What do you want (design) to do

During the last 3 months there started to be a rising activity of unseen energy at Sandberg Instituut’s Design department. Mainly thanks to the duo of energetic party terrorists, who decided to talk about democracy in a very unusual way, full of colors and new use of old, rusty terminology. The new frameworks for collaboration on the urgent topic of contemporary perception of democracy were created – together with the students of Visual Communication, Royal College of Arts in London. The collaboration was named as an „exercises on democracy‟, which was taken literally and led to a real practice of democracy during the collaboration.

As it is widely known, the real democracy – the equality of everybody’s opinion and consensus decision-making is highly non-practical utopian practice and leads to never-ending discussions. On the contrary, loud and strict voice providing precise rules and limits is making things a lot easier, offering very little space for expression, but the tension of limits is enhancing the creativity in an unexpected way. This tactics showed to be the basic pillars for the Exercises on Democracy workshop. Speeding up the discussion, creating pressure to get the most true and natural answers without excessive thinking of no effect. Liberating the group from the non-stop self-judging of own thoughts through translation of thinking into physical movement had really unexpected results – with an lightness of child’s game it was more enjoyable to play with the very serious content and heavy terms. At the end many movements were created, based on the keywords coming from everyone’s research focus, translated into choreography, recorded and labeled by a proper name.
This balancing on the edge between a serious discussion and a game (or call it an exercise), between democracy and dictatorship, between intended and unexpected ideas is something I would really like to see in everyday life as moments of unpredictability, which have ultimate power of breaking the pattern of a daily routine thinking. That’s something I seek wherever I look – every little detail that does not fit in the environment, or provokes somehow with it’s curiosity, every non-standard behavior, situation, tiny nuances in our already structured perception.

The description of What Design Can Do conference says that it: „celebrates the power of design and its problem-solving abilities.‟ I believe the power of socially engaged design lies more in the ability of placing questions than in solving the problems, when we want to perceive the world from a wider angle. Mainly when nowadays it seems that the major problems are not that easy to be fixed, the system is stuck in its own circle, and to focus only on small problems starts not to be enough. Questioning the widely known realms, the frameworks, the communication itself is not an endless criticizing, but rather opening up the discussion about basic elements of our perception. It’s very essential to approach the reality with some amount of critical awareness about the surrounding structure, that has an immerse influence on our thinking. It’s the same as the everyday routine of corporate life, staying in the loop that just kills every random coincidental possibility of change. Although working within a pre-defined structure (or grid system) can be enriching, there needs to be some distance from the very structure itself to be able to perceive it’s complexity and to de-construct it for own benefit. Stepping out from the structure enables new, unexpected ideas to come to life, accepting the structure but moving it further at the same time.

“It’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” (Slavoj Žižek)

To say that the society is stuck in it’s pre-defined pattern is not just a generalization and can be seen in the absence of any utopian ideas nowadays. As both Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek argue: “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism,”, and as Mark Fisher elaborates on this in his book Capitalist Realism – there is no alternative towards existing system, at least not a functional one. And it’s not because of the limitation of possibilities, but because of the limitation of imagination. Discussing democracy leads to discussing utopias and during these discussions we always look back to utopian scenarios from the whole 20th century. But they are no more valid utopias, because we lost faith in this kind of stuff. Isn’t it strange, that there are not any utopias for 21st century anymore? The society is still developing, technological progress is still improving, but it’s now totally separated from any utopian visions except the dystopian ones. Current times are just offering rather a wide selection of products than ideas. And as the Occupy protests have clearly shown, people are not satisfied at all. But when it comes to the question what do people want when not the current establishment, there is no vision, no real proposal, no answer.

What do you want?
It’s very easy then to just say what you don’t want, instead of defining what it is that you want. To reject ideas is easier than to come up with new ones. To vote is easier than to formulate your opinion. Democracy was limited only to voting, choosing between two (or more) pre-defined options and that is how we are thought to think. But any important shift in society was caused by the change in thinking, by another option that was not part of the game before.

So, what design can do?
Maybe design could change the rules of the game. Not to work within the usual framework but with it’s every step constantly breaking this framework. I had this feeling when participating in the Exercises on Democracy workshop – although we were not producing any visuals, or whatever end-products one would expect from workshop of graphic designers – we were rather crossing the borders of usual frameworks and creating something that’s more valuable in it’s raw abstract form then finished in a material form. Through not standardized assignments and variously structured discussions we gained quite a lot of input for our individual research projects, helping each other, working for each other. Realizing there is a collaboration possible, which is not limiting and gives to our ideas another layer, made me think of a big necessity for some kind of platform, that would keep this collaboration alive aside personal meetings. The online platform with shared references and sources of inspiration, live ongoing discussion and mainly huge potential of unpredictable possibilities.

And what do you want design to do?
Coming to the link between Exercises on Democracy and What Design Can Do conference, I have to mention one very important aspect of the whole thing – which is a power of fiction. When talking in fictional sphere, everything is possible. What normally would sound crazy, is just one of the millions from all possible dreams. People were always more confident in talking about dreams than real wishes. Except that, in the hyperreal times the reality has already very blurred borders, so the less probable dream can be the most direct and real answer to the basic question of what one wants.
Therefore the whole speed-dating got an extra injection of fictional substance and the whole discussion will be held in fictional realm. Don’t tell me who you are and what you do, tell me who you’d like to be in your dream, in what fictional dream-world you live, what are the rules there and how the society works. Live your dream and don’t limit your imagination. Share it with others and co-create the common dream, specify the keywords of a new game for the future. With this approach we can add to our already collected knowledge a big amount of inspirational inputs and see how it tastes after stirring it occasionally. First there just needs to be a dream…