I read — closely, but not obsessively — this essay by Bruno Latour that was delivered as a keynote at the Networks of Design meeting of the Design History Society in 2008. I pretty much read whatever Latour writes, and listen to whatever he discusses in lectures where available. Mostly because he can be insightful while also being funny, and there aren’t too many philosophers who can make that claim. But also because I find his work mostly relevant, or I make it relevant to this ongoing project of understanding design and comprehend how design is a way to circulate and create knowledge through the materialization of ideas. ((The bedrock of this project is a bit of science-technology studies, which is how I came across Latour some decade or so ago, a hobbled appreciation of actor-network theory, and my infantile understanding of the questions surrounding this “object-oriented ontology” thing.))
So, when Latour has an essay that proposes *a few steps toward a philosophy of design, I figure I should give it a look-see.
The essay starts with a look at the “career” of the term design, from a surface feature added through the hands of a “not-so-serious-profession” that made pretty the much more serious work of professionals like engineers, scientists and accountants. It has increasingly become substantive and perhaps even the very substance of production. It has extended, Latour suggests, from details of everyday things to cities, landscapes, nations — even bodies and genes and perhaps even onto nature itself, which is provocative — can nature be re-designed in a world-changing, world-saving way? Design has grown in what it includes (comprehension) — “it has eaten up more and more elements of what a thing is.” It has also extended far-and-wide, which is quite curious — the term gets appended and suffixed and prefixed onto just about anything — financial design, for example.
Today everyone with an iPhone knows that it would be absurd to distinguish what has been designed from what has been planeed, calculated, arrayed, arranged, packed packaged, defined, projected, tinkered, written down in code, disposed of and so on. From now on, “to design” could mean equally any or all of those verbs. Secondly, it has grown in extension — design is applicable to ever larger assemblages of production. The range of things that can be designed is far wider now than a limited list of ordinary or even luxury goods.”
Design seems to be everywhere in this way. It’s expansion suggests a change in the way that we deal with objects and action, which are at the core of Latour’s interests (as well as these object-oriented ontologists, I think). Moreover, if you take the useful view that we have never been modern then it follows, according to Latour that “the typically modernist divide between materiality on the one hand and design on the other is slowly being dissolved away. “The more objects are turned into things — that is, the more matters of fact are turned into matters of concern — the more they are rendered into objects of design through and through.”
Perhaps more directly — as “matters of fact” are more shrewdly understood as “matters of concern”, then objects are more acutely materializations and embodiments of ideas rather than the mere instrument. Design creates “things”, full of meaning and begging for interpretation and meaning-making, rather than instrumental, inert “objects.” (Matters of concern have a “style”, according to Latour. He digs further into this in this essay What is the Style of Matters of Concern.)
I don’t quite get the summation of his argument at this point — where he says effectively that “design” is a tracer that indicates the degree to which we have stopped believing that we have been modern. But, digging a little deeper and cutting a bit closer, little bits become illuminated. I think his excavation of the concept of design is a way of identifying some characteristics that are resonant with what’s going on in the studio and the Laboratory..let’s see. What follows are rough notes / citations from the short essay and some side notes on my part.
..the little word “design” could offer a very important touch stone for detecting where we are heading and how well modernism (and also postmodernism) has been faring. To put it more provocatively, I would argue that design is one of the terms that has replaced the word “revolution”! To say that everything has to be designed and redesigned (including nature) we imply something of the sort: “it will neither be revolutionized, nor will it be modernized”. For me, the word design is a little tracer whose expansion could prove the depth to which we have stopped believing that we have been modern. In other words, the more we think of ourselves as designers, the less we think of ourselves as modernizers. It is from this philosophical or anthropological position on design that I address this audience tonight.
**Latour is suggesting that design has replaced what revolution or modernization once meant. ((Curiously, and parenthetically, in a recent lecture at the Annenberg Center for Communication at USC, he wonders if “revolution is even a word”, which is one of those provocative and funny turns of phrase that makes you want to dig deeper to get the joke. Reading this essay — which was written a couple of years before the ACC lecture — helps me understand it now. But, it’s probably an on-going joke in this community of philosophers, perhaps.)) The act of designing, or the degree to which design has expanded into all these corners of life means that design has replaced “modernize” or “revolutionize” in our common parlance, and in our understanding of why, how and for-what.
**The anthropological reading might be that interpretation that looks at how people listen, speak and act — we may not utter phrases about modernizing a phone, for example — rather, phones are designed, more colloquially speaking. ((I’m just guessing and supposing — I haven’t done the ethnography. But I think the point is a curious and suggestive one — that design values are perhaps superseding the notion of modern-izing, or revolution-izing.))
**As for the philosophical reading — we don’t think of what we do as revolutionizing or modernizing. Rather the comprehension from the point of view regarding the nature of knowing or of being is that now, today, these days — we or one or whoever (Nokia, Mercedes, National Geographic-reading ecologists, Dwell-magazine reading Unhppy Hipsters, &c.) design phones/cars/nature/homes..which is curious..fancy people these days don’t live in modern homes or construct modern kitchens, they have designed homes and designer kitchens. Perhaps craft supersedes modern notions of making, which might be closer to “manufacture” than made, carpentry-style craft. *shrug*)
Latour then goes on to describe five “advantages” of the concept of design.
*1. Design implies a humility that seems absent from the word “construction” or “building”.
*Because of its historical roots as a mere addition to the “real” practicality, sturdy materiality and functions of daily objects, there is always some modesty in claiming to design something anew..It seems to me that to say you plan to design something, does not carry the same risk of hubris as saying one is going to build something. Introducing Prometheus to some other hero of the past as a “designer” would doubtlessly have angered him. ..It is just at the moment where the dimensions of the tasks at hand have been fantastically amplified by the various ecological crises, that a non- or a post- Promethean’s sense of what it means to act is taking over public consciousness.
**The implication of this might be to reflect on design that discards modesty and aspires to cocky hubris, like the fancy-panted “designers” who turn their practice toward making many-colored trash bins for global retailers.
*2. Attentiveness to details that is completely lacking in the heroic, Promethean, hubristic dream of action…In addition to modesty, there is a sense of skillfulness, craftmanship and an obsessive attention to detail that make up a key connotation of design.
*The reason why this is a point worth remarking is because it was unthinkable to connect these features of design with the revolutionary and modernizing urges of the recent past. To the contrary, a careful attention to detail, craft and skill, was precisely what seemed reactionary as this would only have slowed the swift march to progress.
**What I take away from this point is the importance of being engaged in what happens in the designing, in the creation, not just announcements of an idea or a framework or a call-to-action, or some self-described guru’s bullet-points, weakened by their incapacity to do much besides talk and write. You have to do the design and not only lobby for it, or PowerPoint it. There are lots of ideas, and lots of people who have ideas and will tell you they have ideas or present them or write about them, and perhaps they’ll even say, when one of *their ideas is materialized by someone/thing else, that they had thought of it. The point is that the idea is inspiration for its expression in material, and without that expression, or the ability or interest to make that expression yeasty — to revel in the details and muck of materialization, then one is not designing.
**Also, this remark about attention to detail and craft as counter to what revolution meant, and what modernizing meant relates to the pace of change that a revolution or a modernization requires. One cannot have design done quickly, is perhaps the point. It’s like Rhys’ rulers say — you can have it good, fast or cheap — but not all of those at once. The same too might be said about design.
*3. When analyzing the design of some artefact the task is unquestionably about meaning — be it symbolic, commercial, or otherwise. Design lends itself to interpretation..interpretation indicates that things are taking their place amongst an entanglement of matters-of-concern. In its weakest form, design added only superficial meaning. As it has infiltrated into more and more levels of the object, it carried with it a new attention to meaning.
**This point is near and dear to my interests. Interpretation, however subtle, seems to be at the core of what is designed. And then the interpretation in an extreme case — say, a completely opaque object whose meaning and potential are nowhere hinted at. We might think of the iPhone as such an object, because of Latour’s earlier mention of it. It gives away practically nothing about its operation. You can figure it out, certainly — and the examples of people’s 4 year olds figuring out how to finger paint on it are examples of that. In its form, its suggestive of nothing familiar, I would say. It’s like Kubrick’s Monolith – pure curiosity, or the pure unknown somehow. But they draw one in and force one to ask questions or wonder — and I think that is the capacity of design. It may not be an ultimate goal, but I find it an intriguing way of putting into the air the sense of asking, wondering, exploring. Like the conversation piece at a fancy cocktail party that gets discussions happening, even if they are not related to the party itself. Just switching the brain’s gears and setting a different kind of mood.
**And why might this be good, to incite meaning-making and wondering? Because then we may think of different ways to be and operate and live in the world — to wonder about changing things.
*4. Design never starts from scratch.
*To design is always to redesign. Design is a task that follows to make that something more lively, more commercial, more usable, more user-friendly, more acceptable, more sustainable, and so on..there is always something remedial in design. Designing is the antidote to founding, colonizing, establishing, or breaking with the past. It is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings, and radical departures.
**Yes, well — despite what someone might think, ideas never come from thin air, they never come from the God trick, and no one ever is the sole conjurer of something. This point is crucial and one reason why I find possibility in design — it is an antidote to hubris, certainty, origins and radical departures. It plays fair, in the best of circumstances. It’s mindful of heritage and history. ((Unlike those architects the other night. They had everything always already figured out. Sheesh.)) I’m sure there are shortcomings in and about, but I’m trying to understand the hopeful helpful aspects.
*5. Ethical dimensions to design — good versus bad design. In modernism, goodness and badness were qualities that matters of fact could not possibly possess.
*Objects just sit there, undisputed and removed from any normative judgment. This was so much so that their entire purpsoe was to make the fact/value distinction possible. The object was the dividing point, the gap that divided ethics from instrumental reason, or instrumental rationality. It is easy to understand that when you say that something has been “designed” you are not only authorized but forced to ask whether it has been well or badly designed.
**This is quite important — design allows for an ethics that things like engineering, science, modernisms do not allow. In fact, this might be a criteria for what design is. Actually — perhaps all 5 of these *advantages are criteria rather than only characteristics. It is perhaps a crucial skill — along with drawing, and maybe even more so, but certainly something that goes along with the ability to craft and materialize and get into the muck and metal of making. One should also be able to make judgements, clearly — designed stuff can’t just sit there, or be allowed to be pure instruments. They should have stories and impel and compel action and discussion.
Why do I blog this? Providing some notes on characteristics of design from a philosophical as well as practical perspective.