Sharpened minds


Henning Wagenbreth’s theatralisch-illustrativ-musikalische buch-premiere was in a tiny Berlin theatre that held an audience of about 50. Henning played mandolin and his partner, Sophia Martineck, played chord harp while 2 actors, Albrecht Hirche and Günther Lindner played the pirate and pharmacist in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Pirate and the Apothecary: translated into German and illustrated by Henning Wagenbreth, published by Peter Hammer Verlag as Der Pirat und der Apotheker.

An abridged version appears in Desktop Magazine Dec/Jan 2013 (an issue on the future of design)

Sharpened minds

Every view of the future is a prediction and an imagining. All clues that suggest what the future may be like are informed by our current situation: the way we see ourselves positioned in the world, and how we relate to it.

One way of arriving at a mainly predicted view of the future is by having an analytical view of the world. When I think about the analytical way, it disheartens me because the most prolific and relentless everyday, everyminute analysers of the future are not scientists, and certainly not designers, but people who work within the sphere of finance and marketing. They view the world as a thing we can do stuff to and take stuff from. The world is understood as a separate entity and their language is the abstract, distancing language of the corporation. They talk about identifying potential needs and creating desires. the analysis of trends and predictions about the effects of new technologies, shortages and surpluses, and all the current indicators of how the world may turn out for their ever-demanding stakeholders. This is a way of thinking about the world that many branding industry designers —perhaps forgetting that sense of wonder, a sense of the absolute gift of the things around them as children—have accepted without much reflection on the way it has removed the joy from aspects of their work or dulled their design thinking.

Another way in which a view of the future can be arrived at is by having a more poetic view of the world—where the viewer and the world are one-in-the-same. This is a place where we need, and desire, to think about what we do to it/ourselves and what we take from it/ourselves. Not just for the survival of its plants and animals or the quality of its air and water (that’s another angle entirely) but because it gives us a deeper, more world-connected sense of lived reality: a sense of the gift of things and an incidental satisfaction in knowing that at least an identifiable part of our lives is lived without being overtly thought of as the tail-end of someone’s strategy or forecast — and our sense of self worth is not so incessantly, wearingly geared to what we can afford to consume.

In my current and limited explorations—talking to creative people about their practices, their desires and their own futures—I have noticed some current indicators that reveal that many designers are wanting a different future to that of the analysts and strategists. One indicator is the growth of small, independent publishing houses. Another is the return to smaller, more compact (even more profitable) working scenarios: the return of the atelier, where studio, showroom, production facilities and often living spaces are combined—not always through economic necessity, and often because ‘this is the way we like to work’ or ‘this is the way we do better work’. Another is less silly reverence for, but casual (bordering on ambivalent) acceptance of, technology—a ‘some bits are me, others aren’t’ attitude that indicates a new maturity in design values.

Another indicator is designers having a much deeper interest in the world with active careers over several disciplines or simply trying new things because they feel right.

Some examples from where I’m writing at the moment (Berlin):
Architect Gabi Schillig (who once worked at Sydney’s Harry Seidler & Associates) became less interested in buildings and more fascinated by non-permanent, open structures and the interface between the body and its surroundings. She moves around a lot, particularly Europe, working between architecture, writing, textile design, performance and conceptual art.
Illustrator, Henning Wagenbreth, recently launched his new book about a Welsh pirate by putting on a musical / theatrical show in a tiny Berlin theatre—something he had never attempted before, but he happened to have learned to play the mandolin in East German youth camps and his partner could play the chord harp so with two actors and some projection help they gave it a go, and it was beautiful.

Poetic thinking is not strategic, but it reads the world through indexes that corporations, with their relentless culture of consumer happiness, rarely use: displacement, incongruity, impermanence, unexpected media, ambiguity, uncertainty, the false starts and dead ends of creative process, the beauty of emptiness, new thoughts on where the body ends and the world starts, or using, in Schillig’s words, ‘actions as levers that shift perception of the everyday’. All wonderful resources for better designing that are, I believe, ways of thinking that come naturally to designers and a reason, I’m guessing, that many of them chose that career.

The trend I’m seeing is that no-one is talking much about trends. However some designers are finding new touch-stones to ‘the real’: more reflection on the things that count and what is real and more reading of the world through sharpened minds. More critical thinking. Less uncritical acceptance.

There is one indicator for the future of design that worries me personally but I know it can be overcome: the shrinking (or non-existent) space in design magazines for primarily written articles exploring design issues that go beyond straight project reporting. It’s indicative of, not just a legitimate editorial desire for concise writing, but the increasing hegemony of flip-book-fast, often passivating imagery, the reduction of design insights to design trends, and of how marketing is taking up more than its fair share of space—that could be used for deeper forms of attentiveness, a fuller sense of reality and the ‘living through’ of things not directly attached to a strategy.

So far in the Australian design media, there is little acceptance of, or space made for, criticism and reflection. The writer Susan Sontag’s comment on one of the tasks of literature,’…to formulate questions and construct counter-statements to the reigning pieties’ applies equally well to one of the tasks of design — and some of the clues I have noticed suggest that, in the near future, we may be designing with much sharpened minds. This is my prediction and imagining.

Graeme Smith, 2012