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Design After Capitalism

June 5, 2019 / Matthew Wizinsky

The following summarizes a presentation made at the 2019 AIGA National Design Conference Design Educators Symposium by Matthew Wizinsky and Adriana Noritz, titled “Design After Capitalism.”

Design’s Discontents

In 2016, a poll conducted by the Harvard Institute of Politics revealed that 51% of young Americans—aged 18 to 29 years—no longer support capitalism [2]. Socialism was viewed even less favorably, yielding the support of only 33% respondents.

As a design educator at a public R1 University, this caught my attention for a number of reasons. While 51% is the narrowest majority and any poll is limited in its purview, these results reveal a growing movement in the emerging generation of Americans. These are the same ambitious and intelligent young people with whom I spend the majority of my working days, supporting rigorous academic endeavors to build critical thinking and acting skills.

Yet, design students I encounter today are increasingly discontent with the environmental degradation, corporate and political corruption, and yawning global disparity that constitute “business as usual.” These students give credence to the notion that designing products, garments, and services requires adapting to and working within existing models of production and consumption. While they may recognize complicity in the negative impacts of designing for and in these unsustainable models, they also have no cohesive vision for alternatives. Sadly, these concerns typically manifest with a sense of resignation or even paralysis: What can we do?

At the start of the 21st century, Frederic Jameson famously stated that it is now “easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism” [3]. But… what if we ask design students to try? If design is capable of shaping ways of being in the world, Post-Capitalism seems an ideal space to apply design methods for forecasting and prototyping new possibilities for the future. The practice of designing can take many forms, each of which becomes institutional over time, producing its own systems and impacts.

Post-Capitalism and Speculative Design

How can designers today frame, model, and test future scenarios of design practice that operate beyond the destructive short-term logics of capitalism? What new roles could design and designers play in a different political economy? How might we use design methods to imagine and materially instantiate everyday life in a post-capitalist society, including how design itself might operate in that society?

These are the questions that have been investigated over the past two years by fourth-year undergraduate students in Communication, Industrial, and Fashion Design in a seminar-studio hybrid called “Speculative City.” Rationale for the course’s inception and some of its methods have been previously shared in a presentation and workshop at the 2016 AIGA National Design Conference and a substantive article on the course will be published in the forthcoming issue of Dialectic [8]. Since 2017, the course has shifted focus onto studying and making proposals for Post-Capitalist scenarios, looking particularly at two questions: 1) What might designers be producing and how might they be doing it in a post-capitalist political economy, and 2) What new roles might designers play in a Post-Capitalist society? This framework further builds on one of the course’s primary objectives, which is to engage undergraduate students in assessing the interdependencies between systems and artefacts through “making” prototypes that articulate those interdependencies.

As a seminar-studio hybrid, students engage in rigorous reading, research, and discourse on capitalism and Post-Capitalism in parallel with their studio work. They study interdisciplinary scholars and researchers who identify the origins, historical transformations, cycles of crisis, and contemporary conditions of global capitalism, as well as case studies of alternative models of social, political, and economic institutions. They read, respond to, discuss, and incorporate into their own work the empirical evidence, case studies, and theoretical positions of economists [6], sociologists [1,9], political theorists [7], and other researchers [4, 5], who theorize a collapse of capitalism not through political revolution but a process of “erosion” [10]. They investigate historical and contemporary examples of design practices that undermine some of the basic mechanics of capitalist production. They also study current developments in emerging technologies—such as digital fabrication, bio-materials, and platforms for the exchange of information, knowledge, and value—which present the contemporary designer with myriad ways to re-think how designing steers material resources, labor, and the mechanisms of exchange. Students use these inputs and their collective discourse to inform their own studio projects, which materialize future scenarios for everyday life in a Post-Capitalist society.

Design After Capitalism

The Post-Capitalist lens is aimed at challenging undergraduate design students to re-think some of their basic assumptions in the design of any product, service, garment, interface, or experience. Many of those assumptions are informed not by “Design” itself but by the context of a global, capitalist, market economy. The goal is to force students to critically engage design practice as its own form of institution-making: enacting flows and relations of materials, labor, technologies, means of production, desires, and exchanges beyond default assumptions. While there’s plenty of hype about the need for design students to study business, perhaps a more holistic and socially beneficial approach would be to encourage design students to study the history, institutional mechanisms, politics, and social discourses of our political economy. After all, the future does not exist; it’s being produced right now.

 

References:

1. Frase, P. (2016). Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. London: Verso.

2. Harvard Institute of Politics. (2016). “Harvard IOP Spring 2016 Poll.” Online. Available at http://bit.ly/IOPSpring16Poll (accessed October 15, 2018)

3. Jameson, F. (May–June, 2003). “Future City.” New left Review (21). Online. Available at https://newleftreview.org/issues/II21/articles/fredric-jameson-future-city.pdf (accessed May 18, 2019)

4. Mason, P. (2016). Postcapitalism: A guide to our future. London: Penguin Books.

5. Srnicek, N. & Williams, A. (2016). Inventing the Future: Postcvapitalism and a World Without Work. London: Verso.

6. Streeck, W. (2016). How Will Capitalism End? London: Verso.

7. Tormey, S. (2004/2013). Anti-Capitalism. London: Oneworld.

8. M. (2019) “Speculative City: Critical Speculation in Defense of Design’s Material Expertise.” Dialectic, 2.2, forthcoming.

9. Wright, E. O. (2010). Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.

10. Wrignt, E. O. (October 11, 2016) “How to be an Anti-Capitalist for the 21st” WZB Distinguished Lecture in Social Sciences, WZB Berlin Social Science Center. Available at https://vimeo.com/191340445 (accessed October 15, 2018).

Matthew Wizinsky is an Assistant Professor at The Myron E. Ullman, Jr., School of Design, University of Cincinnati.

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