At the Design History Society 2019 conference in Northumbria University, Newcastle, international scholars examined ‘The Cost of Design’ moving far beyond its financial implications, both historically and in contemporary contexts, to consider design’s capacity to ‘sustain, accelerate and challenge dominant systems’
In the keynote address Fixed Liquidity: Making Change Reasonable Professor Guy Julier explored the ways in which ‘design works to shape and structure financial practices.' Julier is Professor of Design Leadership and Head of Research in the Department of Design at Aalto University, Finland. His most recent book Economies of Design (2017), which explores the multiple roles of design in contemporary and neoliberal contexts, acted as an apt frame for the multiple strands of the conference. By centring his presentation on how design makes change ‘reasonable’, Julier explored design’s role in fixing flows of capital that seem ‘frictionless’. Julier pinpoints the unique proposition that design offers in the transformation of capital into something tangible, material or designed using examples of from his own research in Kalasatama, a ‘smart’ neighbourhood in Helsinki. In the context of this annual meeting of design historians, Julier proposed that one of the roles of the design historian is to trace how objects and infrastructure facilitate the fixing of capital and consider the role design plays in making these scenarios ‘not just reasonable, but possible’.
Tracking the flow of objects internationally and exploring the infrastructure that facilitates this movement allows for the examination of dominant networks. In the panel, ‘Exhibitions and Persuasion’, chaired by Dr. Harriet Atkinson (University of Brighton), Nushelle De Silva’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) paper Regulating Movement: The ICOM Customs Label for Circulating Exhibitions highlighted the ‘unequal geographies’ that these labels highlight, serving as an example of how design sustains dominant systems . By arguing that the labels as a ‘metonym’ for the ‘design of UNESCO-sponsored standardization of exhibition practices’, De Silva demonstrates how the labels served to maintain the status quo and sustain existing networks of power. In examining the ICOM label, De Silva focuses on the physical or material point of contact in an international flow of objects, a ‘moment of stasis’. De Silva’s research, which naturally incorporates ideas about value, both cultural and economic, demonstrates an infinity with ‘the connections between micro and macroeconomic practices’ (Julier 2019) and how these practices can impact on the flow of cultural artefacts through the selective movement of objects.
Although design is complicit in bolstering dominant networks, it also contains the agency to challenge them. In the panel, ‘New Approaches to Teaching’, Dr Sarah Cheang (Royal College of Art, London) presented her co-authored paper (with colleague Dr Shehnaz Suterwalla) The Emotional Cost of Design History: Rethinking the Teaching of Fashion History. Together, Cheang and Suterwalla shared the messy process of decolonising design history in their own teaching practice. Stemming from their frustration with presenting ‘global fashion histories’, they sensed that while critiquing the canon, they were continuing to uphold it. In an attempt to recalibrate skills and knowledge, they developed a collaborative manifesto for decolonial practices. Sharing a range of examples from their own studios, such as activist Wikipedia editing, podcasting, zine-making, film screenings and public poster workshops, Cheang demonstrates a way forward for design that is about inviting people in, rather than shutting them out. Importantly in this journey, Cheang and Suterwalla considered the personal and emotional costs of a decolonised teaching practice, insightfully drawing on personal experience, thus sharing the complexity of teaching design history at present. By challenging dominant systems, Cheang and Suterwalla demonstrate the value of bringing a more nuanced approach to the classroom.
Design occupies a unique intersection of commerce and culture that lends itself well to the economic systems of capitalism and neoliberalism. As noted by Guy Julier: ‘Design plays the semiotic role of making economics reasonable. It smooths the sharp edges that the trauma of economic displacement creates. The shock of change is mediated through the delight of the new’. In a shared keynote, Professor Aric Chen (Tongji University) and Professor Alice Twemlow (Royal Academy of Art, The Hague) explored The Costs of Curating Design that, in a variety of ways, considered design’s capacity to accelerate dominant systems. Twemlow, author of Sifting the Trash: A History of Design Criticism (MIT Press, 2017), considered design’s responsibility in climate change, the reality of collecting in the Anthropocene and the impact of accelerated destruction and decomposition. Aric Chen’s insights on the opening of museums by real estate developers in Shanghai, and the introduction of museums in shopping malls, suggest a convergence of commerce and culture that demonstrates another instance of where design is utilised to accelerate the dominance of capitalism.
The ‘cost’ of design beyond financial implications is clear. Design’s role in larger economic networks as well as its embeddedness in dominant economic systems is of great significance. As is clear from the histories presented at the conference, this is not a new state of affairs; design has always played an important part. However, the way that design is taught, created and employed is in constant flux. In researching design history, analysing the role of design in politics, economics and society is hugely important for understanding the past, the present and the increasingly uncertain future.
About the author
The Design History Conference 2020 in Northumbria University, Newcastle was an invaluable opportunity for me, a PhD candidate based in Sydney, Australia, to learn from and connect with scholars in the field. The conference allowed me to present my current research in the form of a paper entitled Design’s diplomatic turn: Contemporary design festivals as a tool of and for soft power. It gave me the opportunity to contextualise my burgeoning research practice in a field of excellent scholars and understand the current paths of inquiry in the discipline of design history. It has been my goal for many years to attend the DHS conference and it was a huge privilege to receive the Student Conference Bursary from Design History Society, as well as the Vice Chancellor’s Conference Fund from my own institution, University of Technology Sydney. The support from both institutions is deeply appreciated.
*Main image; View from BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead overlooking River Tyne, taken during the conference guided tour led by Sarah Bouttell, Producer (Documentation, Library & Archive) and Associate and supervised by Catherine Glover, Senior Lecturer at Northumbria University.