I start with an assertion: design and politics are in a certain relationship to each other. Even if politics only sees design as marketing and many designers prefer to hold back on political statements, there has always been a relationship between design and society. This means one that consequently can be politicized. Now it seems as if the world political events of the last 10 years have provoked a reassessment of this relationship. In other words: In the recent past, the call for a visible re-politicization of design could hardly be ignored. In the following, I would like to question the relationship between design and politics using different perspectives in order to add my own proposal at the end.
My initial assertion is followed by an observation: The different demands for a re-politicization of design share the questioning of its conventional, apolitical role. What this demanded politicization of design seems to imply above all is that design should abandon its comfortable role as part of marketing and take a clearer stand on the side of protest. Examples for this point of view are Jesko Fezer’s concept of partisan design, according to which design must take sides, show an attitude and provoke conflict through its counter-position, and the idea of adversarial design by the American design theorist Carl DiSalvo, who sees computer-aided interaction design as responsible for the realization of a counter-hegemonic opposition.
Both refer to the agonism model of Chantal Mouffe. This model builds on the definition of politics as a fundamental conflict. But Mouffes concept of conflict wants to transfer it into a pluralistic, democratic society in which hostile antagonists become agonistic competitors for hegemonic interpretative sovereignty. Design and politics, or rather: design and the political are positioned in a relationship of either/or. Either design is or becomes political by questioning and breaking through existing norms and taking sides for the »good« cause; or design is simply apolitical. The juxtaposition between conventional design with politicized design has always been a confrontation that design seems to seek with itself. One the one hand we have conventional design, which persists in its passive role as a service provider and as the silent, blind or deaf servant of capital. On the other hand there is activist design, which is defined in distinction to the commodity form of conventional design, its lack of content and general naivety.
For example, the First Things First Manifesto of 1964 can also be read as the demand for a politicization of design, or Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World of 1971 as the radical redefinition of what design should actually be and do. In it, Papanek describes designers as snake oil selling impostors who only care for the fake problems of the global north. Or Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby have recently drawn up an A/B list in their Speculative Everything, which they also understand as a manifesto and in which they delimit conventional design (A) against critical design (B).
But in my opinion this demand for a radical politization of design has a blind spot. This demand can only be made from a position of privilege. The privilege to never have been the other, who is excluded from the already existing and very real politics of design: its everyday racism, classism and sexism. This, of course, is also the privileged position in which I find myself. From this position it is easily overlooked that design has always been political. And not only in the sense that designers themselves have been advocating for change and social justice in their designs. What they surely did. But design in its ‘designing’ always sets its own political agenda. Through design, a framework is set and defined. Through its definition a problem is framed in a certain way from a certain perspective and the design carries this perspective further. Our everyday life takes place in this designed frame. This frame enables certain actions and others are excluded by it. The logic of the design of this frame is transferred to the actions it allows to take place. Before it becomes political design is already shaping our everyday life and our societies. Design sets a frame for what can be said, seen and done. A fact that can and should always be politicised and critiqued.
The basis for such a critique of design by the Decolonizing Design collective is again that this framing of design remains invisible only as long as one is not very user-unfriendly excluded from it. The theoretical project of the collective in its critique aims at the academic discourse and the professional practice of design, both of which remain largely blind to these connections. From their point of view the discourse is permeated by systemic power structures, which are a product of modernity and its conception of design as a problem- and solution-oriented, rational project. But for the Decolonising Design Collective the apparently rational, functionalist modernity of a globalized design is precisely the problem. The globalized system of power and market structures erases ontological and epistemological differences, rewrites history continuously from the perspective of progress, and shapes visions of a technologically progressive future ›for the privileged few‹ at the expense of the human and non-human excluded. By setting a standard, its opposite is always determined and excluded as this opposite, that which does not fit into the frame of this standard. Here, above all large global corporations perpetuate the colonial production of inferiority and exclusion through binary structured design codes at the interface of gender, ethnicity and biopolitics.
Ece CanlI for example analyses how gender roles have been relaxed during the last decades, but at the same time have been intensified again in the materiality of our everyday life and especially in marketing. The binarity of the gender model is closely interwoven with the western and modern notions of design: »FORM/female« follows »FUNCTION/male«. The dichotomous juxtaposition of ›Female=Soft=Formable and Compliant‹ and ›Male=Hard=Functional‹ is not exclusively applied to women, but also imposes a certain role on male designers. CanlI refers here to the supposed relationship between femininity and basically all design practices considered decorative and strongly oriented towards the visual, which also determine the stereotype of the homosexual male designer. Since everything that is associated with femininity and soft compliance continues to be seen as degenerate, primitive, erotic, secondary and consequently inferior, the stigma of flamboyant, effeminate gay decorator, who is more entertaining than practical can continue to prevail.
Design is always political because it cannot be neutral. Rather than solving problems, design creates dis/orders, unbearable orders that are not user-friendly, functional and invisible to everyone. The designers cannot avoid this responsibility. After all, Frankenstein’s monster goes by the name of its creator. In order to show that design can and must nevertheless be viewed differently, Samer Akkach contrasts the english term design with its Arab counterpart Tasmim:
»…in linguistic terms ›design‹ [tasmim] is an act of determination, of sorting out possibilities, and of projecting choice. It has little to do with problem-solving, the prevailing paradigm, as the designer (musammim) seems to encounter choices, not problems, and to engage in judging merits, not solving problems. It is closer to ›decision-maker‹.«
The crux of the matter is from what position and with what intentions these decisions are made, which supposedly should be neutral and equally beneficial to all. But the dis/order fabricating, mess making modern agenda of design is not only always itself political, it is also used by and for a certain, mostly invisible policy that benefits from the construction of these dis/order. In an expanded view of borders, refugee camps and passports as designed structures and objects, Mahmoud Keshavarz shows how the meaningless difference production of marketing can go hand in hand with the structuring potentials of a social-technological design of governmentality. Referring to Jacques Rancière’s terminological subdivision of the political and the institutional, ordering politics as police, Keshavarz describes the production and the preservation of these excluding disorders as police politics and police design, which certain people fix in certain places under the smooth and reflecting surface of their design. The design of borders, which are less an instrument for securing a territory than a design for restricting the mobility of certain groups, is of course not limited to a line between two countries, but extends into our everyday lives. The creative rationalisation of seemingly non-violent measures, including automatic border control, which should run as quickly and smoothly as possible for everyone with the right passport, is the other side of the military securing of borders, that we are currently experiencing. In fact, in the last ten years twice as many borders have been fortified by fences, border fortifications or walls as during the entire Cold War period. In contrast, the privileged world publicly celebrates a boundless world, boundless of course especially for capital, while globalization provokes the most intense border security in the history of mankind.
»Because of [its power to persuade, normalise and convince] design is already political even before engaging in any explicitly political issue. Design is engaged in making, dividing, and patterning how lives are organised according to certain directions or power positions.«
Borders are therefore designed framings, which remain invisible and unseen because they are »part of the frame«. As long as one does not fall out of this frame. Part of this design are also passports, which Keshavarz describes as interface design with an embedded script, because they allow certain actions and prevent others. Here Keshavarz deliberately breaks through the supposedly »innocent« concept of interaction design and an idea of interactive participation, which is used as a creative cover for the technology-based structuring of power relations. Interaction design should rather be understood as a practice of designing interpassivity, which is an essential component of the capitalist »control society«. Once designed, the power relations articulated in the designed artifact disappear behind a smooth surface and interaction that is as smooth as possible. With a view to the colonializing tendencies of design, one again encounters the interplay of superficial difference with simultaneous social-technological control. Keshavarz understands designed artifacts as articulations. This makes it possible to take a look at the practices, structures and forms that are articulately related to each other or separated from each other by the material practices. These articulations are not purely discursive, but material and historical realities. At the same time, this consideration of design makes it possible to better recognize the possibility of an intervention. Every articulation is not completely and conclusively determined and therefore there is always the possibility of re-articulation or dis-articulation.
But what do we make of all this for a design, that wants to get involved and that wants to take political action? As important as a different perspective on design and design theory is, it seems to me that Decolonizing Design are in the end again faced with an either/or alternative about design. Although design is always political, it again falls into one of two camps, a progressive-activist and a blind reactionary. In my opinion, this juxtaposition can be traced back to Keshavarz’ reading of Rancier’s separation of the police (institutional politics) from the political as the political. Since Rancière has little to say about the activities of the police, except that it wants to create order and surveys opinion, it is obvious to orient oneself to the use of the political in this setting. The order that the police has created and maintains is interrupted by the political conflict and the police logic of order is confronted with the democratic logic of equality. But isn’t the insight into the fundamental politicality of every design a much deeper insight into the interrelation of order and conflict that always takes place in design? Especially when all design is understood as a rearticulable articulation. Rancière’s silence on the functioning of the police should not obscure his insistence on the fact that police and politics are interdependent in democratic societies. Police logic is not exclusively the dis/order-producing logic of a capitalist-imperialist control society. Rather, in the design of order, if one understands it as design, one inevitably finds the starting point for a revision, for a re-articulation, for a re-design that keeps every order open for change. Dis/orders can be reshaped in democratic societies because they have been designed. We can always change the mess we made. Truly democratic police policy and police design must take this into consideration and help shape it.
The same is true of the modernist project, whose claim to universality is legitimately associated with imperialist colonialism, but is nevertheless prematurely abandoned from a post-colonial perspective on design. Here I would like to return to Samer Akkach’s analysis of the term Tasmim. With this new perspective, Akkach does not want to fundamentally question the project of modernity associated with the globalization of the word ›design‹. Rather, he is concerned with the insight that there was not one modernity to be overcome, but that there were many modernities with just as many mistakes that developed in relation to each other. A decolonization of the design, which rightfully denounces the dis/order and mess, must not become an anti-modernism in which there can no longer be any claim to universality. Rather, this decolonial perspective must be concerned with universalizing the possibility of this claim from any particular position. Every attempt at universality is made from one position. Every position can make this claim. For this claim, the attempt to create something universally valid, equally justifies the dependence of design on criticism as well as its irrevocable, social reference and is part of its fundamentally political character. The Decolonizing critique shows that universality can always only prove itself in the contemplation and use of many different people and that its fallibility is not its weakness but its condition.
This brings me to my final point and finally to the political and aesthetic dimension of design. A point that is highlighted by the work of the students collected in this volume. If design is all about creating and owning up to one’s own mess, than design is also all about critique and debate. A critique that can and must be articulated by the visual means of design in a way that politics and aesthetics are inextricably intertwined. Design is about aesthetically highlighting the possibility that things can always be otherwise. That if everything is designed than it can also be designed in another way. Design highlights its own designability and is political in exactly that aesthetic sense that it always includes the possibility of being otherwise. In design the intersection of politics, ethics and aesthetics can not be separated. What is good in design first and foremost needs to prove itself in the eye of the public and is judged by its aesthetic appearance. The designed form furthermore shapes and defines the good that is actualized in design. The function doesn’t dictate the form but the form gives shape and meaning to the function while at the same time being more than just pure functionality. Questions of politics in design are always questions of style. The meaning of dissenting voices through design can not be overrated. Design can make visible what could not have been seen before. Through designing their critique inspired by the political movements and slogans of 1968 that also fought the dis/orders of this world and insisting on the fact that things can be otherwise, the students use their design as a dissenting voice.