Labor-centered design

I’m just going to put in a couple of notes and highlights of a great article I just read on labor and design. Asking why it is that we don’t have a strong conversation between the two. And so it maps the terrain and gives a genealogy of work that would form a bridge.

If we just take a passing glance around our material culture, it’s really not too hard to make a comprehensive environmental and labour focused critique of our design economies (Julier, 2017)and the design industry more generally (see Boehnert, 2018). All forms of mainstream design – whether we consider fashion or the food industry, consumer electronics or digital platforms have vast resource and waste impacts and contribute enormously to pollution, land use change, carbonemissions and biodiversity loss.

Great place to start, since this always lurks in my mind when reading about whizbang design solutions.

The proposition that we could redesign the workplace, the home, our material economies and our urban and rural relations to bring about different socio-ecological relations have been at the forefront of some startling schemes and dreams weaved by various designers, social theorists and activists across the last hundred and fifty years to think theworld differently. We will also find in this chapter that if we shift our horizons beyond telling stories of professional designers and the objects they fashion to focus more attention on the vast amount of gendered, racialized, classed and other modes of
invisible labour

So one way to get to clear about how design plays in more-than-human landscapes, racialized, classed and gendered as they are would be to look at

(1) the execution side of “design”:

from coders to contractors, model makers to building managers - whose invisible labour across diverse geographies sustains all kinds of design projects

(2) execution of designs beyond formal labor per se:

One approach would be to demarcate our inquiry to the plight of industrial labour as has often been the case in some of the most remarkable demands for worker-orientated design that have run through all manner of revolutionary, socialist and social democratic designerly projects across the twentieth century; from those advocated by Alexander Bogdanov in revolutionary Russia (Wark, 2015) to Pelle Ehn’s call for work-orientated designs in Scandinavia (Ehn, 1990). A more expansive approach though might include such approaches but also seek to map the diverse forms of material and immaterial, direct and affective, physical, cognitive and emotional labour that the diverse multi-racial and multi-gendered contemporary working class continually contribute to designing, maintaining and repairing our worlds

Strong anthro vibrations since the latter often proceeds with some fascination about what ordinar people do to make their worlds hold together.

Another good question that parallels professional design vs. vernacular: should labor informed eco-design look to red-green climate leviathan to shove through decarbonization in time or small-is-beautiful localism that has roots in 1970s environmetnalism (p.8-9).

On the labor side of things, a central question has how to combine un-alienated craft with the freedoms afforded by advanced manufacturing.

How we might identify ways of socially organizing design, engineering and manufacturing to combine the gains of technological innovation and craft production without fostering alienation, deskilling and ecological pollution is a question that troubles all matter of design schools from this [William Morris] on: from the Bauhaus to the Garden City movement, the Russian Constructivists to contemporary advocates of peer production and the commons.

Cool tech campuses like the googlplex have brought ‘the garden into the workplace’ but the question would be how to expand that beyond the province of the transnational creative classes.

On the design side of things, we get a whole geneaology of small-is-beautiful that includes Lovins, Schumacher, Bucky Fuller.

The critique of small is beatiful is that the currents that have come to predominate are less the utopian socialist ones and more those that are:

technocentric (focused on environmental/energy performance/product, service or systems innovation), managerial (foregrounding green business, logistical re-organization as primary avenues for change) and marked by high degrees of naturalistic reductionism (the assumption that “nature” often understood as a system separate from history and politics, offers some kind of direct normative basis for organizing social life or directing design).

e.g. Stewart Brand whole earth catalog especially perhaps as it lurches into the libertarian 80s, the more literalist versions of bio-mimicry, MaCarthurt Foundation Circular economy. stuff. The critique here lands with a crack!

the political frame of this work tends to linger in a space of technocratic innocence, somewhere between philanthro-capitalism, green market thinking, EU/UN technocracy and Clinton-Blair third way positions. It is green business owners and shareholders, designers and “green consumers” that are lionized and presented as true agents of change. The sustainable workplace is presented as a happy, healthy place but still a site of unquestioned private power. The gendered, racialized and classed labour though that sustains theclosed loop eco-workplaces of the future, that are going to build and maintain the low-carbon energy structures, that labour in the organic fields, the lithium mines and the sustainable call centers of the future, are nowhere to be seen.

There are more anticapitalist variants as of late, partially inspired by degrowth: Manzini, Fry. I’d maybe include Mae-ling Lokko. And Arturo Escobar as anthropologist sympathizer. Still, much of the design proposals here happen outside the workplace. Perhaps they can be paired with the workplace democracy tradition that goes back to worker’s councils but also the scandinavian social democracy/participatory design traditions. Things of course look different when a gloabl economy is organized around transnational supply chains; how to build solidarities across its segments?

Another tradition of democratizing the workplace involved socialist-feminist interrogrations of the home and domestic as cutoff from the public good/economy and undervalued. THis sometimes called for socializing domestic care: collective kitchens, laundry services, childcare. A corollary here is to focus on the work of maintenance work and social reproduction more broadly: janitors, nurses, gardeners, landscapers. Should be considered design workers.

The shift in design studies from a sole focus on object making to attending to the design of systems and services could potentially have many complimentary convergences with a concurrent shift occurring in design studies that we have sketched above, that decenters professional designers and sociologically re-grounds the many forms of design labour that is involved in maintaining our material culture.

This kind of mapping excercise takes on significance against an enthusiasm for some sort of Green New Deal. Like the old New Deal, this is one where public instutions might harness to scale the creative work of design in mass social transformation and maybe even make for a more pleasant and beautiful world (so we can better get on with the business of our “ordinary unhappiness” as Freud said). Lest this be more state paternalism and with the best intensions still reproduce the kinds of racisms and sexisms of the old Fordist imaginary it somehow has to be paired with the civic/republican/anarchist traditions of populist design that sees people who raise children, tend gardens and just generally produce life as design work in its own right.

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Here’s another article, less on labor and more on design history. Also a kind of cognitive mapping review excercise but here around the theme of displacement.

What’s the relationship between design and displacement? We may associate it with refugees, eviction, mobility more generally. But artifacts are in a sense always being displaced from themselves, through the sheer fact of changing and moving through time. And in a more conventional sense, they are also wrenched from their contexts and deposited into new ones.

Four theoretical frameworks for displacement: new materialism, critical urbanism, deterriotiralization, and border thinking.

New materialism: objects always excceed what they are designed for, and they are always being worked on by a whole network of agencies (atmostphere and earth, entanglemtents, networks).

Michel Serres for instance, charecterizes materials and objects as turbulent, “tensed between a gathering and a distribution” (aren’t we all though). Things “easily lose their coherence and become uncoordinated and dispersed, similair to communites and societies.” Thinking of things as gatherings is useful, it can’t be denied. It takes a village to make a house. And at the same time there are the centripetal forces of displacement and transplantion. Examples from the special issue they are introducing: “a cigar box ends up without cigards but in an assembly with stringe; a toy corvette perches atop a stone monolith” etc. This should resonate with Heidegerrian references: a nail only makes sense in reference to a hammer, an aorta makes reference to a valve, such that any element is both retentive and protentive in an ever unfurling texture.

This same networking and re-networking applies to material transformation of the biochemical sort. Thigns harden or soften, evaporate or condense, grow smooth or rough:

Matter will continue to act before, after, and beyond design, and that new processes of emergence are waiting at the door after the designer leaves the stage, if the designer was ever present at all. In this framework, we can see displacement as a field condition for new emergence that is often ‘wondrous’, unpredictable, and difficult to tame or restrict.

Not to mention terrifying, deadly, toxic. New materialism can feel apolitical if you are simply content to trace the networks. Environmetnal history is a bit better at looking at the interplay of human intentions, power relations, etc., and the wily forces it contends with and attempts to domesticate.

Critical urbanism: Harvey and other Marxist geographers empahsize urban development as a place to put capital to work which often entails razing existing neighbrohoods or spaces, such that the new steel and glass tower is always linked to some sort of disposession and displacement elsehwere.

Detteritorialization: mainly taken from Appadurai. Commodities, media flows, consumption more generally create weird vectors of translocal continuity. A really interesting point they make, though, is that it creates interesting ‘detteritorialized’ people:

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their work on minor literature, connect deterritorialization with the ‘moment of alienation and exile in language’ and talk about estrangement as a possibility ‘to express another potential community, to force the means for another consciousness’. Along the same line of thought that looks not for ‘masters’ or ‘masterpieces’, design history also questions established notions of genre, community, and canon, looking at ‘minor’ designs that both enable and are products of deterritorialized imaginaries.

aircrete qualifies as such minor design, as is Azolla duckweed, black soldier fly, and others. A world away from the steel and glass masterpieces of REM Koolhaas or Zaha Hadid. A variety of marginalized women would qualify as minor designers.

Border thinking
All manner of design goes into actual border zones, from passports to fences. So does the ‘borderwork’ of trespassing circumventing. Border thinking is a related philosophical sensibility

rooted in the experiences of the colonies and sublatern empires [and] resists and aims to reverse the effects and vectors of the multiple displacements that are affected by the intertwined forces of modernity, colonization, and universalism.

In design theory and practice, border thinking

calls out the imperial designs of modernity and enables other designs from other local histories to emerge, highlighting other terms of designing beyond those conceived from the ‘centre’.

There is a de facto disciplinary jurisdiction over form (design history which looks at objects) and subtance (environmental history which looks at the resources/matter that substantiate them). In design history you might look at emigre designers, transnatoinal design traditions, imposition of modernity via design.

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