The Future of Design

From Beyond Social

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Educating students for the future of design is quite a challenge. A school of art and design has the task of preparing students for their professional future, while working with the teacher-designers of the present. The word 'future' refers to something that is not yet present and thus cannot be known. Preparing design students for their future is done by extrapolating current design developments. If the word 'future' is used in the context of design, then the current notion of design is seen as being in a state of change. The question is whether a school of art and design can think in a non-linear fashion to an extent that will prepare its current students for the future of design.

Author: Bram van Waardenberg

Design changes

The fact that design has changed can be easily inferred from the documentation of designs or design exhibitions from the past. For instance, the 2011 Rotterdam Design Prize Exhibition in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum presented works of fine art (Matthijs Munnik, Microscopic Opera) alongside a food/shop/business concept design for selling bread (Vlaamsch Broodhuys), as well as non-catwalk-driven fashion, social design, and an aesthetic lamp design, all on an equal footing. Around 1987, when I myself was a student at the Rotterdam School for Art and Design (now called the Willem de Kooning Academy), putting this mishmash of art, sculpture, social projects and design into one category 'Design' would have been unthinkable. Painting and Sculpture were the main subjects of study, with small groups of students in the 'Publicity' and 'Fashion' departments.

Painting declared dead

At the time of my studies at the art school, critics had declared painting 'dead'. Hegel had already declared art dead in the early 19th century; however, after the same decree was pronounced on God in the late 19th century, nobody could deny the success story of art and painting in the early 20th century. But what 'art' was, or is, or should be, has changed dramatically over the years. The art of Hegel cannot be considered the same as the art of 100 years later. Heidegger even relates to the art of the Ancient Greek period as being his ideal world, according to his 1955 text 'Die Technik und die Kehre'. In the years after my graduation, painting was indeed disappearing from the public eye, though of course painters could (and still do) sell their paintings to the public, which lagged 10 to 20 years behind the critics. The painting hype of the first half of the 20th century was over. Painting is now no longer the main focus of art. Instead photography, video and other art forms have become fashionable. But just as fast as these domains have gained ground, their popularity decreased again. There are still some very good painters and paintings are still sold, but the attention of the public has now shifted to 'liking' and 'retweeting'.

Socially involved design

Nowadays it is not painters but architects who are the 'rock stars' of design, and fine art is seen as just a part of design. If a fashion label needs 'raw art' in its branding, this can be incorporated easily; for instance in the Prada Epicenter in New York, designed by Rem Koolhaas, where a staircase can be shifted away to reveal an art gallery – or items for sale. Already during the first decade of the 21st century, fine artists were leaving their studios and going 'social', even in Rotterdam. Although Rotterdam as a city is by no means insignificant, Rotterdam artists follow global trends. Contemporary art is very much global, which means that it is practically the same in every country and every city. Globalised art effortlessly overcomes the enormous cultural differences which cause wars and suffering in other domains of existence. Social projects, working in the neighbourhood, empowering the masses, considering people and their behaviour as your medium, all represented a major shift from studio-based artistic work.

Art schools integrate design developments

Ten years later, the curriculum of the Willem de Kooning Academy stimulates students in the Social Design minors to become socially engaged. Not designing a chair or a dress, or making an illustration, but rather addressing a social design problem – preferably a social problem that cannot actually be solved, which is known as a 'wicked problem'. The format for approaching the problem is known as a 'project'. The difference between a fine artist and a designer working in the social domain is that the fine artist is still living his or her own dream, while the designer wishes to draw attention to a problem within a specific time frame. Actually solving a design problem – that is, starting to make, design or create something, and then eventually finishing it – is no longer fashionable.

From solving to formulating a design problem

'Come Up With Challenges Instead Of Just Solving Problems' (Jeroen Chabot, 2016, WdKA magazine 'Ik Willem'). Formulating a design problem is more important than solving it, according to the Dean of the Willem de Kooning Academy. In a society where humans are faced with the challenge of living together, problems pop up out of nowhere. Trying to form a community, living together and interacting, all mean that the number of potential problems is unquantifiable. But one should not underestimate the inventiveness of these socially engaged design students. Before you know it, you have become a social design project. If you don't own a TV set, don't read a newspaper, are not in a relationship, are not divorced, are starting to get older (which is easy from the perspective of 22-year old students), and have not submitted to the terror of the social media, then you could and you will become a social design project. So in fact you, dear reader, are hereby declared... a design challenge.

Art school curriculum

The hypermodern WdKA teaching curriculum is based on research about the future of design. The school isn't interested in educating students in the way this was done when I was a student. What's the point in teaching painting and drawing, when indeed very few people can earn a living with these skills? The WdKA's curriculum foresees many possibilities for social design, and how young fashion designers, illustrators and advertisers can make a contribution to society.

Future of design

The task of a school to foresee the future always takes place from the perspective of contemporary developments. There is currently an abundance of exhibitions and publications focusing on fashion and fabrics and containing the word 'future'. Everywhere where design relates to technology, the 'future' is inferred in some way. For instance 'The Future of Fashion is Now' (2014) in the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum [1], or 'The Future of Fashion' by Not just a Label [2]. Based on such titles, one would conclude that fashion has a future. This may seem a trivial point; however the same cannot be said of 'art', more specifically 'fine art' such as painting. The future of art doesn't sound like a possible word combination, even though painting already included technology and electronics 50 years ago – not only in the globally-known neon works of Bruce Nauman, but also in works from the Rotterdam-based artist Woody van Amen. Language is a tool, and this tool is shaped by its users. The word combination 'the future of art' or the 'future of painting' returns just a few hits on internet search engines, and the videos of Erik Niedling called the 'Future of Art' mainly document contemporary art, art galleries, collectors – and not any actual 'future of art', which just doesn't seem to exist. The contrast with how normal it is to talk about the future of fashion or the future of design is striking.

Contemporariness of art

Art can only be 'contemporary', which is how most exhibitions showing recent art are billed ('eigentijdse kunst' in Dutch, 'zeitgenössische Kunst' in German, 'art contemporain' in French). The word 'contemporary' indicates that something is from our own time, and using this adjective also reinforces the notion that art has no future. Using Google Image Search to find images of 'future art' turns up science-fiction views of cities in a gloomy apocalyptic style. At best, you might get some exhibitions titled 'the future of art' and showing contemporary art. The term 'modern art' even refers back to art from the mid-20th century. 'Modern' was followed by 'postmodern' and ultimately by the total collapse of the system of naming and identifying currents in art. This collapse occurred at the same time as the evaporation of general interest in contemporary art. The public is still interested in art, as can be seen in the booming business of museums and exhibitions in cities and towns of all sizes, but this interest is either for the architecture – e.g. the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao designed by Frank Gehry, which by the way could be called the future of architecture – or for the subject matter of the 'modern art' period, or even before that, the now universally appreciated art, e.g. impressionism. The fact that this art is considered 'holy' is demonstrated by the stunning prices paid for these artworks at auctions. The future is of course a notion which resides in language, since it cannot yet be materialised or confirmed. However, stating that the word 'future' only belongs to the category of 'language' is dangerous since it suggests that language can be separated from the rest of human behaviour, as an isolated entity somehow living on its own. In this dichotomy, 'language' can be understood as being opposed to 'the visual'. Language and certainly text has a tendency to consider itself superior to everything else. Writing about something means dominating it – from behind your writing desk. Writing is criticising, while doing, acting, painting, designing, performing is an act in the present which can easily go wrong. For instance, even if a concert performance is successful, many mistakes will have been made which can easily be described by an expert critic. All creating then becomes the victim of this writing. Of course, writing itself also becomes creating and can thus be written about. But the other way around is difficult. Which fashion designer shows a dress criticising a text using fabric, shape and form?

Decline of text

In a moment of despair about the dominance of text over the visual arts, and also very much in a state of admiration of famous texts, I once made a figurative drawing which showed a human figure being eaten by a book. The title, also part of the drawing, was 'You Are Text'. Philosophy has always been considered as an elevated activity, and as such much more 'important' than visual art. Looking back at this drawing which I made 10 years ago, I realise now that it is already outdated. Not only does the medium of 'drawing' seem terribly old-fashioned, even retro – but even more remarkably, in today's era of 'likes' and 'retweets', the notion of the superiority of text has actually disappeared. Philosophy seems to have lost its charm, except for a very small number of experts. God-like giants such as Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze, all of whom were heroes during my studies, are totally unknown to today's design students (although in another minor 'Critical Studies', Baudrillard and Virilio are still read by today's fine art students). Are these thinkers being punished for not foreseeing the internet – and superimposed upon that layer of information, the terror of social media?


Returning to the drawing I described in the previous paragraph, if I were to make this drawing again it would probably be called 'You Are a Project'. During the past few decades everything has become a project. It seems natural to describe building a museum or making a movie as a project, since there is a client and a time span. You have to prepare, to organise, to materialise, and eventually the museum is delivered, opened to the public, and the project is finished, the resulting number of visitors can be measured, the bill can be sent. In the end, the result of a project is a spreadsheet with numbers of visitors, 'likes' and appreciation numbers. This approach has taken over all styles of working and even threatens to take over life itself. Everything nowadays is a project. In fact, at the moment of writing, I received an invitation to an exhibition in the Boijmans Museum in Rotterdam called 'Project Rotterdam'. Painting in the traditional sense was about developing artistically in the long term, working on change, slowly moulding your style, opening new vistas while working with an always recognisable signature. Nowadays such long-term development is over. An oeuvre cannot be called a project. A project is always short-term, and short-term is the only thing left in life. Nowadays if designers want to 'do' a painting, they organise the production of this painting in China. But not only that: life itself is divided into projects. Raising a child becomes a planned project; so does marrying and getting divorced. Nothing can exist anymore outside of this short-term project timeframe. Nothing is allowed to develop without a defined and calculated goal, a bill and a resulting spreadsheet of 'likes'. It cannot be a coincidence then that sooner or later everybody will be 'projectified'. You will, without fail, fall victim to the project of a social designer. But there is an escape – if you should need it. Since this projectification of everything is happening now, in our own time, that means that it is contemporary, and that it will soon be out of fashion.

Decline of the project

Returning once again to my aforementioned drawing and combining it with the near future of design, the title of the drawing would not be 'you are a project', but 'you are a wicked problem'. The 'wicked problem' terminology is the next logical step after 'the projectification of life'. The 'wickedness' indicates that the complexity of the project does not allow for a solution within the time frame of a project. But then the short-term project structure fails – although the designers and researchers are still happily sending the bill, after making the actors of the 'wicked problem' talk about their unsolvable problem. The 'wicked problem' construction ensures that the next project follows naturally from the first. In this perspective, indeed, you can make a living as a designer by posing design problems.

Decline of the future of design

The 'wickedness' of the problems will also be the downfall of the projectification of life. Projects can only survive in linear areas of life. Linearity implies rational comprehensibility: domains in which human logic is sufficient to organise the solution of the problem. For this part we have managers and project management systems. The social design problems of the students now clearly indicate that the world is entering a non-linear domain. The results of the once much-praised Arab Spring are millions of refugees flooding from a lost continent to Europe – and not only the 'nice' refugees, but also people from a culture which doesn't necessarily 'like' the European humanitarian and cultural traditions and values. This is just one of the effects of the extremely rapid population growth of the past few decades, combined with the limited amount of resources on the planet. More non-linear processes are indicated. But of course design will save the flooded world when the sea level rises 60 metres, with beautifully designed floating cities – we will still be needing design solutions 300 years from now.


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