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
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.