Gabi Hei. We are Zach Kaiser and Gabi Schaffzin, both recently minted MFA’s from the Dynamic Media Institute at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design in Boston. We also work together in a design collective called Skeptic.
We are here as educators to talk about education. That’s our practice.
In fact, we like to believe that we are design educators looking to foment revolution. And this all starts by teaching our students to know how the systems in the world work and to be critical of them. That last part is particularly important.
Zach As Americans, our design students learn in the tradition of the canonical: they are being trained before anything else. But it’s equally as important to note here that the systems we seek to critique exist well beyond the realm of design education.
We’ve taught at a graphic design school, but in doing so we’ve developed approaches to systems thinking that we feel transcend the design academy.
As a lens to approach systems in design, and specifically in design pedagogy, we use a slight reinterpretation of Donella H. Meadows' definition of a system. She states that systems are always composed of three things: elements, relationships, and function or purpose. We apply slightly different language but remain faithful to her general ideas, replacing function/purpose with "ideology."
Elements are things that are the easiest to notice. Objects.
Gabi Today, these objects are not only physical. They also include media. We are moving towards an understanding of the world that is predicated on relationships and not on objects or media objects themselves. The relationships between the objects has become the fulcrum for product and service differentiation, deeply impacting the design disciplines. Our pedagogy must respond (or anticipate, ideally) this shift. This is why systems thinking is so important. This is why what everyone here is doing is so important.
As much as we are training our students to become professional designers, to make designed objects, tailored for brands and corporations, we are doing more than that. And this is where the relationship level comes in.
Brands operate on the relationships level. As he charts the move from Adorno and Horkheimer’s classical culture industry to his global culture industry, Theorist Scott Lash characterizes the transition as from the real to the symbolic.
In global culture industry, our goods are no longer real commodities whose similarities—The Fordist approach of manufacturing as many of the same cars as possible—are their value.
Instead, we operate on symbolic difference. Brands must differentiate. Lash calls it a “post-Fordist and design-intensive production of difference.” Value is added in the movement of identities.
So, it makes sense that our academy would start focusing more on symbolic relationships, even under the auspices of the “real” trade school. This is what we’re starting to teach our students to “understand.”
Zach At MassArt, for example, we task our seniors with designing a service and the ecosystem of touchpoints that drives it. This project is, of course, not intended to subvert anything. Rather, it’s about making our students marketable in the world that values differentiation through the intentional design of relationships.
Even at the earliest stages of their design education, students are taught to see things in terms of relationships (albeit visual), when, as sophomores, MassArt students design systems of textile patterns, an example of which you see here. Note the pseudo-code behind the pattern. Students are asked to write algorithms, or sets of rules, that govern the behavior of the visual elements in their patterns. They are asked to investigate the critical relationship between rules and behavior. This relationship is a concept that is, according to Donella Meadows, fundamental to systems theory; indeed, she argues that rules are one of the more effective points of intervention in a system. IF, however, we are trying, indeed, to foment revolution, while operating within the academy (and the hegemony of capital within which the academy itself must operate), then we must filter the manufacture of relationships through a critical lens.
Paulo Freire argues that the purpose of education is the pursuit of a fuller humanity—and that our world is full of forces that dehumanize us. A critical praxis—action on the world and a reflection upon that action—is central to “learning for freedom” (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 27). This critical praxis enables a critical literacy, where an understanding of the world enhances an understanding of texts (and media) and vice versa. While students design systems and create relationships, therefore, they must consider the meaning of these acts in a broader, systemic context. Systems is a literacy and we have to teach students how to read design and how to read culture systemically.
The act of designing systems can be as broad as the design of complex service ecosystems or as seemingly simple as the design of a textile pattern. In either of those situations, it is important to consider Robin Greeley’s assertion that there is no escaping “that intricate web of social structures and practices within which the designer’s conscious—and unconscious—decisions are made as to which set of forms will carry what significations.”
As my sophomore students design beautiful textile patterns, drawing relationships between forms and sets of forms, they are also asked to read short passages on rules and behavior in systems, and discuss the potential parallels between the actions they take to design patterns and the actions companies take in the development of proprietary service ecosystems.
My work also investigates the formation and illumination of relationships through designed interventions intended for educational use. Sampler, for example, is a tool intended to help learners draw new relationships between content through a performative, improvisational experience of connection-making.
Sampler is a product and service intended to help students explore connections between content. It's based on the process that hip-hop DJs and producers go through when they create music. It's essentially a sampling and mixing interface for content that ranges from text to images to audio and video. Sampler is intended to facilitate a improvisational sort of research where learners identify relationships as they "mix" content. One of the main goals of the project is to prompt curiosity about relationships. What I'll show you here is a short section of a longer video that describes the project and draws a direct comparison between the practice of research and the practice DJ-ing.
By giving learners an opportunity to identify relationships between content that could previously have been seen as disparate or unrelated, learners practice a skill essential to the design and analysis of systems. In giving students an opportunity to reflect on the identification of these relationships, the Sampler system encourages an approach to thinking about content that is more systemic, focusing on the connections between the parts, rather than the parts themselves.
As designers and design educators, we help students move past the creation of elements of systems towards the consideration and design of relationships. But if we are are to teach designers how to design relationships and therefore systems, we owe them the opportunity to realize that embedded in each relationship are the ideologies of system designers.
Gabi In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilem Flusser writes about understanding the ideologies built into the camera or, using his more abstract term, the apparatus. The designers and builders of the tool created a program for the user. Certainly, there are many options in that program, but it is a program nonetheless and it means the designers have determined the ways they’d like the consumer to use the camera. In that sense, there is an embedded ideology in the apparatus.
Flusser was an engineer before he was a professor of philosophy. He saw firsthand the manufacturing processes of the apparatus.
But in today’s world, where the manufacture of symbolic relationships is more highly valued by corporations than the manufacture of real goods, it becomes more difficult to see the apparatus—something that still exists, regardless of that shift.
We are, of course, still making lots of “things”—but I’m talking about where CAPITAL sees the most value and opportunity for growth. In fact, Zach and I just saw an exhibit at the Design Museum in London which questioned whether or not the manufacturing of goods is even something that capital markets will bother with any more, especially now that the maker movement—that is, the use of low-cost 3D printers, CNC mills, laser cutters, and so forth—is so strong. Zach and I were skeptical, but there is something to be said about companies like Adidas and Ikea no longer needing to make, they only need to market.
Before, we could pick up the camera and critique it. And yes, we can do that today. I can pick up my iPhone and see it and even look at its software and try to see the embedded ideologies in it. But to really see where today’s apparatus is being programmed, we need a way to SEE the symbolic. So how does one see the symbolic?
Well, when we’re trying to see systems, we map them. So when engaging with the symbolic, perhaps we must design it into the real.
Of course, when mapping systems, we do so as we observe them today or as we envision them existing at some point. But exploring the symbolic in the context of today is a bit more difficult, because it exists…we just can’t see it in the real. So what if we designed the symbolic in the context of tomorrow? That is, what if we design real objects and real media but we remove the constraints of the real in order to engage with it? This is where speculative design comes in and I know this is getting a bit abstract, so let me show you a couple of examples.
My students at MassArt were reading Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontent for a class on Narcissism, Aggression, and Creativity. I wanted them to consider what Freud said about memory—that in the realm of the mind, what is primitive is so commonly preserved alongside of the transformed version which has arisen from it.
They had just read M.T. Anderson’s Feed, a dystopian novel where human memory is supplanted by a chip in the brain and I wanted them to take their turn designing an object that came to mind when considering Freud’s writing. I gave them no further direction than this, but I did make sure the groups were built of teams with students of varying disciplines—fashion designers, illustrators, graphic designers, etc. These are students learning to be makers. I wanted them to start thinking about the system of what the products they designed would go through when getting to market.
The products they presented varied significantly in their purpose. Some students wanted to aid memory by storing it outside of the brain. Another group wanted to help individuals remember dreams with a device that would replay them during consciousness.
Two other groups tried to help individuals break their addictions to their mobile devices, one offering an app that would block most of the phone’s functionality, another offering a “jumbotron” that would publicly shame an individual who insisted on using his or her phone at the dinner table.
While presenting, I posed more specific questions to the groups than what I had originally offered. I wanted to know who made the product, how much it would cost, who would be able to buy it, where it was sold, and so on. At first, students would offer simple answers: “Google...or Apple.” “A few hundred bucks.”“Anyone, I guess.” But then they would be forced to consider their answers further.
Would Apple really want to sell an application that reduced device use? Would those living on lower income have to forgo memory enhancement? It was the frustration in the students’ faces as they tried to answer that indicated to me they started to contextualize their work in the grander scheme. They began to take hold of the tangible criticality that speculative design inspires.
This is the type of tangible criticality that I found myself engaging in after an exploration of the information design associated with the Occupy and anti-SOPA/anti-PIPA movements in the spring of 2012. In trying to find a framework with which to evaluate the various graphics as visual forms, I found that I had to abstract my critique. Specifically, I found that I agree with design theorists Jessica Helfand and William Drentell when they note that
information design is "a false authority, particularly because we buy into the form so unquestioningly. Information design has become its own legitimizing force, regardless of its content or context.” I decided that I wanted to investigate information design because I placed an inherent trust in it as a method. I was no longer interested in the objects themselves. Rather, I was interested in the way we, as humans, related to those objects and how the designers of the objects could so easily embed their subjective points of view in a seemingly objective form.
As a designer, I needed to explore this concern by designing it. I had to give form to the system of meaning I was concerned with. I eventually came to create a brand: Shape, Inc.
Shape, Inc. Is a corporation spun off from the MIT Institute for Universal Knowledge and Understanding: a group at the Media Lab charged with the mission of giving humans the tools to better appreciate one another, specifically through the accurate dissemination of one’s values and belief systems. Some of the world’s finest data scientists paired with equally as talented information designers spent years figuring out how to communicate visually what would otherwise take countless hours to understand.
The recently announced New Shape™ is a 3D object, completely independent from any broadcast medium or channel. You just need a small magnet implanted in each of your shoulders, and the form will float above your shoulder of choosing, ever morphing to the inputs and outputs that affect who you are. Here’s a quick promo video that the company has put together.
You see, with Shape, Inc. I shifted to an examination of how we as humans relate to information design in the symbolic: not just how we see it or read it, but how we make meaning from it. I had to design a world where we look to information design and data visualization as THE answer to the messiness of discourse, but I had to be explicit in that assertion. I had to add form to the symbolic in order to understand the full system of meaning in which information design operates.
Zach Tangible criticality is central to the curriculum of liberatory praxis. We believe that this curriculum is made up of a continuum—one in which our work exists: from the programming of textile patterns to establishing the relationships between touch-points of a service, through to the consideration and elucidation of ideologies that are embedded in those relationships.
Because this is our real fear: Without practicing criticality, the ideologies embedded in systems can achieve hegemonic status. We therefore not only encourage students to become designers of systems, but to become critics of systems. And it is our personal hope, as educators, to bring this curriculum of liberatory praxis into being in order to inspire the kind of criticality for which these future designers are perfectly positioned.
Rsd2 kaiser schaffzin
MIT Institute for Universal Knowledge & Understanding