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Conference Paints Speculative Design As a Little Knotty

MIT gathering attempts to transcend affirmative design.

By Arts & Culture

lights-1kx420In mathematics, a knot is a way of joining two things together in a way that cannot be undone. Extending this metaphor to disciplinary collaborations happening in design and technology, this would be the premise of the MIT Media Lab’s first Design Summit, Knotty Objects.

The gathering took place in Boston July 15-16 and was organized by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator of the Department of Architecture and Design and Director of Research and Development at MoMA in New York, and Kevin Slavin and Neri Oxman of the MIT Media Lab.

knotty objects conference

Knotty Objects aimed to bring together professionals from an array of disciplines to discuss the intersections between design and technology through four objects “entangled” in design, art, science, and engineering. These were: the brick, the steak, the phone, and the Bitcoin.

“Knotty” as a descriptor (and pun) caught on. Many seemed to enjoy that their work was painted as a little rogue, a little mischievous, a little naughty. As Oxman introduced the term and the summit, “A knot is not what you may think it is.” I worried that we were enjoying this wealth of knot wordplay too much.

What was really under discussion at this summit was critical (or speculative) design—more specifically, the type of design that has been spearheaded by Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who delivered the keynote address. Under Dunne’s tenure as head of Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art, their studio influenced a generation of designers whose work is now more invested in what is often described as problem-finding rather than problem-solving. Often this manifests in projects that are designed for future societies be they probable or improbable, near or distant.

Dunne and Raby’s work is nuanced and provocative, using the language of design to penetrate the everyday and challenge cultural assumptions of what is better. In their Digiland project, for example, they designed self-driving vehicles for a society that completely embraces not only digital technologies but also the market forces that drive them. The result was cramped budget-style self-driving cars separated into price categories, which were uncomfortably familiar to the way we understand travel today yet at odds with the way we often romanticize future technology as the savior from today’s inconveniences.

Dunne and Raby are careful to describe this design approach as supplementary to, rather than superior to, a traditional design approach, which they call affirmative design, that is based on solving functional problems through form.

But this careful distinction was cast aside in favor of celebrating the binary between critical and affirmative design.

Kevin Slavin described the most important takeaway from Dunne and Raby’s work as being “that there is an enemy. And if you’re going to pick an enemy,” he said, “the status quo is a really good one.” To him, critical design provided an “important set of tools and weapons in that attack.”

In this oppositionist oversimplification, our enemy is the status quo, and the future through critical design is here to save it.

The final battle between the present and the future took the form of a debate at the end of the summit between Ahmed Ansari, an assistant professor in the School of Social and Media Sciences at Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology in Karachi, and Jamer Hunt, the director of the experimental graduate program in Transdisciplinary Design at Parsons The New School for Design.bulbs5-3

The motion under debate was: Design must fill current human needs before imagining new futures. One of the first audience requests was to change the motion, probably because fulfilling human needs and imagining futures are not usually understood as mutually exclusive.


Predictably, Ansari and Hunt’s responses could not make any headway into the real challenges of critical design. Ansari made the important and pertinent observation that critical design projects too often exclude the marginalized. This is unfortunately true of much of the art world, and alone it was unconvincing to the audience that the future is not worth considering.

Most disappointing about Knotty Objects was that this oppositional and ultimately hierarchical impulse that permeated throughout the summit diminished any discussion about the interaction of disciplines in shaping discourse through the objects knotted in them.

One of the most poignant moments in this regard came during the New Metabolism or “brick” session, which included designer and event organizer Neri Oxman, scientist George Church, architect David Benjamin, and architect Hashim Sarkis. During the question period, Ansari noted the lack of a social sciences or humanities perspective on the panel and asked whether this was a conscious decision or a coincidence.

That question hit a chord of one of the underexplored aspects of critical design: In all of its investment in criticality, where is the critical theory?

This is not to suggest that critical design must be about what it means to do criticism nor is it to advocate a merger of these (or of any) disciplines. Instead, design may at times benefit from engaging with a humanistic approach to criticism in order to do design work more powerfully. Other times it may not benefit from such an engagement. The same is true for science, art, and engineering. Design is not incomplete without other disciplines, but that does not mean it can proceed in isolation from them.

I wonder now whether projects that bring together disciplines in a way where they remain distinct can be found in academia where competition, disciplinary pride, and the role of pedagogy can position disciplines against one another under the guise of learning lessons from each other.

Oxman, in response to Ansari’s question, reminisced about the 80s when it was fashionable to sit in cafes listening to French theorists. “Before, the designers would look up to the philosophers,” she said. “But now that system is reversed, and the philosophers might look up to the designers.”

The audience applauded.

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