Theorist and historian Clive Dilnot was a keynote speaker at the recent Design Research Society’s FutureGround conference held at Monash University.

Dilnot, Senior Associate Dean at Parsons School of Design, New York, has a distinguished career that includes teaching at Harvard University, and fostering graduate research cultures at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Curve contributor, Denise Whitehouse spoke with Dilnot about design research, education and practice.

In your keynote address you asked what was the purpose of design research, before going on to suggest that design research as defined and practiced in the universities was antithesis of intelligent design thinking. Can you explain this further?

The problem is that the conventions of university research are about measurable outcomes, certainties and reliable knowledge. This sounds fine on the surface, and it’s appropriate for those aspects of design problems that lend themselves to solutions in this way.

The problem comes when the procedures of the research method, and the implicit assumptions that guide those methods, disallow and exclude other possibilities, especially the potential for speculative inquiry that questions the purpose of design and the nature of design knowledge.

I’m not excluding research: in many settings it is an indispensable aspect of the design process. What I do question is when research becomes the horizon for thinking.

Not only does it restrict our potential to pose wider questions about the horizons of design (how it shapes our everyday, how it could contribute to the configuration of a more humane world) but even in commercial terms the most interesting design, and often the most resonant – and successful – products do not arise primarily from the research nexus but from its opposite, from the rethinking of given categories and norms.

Aren’t you being somewhat romantic with your notion of designing for a humane world?

No, there’s nothing romantic in saying that basically, we wallow in manufactured junk. Look at the quality of the trains that I rode out to Monash today. These are simply bad products – and one could take this through on level after level, from the technical and the economic through to the psychological, the political and the sustainable.

I don’t think that we fully understand what products are or can be. We don’t really comprehend how they work on us – how they affect us as citizens for example.

Melbourne public transport tells its riders pretty clearly that the public sector doesn’t matter – and by implication that they (you, I) don’t matter (if you’re using public transport you’re a failure). 

Think also of the Ipod. Wonderful, yes; but even more than the Walkman it encourages us to shut out the world and the often sheer unpleasantness of what we have made. That’s the other side of our making and designing.

Although in theory design deals with this – and proposes a better world, in fact, much of the time, design capitulates to the status quo, or (a la Melbourne’s Federation Square) pompously presents ersatz entertainment.

Try navigating your way through any major city and you will see all the various sides of design and architecture failing to live up to the complex needs of today and providing weak substitutes for a real engagement with context.

What do you mean when you talk about psychological sustainability? Do you mean that while we talk about technological, economic and environmental sustainability, and design for undeveloped and developing nations, we do not discuss the psychological sustainability of a world saturated by the media and consumer products?

Consciousness of who we are (self-consciousness in the true sense) doesn’t arrive out of thin air, nor is it conjured up in the mind as a private activity. Intelligence arises out of the processes of externalisation followed by reflection on that externalisation which leads to another cycle of externalisation and so on. Language works for us in this way, and so does making.

One of the cleverest statements about making successful things was given by the design entrepreneur (and avid user of research) Larry Keeley when he said that if you want to make a successful product then remember that products have features, characteristics and capabilities just as people do: the trick to the successful product is to establish a resonance between its features, characteristics and capabilities and those of the people who will be its users. Resonance is cognitive as well as emotional; sentient as well as mental; physical as well as abstract.

Once we understand this we can see that products without resonance, or products where the only resonance is crude objectivity are not just bad products in the classic sense, but they can – like pornography – be dangerous.

This is not just because they embody a diminution of what externalisation can be, but because they actively cause an erosion of complex apprehension. To what extent was the appalling technological and human brutality of the last century born in the brutality of nineteenth century industrialisation and military expansion, and then shaped and honed in World War One?

Was there a psychological legacy? How else do we explain our inability to deal meaningfully with suffering and want, even though we have the capacity today to end material want several times over?

When you talk about products having resonance – cognitive, emotional, sentient connections with users, are you suggesting that design is a form of intelligence?

Of course design is a form of intelligence. Design is embodied mind: mind in negotiation with the incommensurability, which is the material than embodies and enacts it, and with the complex demands of the context in which it will live.

Design is the practical intelligence concerned with attuning things and contexts. It is cognitive, in that design is always (at best) a discovery, a mode of inquiring successfully into the possibilities of how things might be (whether these things are physical products or images or buildings or all-but-invisible services is immaterial).

Design’s ethics lie in two things – in the quality of discovery and inquiry that brings to the process of asking about ‘how things can be’, and into the quantum of analytical but necessary empathy that the designer is able to summon with respect to grasping what the user ‘needs’ from this thing.

By needs here, I don’t mean anything restrictive, for need includes possibility, so what the designer is really about – or what design intelligence is about – is the ability to think analytically, synthetically and empathically in terms of what a thing might be for a user, for a subject, or for a range of subjects; what its possibilities are.

What this really means is that the designer charts – models, embodies, configures – possibility. The cognitive-ethical trick is how to do this in a way that both discovers, and projects, new layers of possibility yet establishes a resonance between the thing made, its context and its inhabitants or its users.

In Australia there is a call for design education to be less vocationally oriented and more about speculation and ideas. And yet universities demand that education be outcome driven, more economically accountable. Is this what lies at the core of your concerns?

Yes. Look at the impact of the British research assessment exercise which is being implemented in Australia and which is now incidentally leading Cambridge to propose closing its architecture school because the architects don’t produce enough research.

Perhaps the design schools will all come back out of the universities! As much as I’m tempted by this some days, that would be a retrograde step. One of the great intellectual challenges of this century is forcibly re-making the university, which is right now one of our most dysfunctional institutions.

Almost every major university is failing to address the central emerging condition of our time which is, of course, that we live in a world that is, in effect, wholly artificial. How do we deal with this fact? Psychologically, cognitively, politically, economically?

How do we consider its consequences and implications? How do we seek to mitigate its worst effects? How do we imagine – and model, propose, enact – humane and human ways of living with that we have wrought?

Until now we have no good answers. Design could spend its time chasing national research assessment criteria or it could begin to think about, and work to propose meaningful solutions to these issues. The latter seems to me the adult response. But that means a considerably deeper thinking, practically and speculatively, than ‘research’ will normally permit.   

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