From 8 to 10 March 2018 the FHNW Art and Design Academy in Basel hosted the design conference Beyond Change, organised by the Swiss Design Network and interested in the impact of design within current social and political landscapes. Here, Depatriarchise Design co-created the space Building Platforms together with Decolonising Design and Precarity Pilot. We publish a series of co-written reviews to share memories, impressions and thoughts from the conference with you. We opened the series with a piece by by Maya Ober. What Can a Design Conference Do? is written in two parts by Benedetta Crippa, followed by a piece from Anja Neidhardt.
What can a design conference do? It can, for example, engage in a practice of self-reflection and accountability by questioning its very own methods and impact from within (an exercise, I would argue, reflecting most women’s way of interacting with the world).
Beyond Change created the space for such self-reflection to occur in practice as the conference progressed in the form of three independent platforms with a common interest in challenging oppressive systems occupying the entrance hall of the building. Here Depatriarchise Design, Precarity Pilot and Decolonising Design organised several, more intimate discussions and workshops approaching design through the lens of systems of power, investigating ways to challenge and move beyond them. The presence of the platforms was praised by Claudia Mareis, conference coordinator, as the very core of the event in her opening remarks.
Practices of freedom and myths of neutrality
On Friday I was part of a round table on design education organised by Depatriarchise Design. Johanna Lewengard, Professor of graphic design at Konstfack University and I joined as guest speakers to share from our experiences at the MFA in Visual Communication.
Deconstructing Design Education focused on de-patriarchisation processes, the notion of political neutrality and critical approaches to pedagogy in design, participated by an engaged and sensitive audience with different points of entrance to the academia – from students to seasoned educators. It was liberating to partake in a discussion focused on how, rather than if, design education should evolve past suppressive patterns. From our respective standpoints of educator and alumna, Johanna Lewengard and I shared practical examples of strategies from the MFA in Visual Communication at Konstfack for creating a supportive and healthy environment in the classroom and enable meaningful creative work – from the careful implementation of non-violent communication at different levels of the pedagogy, to the use of the feedback session format for examinations and its impact on listening and dialogue dynamics.
In this session we also discussed the notion of political neutrality as myth and its link to current debates around design programs with a declared agenda. Such myth reoccurs across the design discipline, and in graphic design especially, as history is taught as a hierarchy of aesthetics and modes of thinking where ‘good’ design (that is, modernist and presumed neutral, objective, apolitical, timeless, universal design) sits at the top of the pecking order and should serve as measure for reality and ultimate moral aspiration. We explored how education with a non-declared agenda is automatically presumed as lacking an agenda entirely – an impossible scenario since any education is based on specific choices and necessary processes of selection operated by specific individuals, as Richard Shaull formulates in his foreword to Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire:
“There is no such thing as a neutral education process. Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
We agreed, rather, on the need to accept and take responsibility for our own human partiality and bias, and put strategies in place for it not to impact the most vulnerable in destructive ways. We also addressed the lack of writing training in design studies, linking it to the overall attitude discouraging personal agency and subjectivity that characterises the field.
We were confronted with questions in relation to violence when interruptions to the discussion – the like of which would have not occurred in a keynote speech – showed how silencing behaviours quickly find space in more informal settings, where power is distributed equally amongst participants. Such dynamics bring the open question of how to protect the voices of the most vulnerable within a flat system, and what strategies to adopt when they are violated. They also serve as reminder of the pervasive suppressive attitude within the design field and the need of further work to build sustainable models of dialogue for the future.
On Friday Depatriarchise Design hosted a second open discussion on the subject of innovation within design; a topic so profound it could have used a full day of exploration. Here design students, professionals and scholars alike joined the conversation, including design researcher Ramia Mazé and fashion designer Iman Aldebe – connected via Skype from Stockholm – to bring examples from their own practices. In the conversation we discussed questions around systems of power surrounding innovation: who gets to define what is innovative, who gets to be innovative, and to the benefit (and expenses) of whom?
We explored the link between creativity and innovation, starting from the commonly accepted definition of creativity as “something new that is also good”. What is new, and good, and for whom, and who holds the power to define those?
The idea of norm-creativity (the practice of design locating solutions that are aware of, and challenge existing systems of power), also used as pedagogical tool at the MFA in Visual Communication at Konstfack, was brought in as example of methodology towards innovation that is conscious of systemic oppression and sensitive to the lived realities of different groups of people.
We again discussed the need of being aware of our own partiality as individuals, even when looking at norms of oppression – which norms do we consider worth challenging, and how can we stay mindful about our own acts of selection?
We also reflected on systems that reward innovation and connections with the idea of the ‘sole-genius’ typical of common ways of narrating history and rewarding individuals into it, opposed to scenarios that look at innovation as a collective process built on the knowledge and efforts of many.
The panel certainly opened many points of entrance into a discussion that is complex and far-reaching.
Beyond Change was held at the FHNW Academy of Art and Design in Basel, an institution housing around 900 students and 300 staff across the design spectrum. It was important that the conference was hosted in a school, as this created a welcoming ground for spontaneous interactions; and in the Swiss context where, exceptionally enough, all major design educational institutions are joined in the Swiss Design Network – the conference’s initiator and organiser.
The impressive facilities provided an efficient, state of the art setting to the presentations, and an impeccable organisation characterised the event, allowing us – once again – to focus on doing rather than navigating. Professor Claudia Mareis and designers Nina Paim and Sarah Haug built a system for speakers and participants that – from organizing, to the selection of papers and keynotes, to the careful communication of the event – transmitted a level of care, thoroughness and thoughtfulness of rare occurrence.
The presence of many students within the school engaged in organising and running the conference, helping out in different ways from recording to technical assistance with precision and care, was beautiful to witness as the event felt as a participated and collective effort from the outside. Nina and Sarah where quick in their problem solving, thoughtful in their processes of communicating and in their presence amongst us; their care was contagious, creating a permanent feeling of safety and a positive energy throughout the event.
On top of everyone already mentioned, I wish to highlight the work of Bianca Elzenbaumer of Precarity Pilot, and Pedro Oliveira and Luiza Prado of Decolonising Design; Larita Engelbrecht and Francois Jonker, as well as Regine Halter and Catherine Walthard, all of which delivered important and hopeful perspectives during the panel Crisscrossing Cultures in Design Education.
In their final joined conversation after respective keynotes, Kenny Cupers and Mia C. White beautifully supported each other’s work showing a coexistence of different points of entrance to the same concern: through design, to build a world that is more just, for everyone. Beyond Change was ultimately invested in the same question, a rare scenario for the design field – beyond aspirations of the ‘universal good’ for the few – that created the space for feelings that I rarely associate with the discipline at large. I left Beyond Change feeling uplifted and with a renewed energy and sense of trust in future possibilities of design in its interactions with the world. I felt grateful for this important, and rare experience.
Benedetta Crippa is a graphic designer and communication consultant, MFA in Visual Communication from Konstfack University. At Beyond Change she was a speaker in the panel Designing (at) the Margins with Things I Had No Words For, on the impact of feminist and human approaches to design education, and drawing as tool of liberation. She runs her own studio and research practice in Stockholm, Sweden.