A decolonising view on design research and mapping.
Impossible Methods is our current pedagogical research and framework for design education.
The act of designing produces other designs into the world, and does so by intervening in an entanglement of processes, performances, interactions, narratives, and relations that are all context-dependent and socio-culturally informed. In other words, we understand the act of designing as one of producing material discourse; notwithstanding, we argue that the discourses produced by designed things cannot be anything but provisional and performative. This puts at stake the common assumption of design to be an universal mode of making; the implications of any design cannot be transferred, let alone predicted by the processes of designing as we learn them. How can we, then, reformulate our approach to design methods and processes in order to account for these complexities, and critically re-evaluate the design activity?
In order to tackle this issue, it is necessary to understand all designed things as both product and producer of networked relations. These involve, but are not limited, to issues of labour, trade, and infrastructure (or lack thereof) – amongst other legacies and practices that materialize and enact colonial and neoliberal conceptions of bodies, cultures, and societies. Moreover, designed things entail personal and micro-political relationships that pertain to as well as inform the work and lives of all bodies involved in its existence, from designer, to manufacturer, to laborer, to a so-called end-user.
We stand against the idea that design is about learning frameworks, and that designerly language is universally transferable. Instead, we encourage participants to engage with the political, economic and sociocultural frameworks that circumscribe the materiality of things, their discursive apparatuses, and their interrelational problematics. The goal is to come up with ideas with which to turn these complexities into ‘building blocks.’ With them, we may understand the broader role of designed things as, around, and within the political.
In “Impossible Methods”, we make use of strategies of mapping and creating networks, historicizing, and a tidbit of speculating. We do not teach participants formulas or employ ready-made canvases for achieving them, but rather use these strategies as guidelines with which to create ad-hoc, idiosyncratic solutions for the issues that are tackled in the workshop. The specific themes tackled in each workshop vary, for they depend on artifacts that the participants will be asked to bring with them. Our aim is that participants leave with an informed understanding of the complexities, challenges, and political implications of designed things, and that they apply their learning in visualizing, unwrapping, unfolding, and, hopefully, addressing these complexities in their future work.
Participants start out from a designed artifact they are asked to bring to the session – responding to a set of keywords or a statement given by the workshop tutors beforehand – and slowly unpack the networks that inform the existence of that object in the world, as well as its implications in-use. We use a set of open-ended questions that help participants start their mappings; we may also introduce speculative and aleatoric elements to complicate the challenge at hand.
Our approach places particular importance on the knowledge that each participant brings to the table, a result of their own, localized experiencing of the world. We refrain from putting too much focus on the techniques used to visualize these relational networks; rather, we prefer to focus on how participants themselves might be able to find strategies with which to visualize these relationships. Our preferred method is drawing and using simple data visualization assets (lines, color-codings, tags, etc.), but in past installments participants have made use of a variety of techniques they were familiar with to express these ideas — from prototyping, to performance, to installations, and so on – so the how is, in theory, open-ended. What matters for us and for the goals of the workshop is the whats and the whys.
The outcomes of the workshop depend on the group, time, and resources available. More often than not participants end up with complex mappings which vary in terms of outcome; in that sense, we have also encouraged performance, storytelling, video, and so on. The more time participants have to “translate” their sketches into a designed, readable outcome, the better.
Photo credits: Boris Miletic (featured image, top), Katy Davies (subsequent photos)