1820. It allows the possibility of a design profession and therefore of a design discipline and [01:24:00] therefore of focus, design thinking. We can get the breakdowns into areas of specialization. This is a kind of Habanassian type argument about how rationality can develop within the process.

The Faustian bargain is very much that this is a Seboltan activity. It’s brought into being by industry for it’s interests. [01:24:30] It is shaped by that. In fact it is constituted right from the start as a not very serious profession, that’s Tewer’s nice phrasing piece where he talks about that. Always suboarding it to other more serious professions. The proof of that is that no designer ever gets to be the managing director. Accountants do, lawyers do, businessmen do, engineers do, no designer I don’t think with rare, rare exceptions [01:25:00] which prove the rule get to be the talk. It is a Seboltan profession.

At the same time it’s also charged with something. It’s charged with two very important things. One is, the fact that design has to begin to envisage things because almost the very definition of modernity, this is one of Bart’s points, is that to be modern is to know what cannot be done over again. [01:25:30] It’s that break, the modernity is the break with the organic relation to the past. One cannot simple repeat anymore. Some form of envisaging, either trying to reconstruct the past artificially, 19th century architectural styles, or genuinely, think the future.

In fact since the relation with the past is the organic relation with the past is broken, there is some opening here towards the future as [01:26:00] a kind of compensation. Think about 1900 or so. 1880, 1990. Start to really think about the future, and that is that kind of compensation for the lost organic past. The last realization.

One more condition that’s very important during the 19th century. Up until 1800, craft has been in a sense the formative discipline of making. In a way, craft both ends and does not end [01:26:30] in the 19th century. Clearly craft does not end empirically, there were probably more craftsman employed in the 19th century than the whole of human history up until that point but crafts are no longer formative. The reason why I say this is because when we start to think about the industrial period we begin to see not only that design is constituted in the industry period. The question then is what happens when the industrial period begins to come to an [01:27:00] end. Today again the oil price crisis came up, 1975. More and more and more that looks like, in the last 60, 70 years we’ve had three enormous hinge points. 1945 and the end of world war two which sets in mind what recent historians are calling the great acceleration in environmental impact. 1975 which with a combination of circumstance, of which [01:27:30] the oil price crisis is the most visible really in effect begins to end the old industrial period. The industrial epoch.

It’s that when 1976, [inaudible 01:27:48] coming of post industrial society. Very interestingly symptomatically. Good question. Why is there no ecology before 1975 or so? It’s the early 70s when all the green parties, notions [01:28:00] of ecology become. Why? I think you can only have sustainment once the industrial system breaks down. We can look at proto-ecologies but not ecology. 70s is a breakdown and in effect we’ve been living in the last 40 years with what is in effect the end of the industry period and therefore the end of Design with a capital D.
Design that is the formative activity, [01:28:30] design is still continuing. Now we’re into a new novel kind of impact. We’re seeing this two ways we can look at that. One is empirically. We can see the strangely expanding role of design which goes out, to designing what? There’s almost no limit to that which can be designed, so expansion in range.

Expansion in comprehension. [01:29:00] This is [inaudible 01:29:01] what does it mean to say that an iPhone is designed? Which bit of it is designed? If we use the classic industrial design sense, the least important aspect of the phone is designed. Jonathan Ive’s work is the least important work that happens in Apple in a way, it’s packing really but it’s packaging. What is designed is the entire system from beginning to end.

Thirdly we could talk about something else that now starts [01:29:30] to happen as a consequence of this. The underlying consequence of what’s developing now is that as the world becomes increasingly artificial, matter itself becomes artificial. As far as we are concerned as humans, oil is artificial. Of course it is, it’s a, we can’t consider it natural. Water is artificial, the way we receive [01:30:00] it even is, it’s all packaged. is so packaged. Air. It’s clearly artificial. Air pollution. In a sense the question of designing gets down in depth to the very essence of things. On that level we now find ourselves in a very interesting position. The world has become artificial. That is to say the artificial is the horizon, the medium, and the condition of existence. [01:30:30] For us the world is artificial. Even nature is now within that embrace. It comes back as Hurricane Sandy and the return … the repressed you could say. It kind of bopped us back.

Now there’s two ways of then thinking about how we then go forward. Remember that we don’t necessarily, in design terms, necessarily hear “throw the baby out with the bath water.” We’ve got a very confusing situation [01:31:00] where design is expanding again in ways that has no boundaries and going beyond the professional designer. Yet, existing is also the professional designer and the design discipline. There are certain forms of – human capacity of designing is being spread larger and wider within organizations, very often. Plus, you have the condition.

Somebody like Latour would then come along and saying, in this relationship, [01:31:30] in this new relation to the artificial in which we’re standing, where we have to fundamentally rethink our entire relation, where, as he puts it rather nicely, “matters of fact become matters of concern.” Once matters of fact have become matters of concern, they become by definition questions of design.

Backtrack again. We [excurses 01:31:59] back [01:32:00] into history. One of things that we would look at if we look at the craft period, as I would call it. Try to take the objects that we look at within the craft period and take them out of the bracket “craft.” Then we can think of these things within that period as much more, as in fact things. Already quite complex assemblages. That which … objects that go beyond [01:32:30] the category.

Whereas, when we look at the modern period, what we actually see is the creation, not even of objects, but of products. They are things that come under a category. My kind of [ur 01:32:45] example with students [that 01:32:47] used for years used to be the configuration of the VCR. Every VCR made in the world was about this wide, this [01:33:00] deep, this high. It only had two permissible colors: black and silver. You couldn’t have a pink one, because clearly, if you painted it pink, it wouldn’t work.
When you think about the VCR, you realize that no form is ever made out of function. The VCR was an object constructed to fit on top of your stereo and under [01:33:30] your television in the home entertainment complex, which itself replaced the TV, which itself replaced the fire as the central point of conversation in the domestic environment. So, in fact, the object under the service of the category was actually very import-

And that is, of course, you can draw a reductive syndrome. Things to objects, meaning, an object [01:34:00] is that which is under a representation. Think of scientific representation. To product, that which is commodity, to sign, think of [Barth’s 01:34:11] mythologies. His lovely term for a Spanish looking house in a street in Paris, [bascoicity 01:34:19], that which has all the signs of a thing. A lovely slide I use with my students of this immaculate thatched cottage in England, [01:34:30] under construction on an estate of thatched cottages. It’s a [beauty 01:34:34]. [inaudible 01:34:36] the reproduction.

What we are now faced with, by comparison, is a more complex field. We can start to see design, and this where design, this is where this will start to slide into ethics, because if we think about [01:35:00] the artificial and some of its conditions, one of the first conditions of the artificial, which is a paradoxical condition, is that in the artificial there is no law. That is to say, although things in the artificial have to obey particular laws, so you make a [bedwood 01:35:20] chair, it has to obey the laws of how you can bend timber, there is no law about the configuration of chairs. [01:35:30] Law ends in the artificial, essentially.

Wherein, therefore, uncertainty is the prime condition of the artificial. Wherein a world of possibility, where we actually don’t know what that possibility is. The only way we can know what the possibility of the artificial is, is actually by making things. But things no longer have a definitive condition. [01:36:00] They’re only propositions. One may not like to think one is flying on a propositional airplane, but essentially. Things are essentially propositions.

The second condition of the artificial is that mediation is everything. How we mediate our relation to nature with each other, [social 01:36:24], that is the name of the game. There is nothing else but mediation in the artificial [01:36:30] world. What is crucial within the artificial world, and this begins to bear back on, twist really onto design, is that what we’re perpetually doing in mediation is mediating incommensurability, particularly subject object, or subject, object, nature. These incommensurable conditions, which we now have to negotiate.
Where design comes in here, is that of course [01:37:00] technology finds incommensurability, that which it wishes to erase, if the more that you can erase incommensurability, the more you can turn an effect into an algorithm to maximize the performance.

These two conditions, the conditions of [inaudible 01:37:25] no law on proposition, and the conditions of [01:37:30] relation, perhaps give to design a particular kind of force as a mode of acting in this world. Latour in his little paper, which I like very much because it’s so accessible, his little talk he did to the design history society about 2009, very roughly skims [them 01:37:52] as the virtues of modesty or the lack of hubris, [01:38:00] detail, which translates into care, the obsessive ridiculous detail design does, typography, which is of course insane. Why do you do Times New Roman when you have Times? What do these minute inflections matter? And yet we know they do. That notion of detail. The shift of matters of fact to matters of concern, which is a breaking with the one dimensional [01:38:30] object or product, and allows us to start thinking about complex assemblages of contradictory impulses, and navigating these of course is part of how we navigate incommensurability.

His fourth point is then that, it’s a version of the modesty by saying that design is always useful. And this is [rather 01:38:53] nice one, I always think, because it is not creation. It is the reconfiguration [01:39:00] of something. This does not mean that it cannot be radical, but Latour starts to say creation, which is one of our fantasies of the 20th century, is very dangerous. Reconfiguration, which is a kind of reworking of the world, is what we have. We could well say, as I hinted earlier, that sustainment is in effect the [recondition 01:39:22] of the world.

Then fifthly, Latour says, in all of this, we cannot [inaudible 01:39:27]. This forces [01:39:30] the ethical onto the agenda. There cannot be all of this without thinking of things in terms of ethics. We now recognize the implication. Because the underlying thing here is that we recognize our dependency. The last word to say on design and ethics, and then I can hand it over to somebody, is that the ethics of design can only come from the interior of what design it is. It cannot be external. You cannot put it on from outside, it has to be thought from what is inside and then we have to go back and ask, “Well, what is it that design is really dealing with?” Well it’s dealing with artifacture [matey 01:40:22]. So what is the ethics of artifacture? What is the ethics of things which causes us to ask, “Why do we make things at all?” [01:40:30] The answer is we make things for ourselves, we make things for other persons.

We actually reground design ethics within the ethics of the thing. What I will call the interior structure of the artifacts, stealing a line from Ellen [inaudible 01:40:48] here. And all we pick up to … We start to look at what is intrinsic [01:41:00] to the design process, essentially. Questions of possibility, mediation, so on and so forth, and begin to see that within these questions there are, indeed, ethical implications that we can’t get out of.

Finally, of course, in this realm of taking, comprehending that we’re in an artificial world, comprehending that design was constructed with the industrial period. We also comprehend [01:41:30] that technology, thought as technology, capital D, was also comprehended within the industrial period. I think the first academic appointment in technology was about 1806 in Berlin, if I’m right, it’s the time where it gets sort of codified.

And it too came to an end in 1975, that’s the argument. Meaning by that the singularity of technology, or I as I would call it its inversion. Because when we think [01:42:00] about it what happened to the history of making was that making is the generic realm, human making, within which gradually, true in the Early Modern period and then in intensifying after 1800, technology begins to emerge.

And then technology’s like cuckoo in the nest, sort of kicks out making and there’s an inversion. By now, 200 years later, we find that making is only a subset [01:42:30] of technology, that in fact that is now the totality, and inside of making there is craft. And sometimes inside of making, when somebody allows it, there is design. And even further down, occasionally, for the 0.3% of buildings that are actually designed by architects there is architecture, which is the most marginal of all [01:43:00] professions.
There aren’t any architects here. (laughter) Oh, one. That, sorry. I thought I was in … I thought I was safe with that [inaudible 01:43:13]. (laughs)