John Thackara | Essays

What Should Design Researchers Research? Report from 2020

I was invited by the Design Research Society to speak at their symposium in Birmingham, UK. Their theme: 2050 and All That.

So first I did a quick scamper through Peak Everything: peak climate, peak biodiversity, peak oil, peak food, peak water, peak credit and so on; I touched on Adbusters' notions of a Doomsday Machine Economy and True Cost Economics; and I repeated my proposition that we are all emerging economies now.

For part 2 of my talk, I tabled two keywords that I find work well in re-framing our situation as “terrible — but not hopeless.” The first word was catagenesis which means “renewal through reversion to a simpler state — followed by the emergence of a novel form of society.” The second word was resilience which means (in the words of Transition Towns) “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance, and reorganize, while undergoing change.” I concluded this second part of my talk with the proposition that design research needs to evolve from a human-centered to an all-of-life-centered activity.

In preparing part 3 of my talk, I had a good idea that, given what I know about design researchers, they'd be thinking by this point: "yeah, yeah, end of civilization, yadda yadda — but where's the cool research opportunity?"

So I went to Birmigham prepared. I asked the design researchers to imagine, with me, that a Doors of Perception University had been established and that, in 2020, a degree-awarding ceremony was about to take place:

Twenty-five PhDs were to be awarded at this ten-years-from-now ceremony - and I had brought along copies of the theses of the successful candidates to show them. And here they are:

(I believe Dena Fam may aleady be busy on just this PhD, in which case apologies.)

Comments [11]

Interesting post-apocalyptic thoughts John,

In Victoria, Australia we have post bush fires seen the use of the term resilience used to reference communities return from disaster.

I had been concerned with 'human centred' design which recalled work I did on 'biomic design' or the creation of an ideal environment for human existence. A bit like Desmond Morris did with the Naked Ape, situating humans as a part not apart from nature.

Interesting to see Mercedes new concept car out of the USA called the biome.

Mark Watson

Mark, You're kidding me. "Biome"? This is more than greenwashing. Green dry cleaning?
john thackara

A common theme is awareness of energy and resource consumption, at a personal, group and corporate level. I wonder if whole economies will move from the almost universal Western objectives of growth and consumption to new foundations including augmented/situated experience (having just enough of what you need when you need it to experience places, people and events optimally) and quality (fewer but better things and experiences).
Paul Taylor

Those covers are so badly made, if this is the future of design research, if this is the care of design researchers, I want to die.

Sacha I didn't think much of the covers designs of the theses either, but I wasn't going to complain since it having written a thesis I know full well sometimes something has got to give if its going to be handed up on time.

And this is a BIG case of the ideas and projects and ideas NEEDING to be submitted before its too late.
A Burns

Did anyone else catch those clever author names in there or am I the first one?

I van Illich? Cy Bernetic? Rep Rapp? Tot Ness?

Well done, John. Clever wit and and important subject. Thank you.

Of course I submit my own, 2010, PhD-in-progress as an example of necessary design research now!

Futurescaper: Experiments in Large-scale Participatory Futures Systems

Noah Raford

There is something like visual polution... look at architectural theory, we are far behind. I don't understand why we need a special design designers theory. We, graphic/industrial/architectural/interface designer, are doing the same: designing an evinronment. And it has to be done in a sustainable way. That inculds asthetic qualities as well. And this is just trash.

So it appears that I won't make it as a book designer, and Sascha won't make it at Comedy Store.

John Thackara

If trash is comedy: yes!

John, I would happily do a PhD at the Doors of Perception University.
I am a communication designer (graphic designer = or ex graphic designer) and the design of these covers is irrelevant. They do the job required: propositions that are rapid prototypes or mockups of possible pathways.
Having completed a Master of Design by Research I find myself generally uninspired by the "design research" community.
It is tiring arguing about "design" and it's role.
It's already happening out there - by everyday people.
I am drawn to Permaculture and urban food systems, which is down to earth, accessible and immediate. And Transition Towns as tools for building resilience in communities. I am looking to the possibility of taking my knowledge and passions to social science as a more tangible way to conduct research applicable to real world actions. It's time to get on with it.
Tania Ivanka

It's nice to see our (Unfold's) L'Artisan Electronique on the cover of one of the "theses" (Design for point-of-us production). I am trying to start my PhD on this topic and finally, after almost three years, I am probable going to start my PhD now. It's not that easy to start a PhD in design and to find the right environment for it. Hopefully in 2020, with the Doors of Perception University, it will be much better!

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