Design Studies: Tasks and Challenges

  • Update:2014-02-15
  • Victor Margolin

Artworlds as precedents
(Fig. 1) In 1917, the artist Marcel Duchamp submitted a porcelain urinal to an exhibition organized by the Society of Independent Artists in New York. Declaring the urinal to be a work of art, he titled it Fountain and signed it R. Mutt. The exhibition committee rejected the work, although a photograph of it was published in the avant-garde journal The Blind Man.
On August 12, 1961, the artist Piero Manzoni displayed ninety small cans, each numbered and labeled with the title Merda d’artista or Artist’s shit, at the Galleria Pescetto in the Italian town of Albisola Marina. At that time, Manzoni had no trouble claiming that his cans of purported excrement were works of art, a claim backed up by further exhibitions and auctions at Sotheby’s where a winning bidder paid €124,000 for a can in 2007.
What had happened in the ninety years between Duchamp’s unsuccessful attempt to define a urinal as a work of art and Manzoni’s triumph in elevating his own bodily waste to artistic status was the establishment of an art world that validated Manzoni’s proposition. The philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto first introduced the term ‘artworld’ in a seminal article with the eponymous title that he published in the Journal of Philosophy in 1964. Danto’s article was a strong volley in an extended debate about how to define a work of art. Primarily through the writings of philosopher George Dickie, Danto’s argument evolved into the institutional theory of art, which claims, in essence, that no ontological definition of art is possible, given the wide range of objects, statements, and gestures that have and continue to be proposed for artistic status and consequently have been accepted as such by authoritative members of the art community. This community, which we can call an art world, has been conceptualized not only by Danto and Dickie but also by sociologist Howard Becker in his xcellent study Art Worlds of 1982. For these scholars beginning with Danto, an artworld is a community of social actors who participate in the system of making, displaying, evaluating, and even selling and buying art. In his 1984 book, The Art Circle, Dickie, after some modifications of his original definition stated that “A work of art is an artifact of a kind created to be presented to an artworld public,” which he defined as the members of an artworld system that serve as “a framework for the presentation of a work of art by an artist….” While this might appear tautological, its essential meaning is that purported artworks are of such a varied and unpredictable nature that no definitive characterization is possible; hence it is up to the collective judgment of those who participate in an “artworld system’ to determine what is and isn’t a work of art. While this indeterminacy may have confused a portion of the public, it has nonetheless enabled a global artworld to not only sustain itself but also to continue generating new and challenging art forms.
The fact that Dickie’s relativistic theory has not been successfully challenged is due to the fact that the art system is successful. Whether or not it is grounded on a coherent aesthetic basis is not a question that consumes artworld participants who welcome new forms of art and actively engage with them. In fact, since the challenges that Duchamp, Kandinsky and other early avant-gardists made to then conventional definitions of art, it has become progressively easier to claim the validity of new art forms to the point where they are eagerly welcomed rather than resisted.

Parallels between art and design
(Fig. 2) I cite this brief history of how the contemporary art world came to be since I believe that there are useful parallels to be drawn between the way this art world has accepted and legitimized new forms of art and the situation today where new forms of design are appearing as rapidly as art movements did in the 1960s, for example. The difference is that we do not yet have within the broad domain of design, which includes design practice, research, discourse, and education, the sense of a design community that operates within what we might call a design world. There is no consistency between what, for example, museums tend to regard as design, what design researchers choose to investigate, what scholars who write about and discuss design consider to be their subject matter, and what design educators teach. On the one hand, this disconnect might be simply written off as the inevitable plurality of a worldwide community but on the other it stands in the way of valuable connections that are needed to illuminate and reorder the spaces where design and related activities occur.
(Fig. 3) Before I continue with this point, however, I would like to clarify an important distinction between how an artwork functions in an art world and how design activity operates. Artworks, no matter what form they take, are discursive. They convey statements but are not expected to produce a result. Design is different,while its discursive properties may be recognized, it is obligated to achieve an outcome. In fact, its ability to accomplish this purpose is the principal criteria on which we base our judgments of what is good design and what is not. Therefore, the idea of a system in which design is recognized and validated simply on its discursive properties will not work. That, in fact, also limits the propositions of what a design world can and cannot consider to be design.
(Fig. 4) Another limiting factor is that the way many people understand design is confined to definitions from the past just as Danto found that an earlier definition of art as imitation could not account for the new tendencies that he dates to the period of Post-Impressionism in the 19th century. Similarly today, older ideas of industrial, graphic, and interior design continue to prevail not only among the public but as characteristics that define the international design associations – ICOGRADA, ICSID, and IFI as well.
(Fig. 5) Despite these limitations, however, there has been a proliferation of new activities that have adopted the name “design.’ In addition to the established practices of product design, graphic design, fashion, transportation design, interior design, design management, and the related activities of engineering and architecture, we have service design, interaction design, human-computer interface design, universal design, participatory design, ecological design, social design, feminist design, medical design, organization design, and numerous others. In many cases, these new forms of activity have found their ways into practical enterprises for which practitioners are financially compensated. They have also become parts of research agendas that are supported by university of government funding, conferences, journals, and books, and have made their way into educational curricula. However, this has been done in a haphazard fashion with no attention given to the theories, principles, or arguments that should identify any shared assumptions, purposes, or methods among these diverse activities. In fact, as these new practices have developed, they frequently coalesce around communities that are particular to their own activity and do not seek or even value connections with other forms of design or designrelated work. In essence, they have created discrete design sub-worlds that function adequately but do not share in a broader vision of design’s past, current, and future role in the world.
Historically, design has been a response to changes in the human condition that have called for new modes of personal and communal action, This was initially true of art, which did have a social function but at a particular point in the West, at least, perhaps it was in the 19th century, art became the enactment of a personal vision that was not pragmatically embedded in a set of external conditions. Design, on the other hand, remained and still remains, responsive to the conditions that call for human action. Consequently as these conditions change, so do the opportunities for new forms of design. With the current acceleration of technology, economic activity, political instability, and environmental disruption, there is every reason to expect that unprecedented forms of design will continue to emerge as responses to these conditions. In fact, it is easy to think about conditions for which no well-developed design responses exist such as the proliferation of natural disasters for which immediate and wellorganized responses are required and the growing movement of large masses of refugees who need to be resettled as they flee from political turmoil. The list could go on but the scale and frequency of such phenomena are strong incentives for the development of new design responses.
Given the absence of a design world that can, to paraphrase George Dickey, serve as a framework to present new forms of design to the public, we need to think about the consequences of this absence and the possibilities for addressing it.

The crisis of design
Before continuing, let us recognize that there is a crisis in the domain of design with its multifarious activities of practice, research, discourse, and education. In the sphere of practice, new forms of activity are proliferating but not all of them can successfully find support. This is particularly true when we consider design related to the public sector that may require resources outside the market. Consider universal design, environmental design, design for development, or social design as forms of practice that are prepared to address social needs but have great difficulty finding financial and institutional aid from public sector institutions. Part of this difficulty is that officials in this sector have difficulty understanding design as an activity that is relevant to their concerns.
They are similar to the public that still does not understand why Duchamp’s urinal should be considered a work of art. In short, these public sector officials have not participated in whatever discourse has sought to legitimate these new forms of practice as vital to the broad activity of design.
Moving to research, the problem may be just the opposite. Rather than limitations on design activity due to lack of support, design research is proliferating at a rate that has outstripped the community’s ability to determine what is valuable and what is simply a waste of time. Conference calls for papers and journals are flooded with inconsequential efforts that masquerade as research and some of them even make it into the programs and pages of these conferences and publications. In the absence of a clear discussion of what design research is for, anything goes and the worthless part of the endeavor clogs the arteries of what should be a healthy community of productive scholars.
In the realm of discourse, there is insufficient understanding of design’s scope, which results either in much design activity remaining invisible to critics, editors, curators and others whose function is to present design to the public or else it is presented in a limited way as if that way represented design in its totality.
In the best cases, scholarly journals open themselves to coverage of new practices but, conversely, newspapers and magazines directed to the broad public, as well as museums, still operate with narrow definitions of what design is.
Finally, in the sphere of education, there is considerable confusion within most educational institutions about what a design student should learn. Even as new situations for which design interventions are needed continue to arise, design schools are slow to change their curricula to build the capacity of their students to make these interventions. We have no programs for example in design for disaster relief even as people with knowledge of how to do this work effectively are urgently needed.

Design studies. An antidote to the crisis?
Recognizing that crises exist within the four spheres of the design domain, we then have to ask “Where is the place within the design community to addresses these crises? In the case of art, that place was outside the art community. It was in philosophy, even though Arthur Danto, a philosopher, did join the artworld as an influential critic. The point here is not that a change agent must necessarily come from outside a discipline but that the change agent must be able to find a position beyond the prevailing assumptions of the discipline to challenge them and propose new ones. In that sense, Danto’s 1964 article, “Artworlds” is of great significance because there Danto, using the language of analytic philosophy, laid out a case for introducing a new art theory that could account for works like Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings that were not. with the exception of a few critics, otherwise recognized as
art. We now need to make sense of the chaos in the domain of design, which is not comparable to the problem Danto faced but is similar in the sense that we lack a design world that can coherently account not only for the diversity and complexity of design in the present, but can also demonstrate through a broadened design history how we arrived at this moment and can project how to carry it forward into the future. We need a framework that can most effectively integrate the multiple voices, theories, arguments, and claims that have design as their subject into a course of action that can make the most productive use of them.
I would propose design studies as a place where design is still an open subject and where a likely possibility of effecting a transformation in its practice, research, discourse, and education can occur. What are the arguments for this?
First, design studies embraces a broad subject that requires interdisciplinary or even transdisciplinary study. It follows the tradition of other academic initiatives such as area studies, ethnic studies, gender studies, or disability studies, all of which have developed not as new disciplines but as places within the academic structure where scholars from different disciplines come together to teach, do research, and disseminate their research. This suggests that design studies scholars must be active in building a new field to accommodate their research since it does not fit easily into the traditional humanities or social science disciplines.
Second, there is no place within the design domain where consistent disciplined reflection on the domain itself takes place. I am arguing here for design studies to operate in part outside the design domain as well as within it. Granted that all design students should have a course in something called design studies, such courses need not represent the breadth of the challenge that design studies faces. Design studies needs its own research agenda, just as African-American studies or gender studies has. The design domains have produced new knowledge that would not have otherwise existed. Thus, design studies scholars have the obligation to follow suit and show how knowledge they produce is different from that generated within the traditional disciplines.
Third, the design domain calls for thought that can analyze and propose solutions to the problems it faces. This is the activist dimension of design studies. It is the place to think about the future of design and build the arguments for that future. If public institutions, for example, do not understand how designers can help them address the situations they face, design studies scholars need to help make that argument. With proper training they can do it better than designers can. At the same time, they can begin to make the arguments for necessary changes in design education and as well in practice.

(Fig. 6) Design studies as it emerges as an interdisciplinary site for design reflection, faces numerous challenges. First and foremost, it must find its own subject matter, topics of investigation, and methods. Second, it must persuade accomplished scholars in traditional disciplines to participate in building the field; third it must put forth research that can help clear up the chaos that currently exists in the design domain; and fourth, it must take a lead in shaping design’s future in a world of increasing complexity and turbulence.
This will not happen overnight. It requires the activity of many people over time. It also calls for the ability to enlist a wide range of diverse practitioners, scholars, critics, curators, educators in building the new design world that we badly need in order to bring coherence to a domain that is perhaps the one on which we most depend to manage a planet whose whose challenges to survival will only grow larger.

Notes: This article was published in The Design Journal, Volume 16, Issue 4, pp. 400-407, December 2013.

Victor Margolin
Professor Emeritus of Design History Department of Art History
University of Illinois Chicago


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