John Thackara is a former journalist and the first Director of the Netherlands Design Institute. He is also the founder of Doors of Perception—founded as a conference in 1993, it connects a worldwide network of visionary designers, thinkers, citizens and grassroots innovators to work towards transformational change in their communities. His book, In the Bubble, was a primary text for our course. In it, he envisions a world that is less about stuff and more about people—about design that is focused on services, not things. We talked with him via Skype from his home in France about the role of the designer in the world today—both their skills and their limitations. We also really like his accent, which unfortunately, cannot be reproduced in print.
JT: When you say you’re teaching a course, is this a kind of one-off exercise, or are you going to stay there and teach it again, or you don’t know? ja: We will if they let us! JT: And what is the general reaction? Are you kind of pushing on an open door or are people in risd perplexed about this whole subject? JA: Well yes, that is a large part of what we’d love to talk with you about. I think the reason we wanted to do the course is that we felt a lot of the questions that we’re asking—which are a lot of the questions you bring up in your book—aren’t being asked here. We’ve found a very willing group of students, who feel like they really need to be asking these questions as well. But when we try to explain the importance of that in our own department, it’s often not a great fit. We’re sort of given the impression that it doesn’t belong in a graphic design thesis—to have built a course and be teaching a course—because they keep saying things to us like, “But what are you making?” And we’re like, “We’re making this!” ESW: They ask: “What’s the visual trail?” JT: The visual trail. I haven’t heard of that, but they’re important, are they? [laughs] ESW & JA: Apparently!
ESW: I guess this could be considered design research of a sort and there’s not much precedent here for that. So while we’ve found some people who have supported the course and have given us this opportunity, they’re largely not within our department—they’re administrators who have a background in the world of public engagement and public art and understand that this is an important thing to be talking about in design. I think that’s an interesting thing to bat about here with you. JT: Well, I’m moderately surprised by your responses because my experience is that the whole subject is expanding. Because so many people think, “Oh social, that’s a good thing to do.” You know, I collect examples of people and projects and locations where people are studying this sort of thing. There’s a lot of stuff ! So to me it’s almost the opposite. It sounds like you have a particular culture there, but in many other schools, everybody wants to do social thing. JA: I think that’s what’s interesting about risd, because we also have the sense that it’s just about everywhere. As we like to say, it’s on the breeze—every time we open up a publication or look at a website, people are talking about these things. And at other schools we see programs asking these questions in really deep and interesting ways. My own hunch about risd is that because it’s such a big old venerable institution, it’s a little slower to come around on some of this stuff. A student in Landscape Architecture was telling us recently that she was trying to do a degree project about building playgrounds which would double as learning environments. She was talking to people in the community to see what their needs were and how her designs could meet them. Her professor finally looked at her after weeks of
frustrated communication and said, “Well what do you think, you’re some sort of facilitator? Designers aren’t facilitators. You’re an author.” We just looked at her like, “What?!” There’s a real bent in the other direction here—you mention this in your book, about how designers are unnecessarily hung up on the idea that they need to be making unique creative contributions all the time. But that’s sort of the culture here. JT: I guess the first thing to say is that, in general, it’s probably not the most fruitful place to start—trying to organize institutions. I used to do that, one or two lives ago and so I totally understand it and can recognize what you’re describing. On the other hand, there’s just a gigantic amount happening outside traditional institutional frameworks, which is very interesting. What’s also interesting to me are the specific capabilities and sensibilities that designers bring to the thousand and one social projects and activities that’re out there. I think the requirement is to be a bit more precise about the difference between everything and determining what designers can bring—because otherwise you get designers saying, “Oh well we’re now going to do social stuff !” and then they kind of arrive and say, “Hi, we’re here, we’re going to do your project for you!” and people get pissed off. I have this notion that there are things that designers can do, like finding what’s valuable to a community as a starting point. It’s not that they alone can do that, but for example, communications designers can bring things to life in a visual form, which makes them accessible as information or stories that wouldn’t be otherwise. Designers can always design bits of equipment, you know traditional thing making; it always needs to be there at some point as a subset of the bigger picture.
Published on Jul 1, 2011