On December 7th, the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, The Netherlands, hosted “ Research on Research III”, the latest in a symposium series aimed to stimulate debate on the role of research in art and design practice. Last Friday, five guests (Ǟbke, Sara de Bondt, Luna Maurer, Ksenija Berk, and Christoph Keller) were invited to respond, to poke and prod, and otherwise make provocative statements about the relationship between a design practice and research. To quote from the program guide:
Can research be defined independently or does it simply arise from and belong to practice? Is research a way to think about and redefine the position of the designer?
As a current design researcher at the Jan van Eyck, I’m working on answering these questions for myself. I’m crafting another post that will collect some of my notes and remembrances from the day’s events. In the meantime, Daniel van der Velden, one of the event organizers and also the moderator, has kindly agreed to allow us to post the excellent introductory remarks he made at the beginning of the symposium.
Images © Sea Shepherd, www.seashepherd.org
Design Practice Research
Daniel van der Velden
The unpleasant picture shown here is important for a number of reasons. Ecological, environmental and ethical ones–yet just one of those reasons concerns us today.
What are we looking at? In fact, the picture’s taken from aboard one of the ships of an organization called Sea Shepherd. Sea Shepherd is a radical conservation society, founded by Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace.
Sea Shepherd, contrary to Greenpeace, when it encounters a ship hunting for whales, it will warn once, and upon ignorance of that warning, will attempt to disable it. And that’s what is about to happen here. This picture was taken while Sea Shepherd was pursuing a Japanese whaling fleet in the Southern Ocean. The targeted ship was the Nisshin Maru. It was the last remaining one of the so-called factory ships. These ships are used to process whales into canned meat while at sea.
Now since commercial whaling is forbidden, the Japanese had tried to do something to prevent their mothership, the Nisshin Maru, from being targeted by the international treaties. They had painted a text on the ship’s side. The text read:
Now I would wholeheartedly agree if you would claim that this is far from the ideal way to start today’s symposium about graphic design. However, what I want to isolate from the case just outlined is the particular usage that the term Research’ is getting here.
It is of course used as a sign or logo that lets the ship, its crew, and its fleet, be exempt from rules and laws that define commercial whaling as a punishable crime.
It is a way to dissociate the ship and its crew from their true intentions.
This is, I think, comparable and analogous to one what is at risk of happening in art and design practices today. That risk is that we start naming them research’ practices while what’s going on below the surface is business as usual’.
Not every practice is a research.
On the other hand: not every research is a practice.
If we want to describe how design practice at present tends towards research, or defines conditions for it, one way to start is by looking at what it is designers are doing, and how they bring their interests and their obsessions into the work they do, and how their working methods are changing, and how, in fact, all-embracing definitions of design practice are increasingly hard to draw.
It is still quite normal to assume that actually, designers are pragmatists and all they want to do is solve problems.
But under the influence of the information revolution, graphic design is set adrift and has begun finding new mandates and possibilities: simply because the computer has brought typesetting into the designer’s studio, and that computer has email in it and is connected to the internet, many different faculties of and in designers are potentially being activated and developed.
For example, many graphic designers nowadays are writers and work extensively with forms of discourse and written exchange as part of shaping practice. The works they produce visually, as designers in the classical sense, cannot be seen independently from these writings. In that, they are not unlike some of their avant-garde predecessors from the modernist movements.
Some designers have changed what used to be the common design practice of stealing from each other’s work: they have started referencing their visual sources instead, which is indeed a meaningful departure from the implicit notion of competition and appropriation that underpin design as a fashion and trade.
The agency of designers in other fields than their own craft, results in many designers being invited into their context with a clean sheet, no agenda, a carte blanche. Here, in a way, they can design their own role from scratch. Rather than being asked to serve a pre-defined objective, designers often become wildcards, chameleons, adaptively changing color by the minute. Solving a traditional design problem is just one out of many roles that the designer is performing simultaneously.
One of the other consequences of our changing tools is that we can set up a studio now anywhere we want. There is no need to be contained within the four walls of an expensive metropolitan office space stuffed with Vitra chairs.
Many examples of cutting edge design are now being produced by collectives and entities who are not studios in the classical sense, and who operate from the unlikeliest of places, often mobile, sometimes unglamorous, and even at times from remote natural resorts where life is still good and affordable.
Other designers have started expanding their skills to formulate models and speculative scenarios. As such, they are bringing design thinking into areas off-limits to the strictly productive reach of what it is designers do, into a more strategic understanding of what design might become. They actively seek for an involvement in issues which are none of their business’, in which they are introducing an outside perspective.
We can say that a lot of conditions to speak of graphic design as research are in place. Writing, agency, authorship, mobility, post-studio field work, new collaborations, strategic and theoretical activities, are all transforming design into a knowledge-intensive multi-disciplinary discipline’.
But just like the commercial whaling Research’ shown here entails a risk, so does what I just briefly spoke about. The manifold positions which designers find themselves capable of occupying, eventually bring the risk that there’s no time left to actually make work. We may become so incredibly smart that we will be left in between all our knowledge-intensive networking activities with nothing to show.
Let this never happen. Do research. Make work. And let’s talk about it.