Dunne & Raby: Designers need to recognise their limitations and work with them

August 2, 2019

James Auger in conversation with Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, pioneers of Critical Design.

Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are University Professors of Design and Social Inquiry at The New School / Parsons in New York where they co-direct the Designed Realities Studio. They are also partners in the design studio Dunne & Raby. Between 2005-2015 Anthony was professor and head of the Design Interactions programme at the Royal College of Art in London. Fiona was professor of Industrial Design (Studio-id2) at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna from 2011-2016, and between 2005-2015 she was Reader in Design Interactions at the Royal College of Art. Anthony is the author of Hertzian Tales (MIT Press, 2005), and with Fiona Raby, Design Noir (will be republished in 2019), and Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction and Social Dreaming (MIT Press, 2013). Their work is in several museum collections including MoMA in New York, the V&A in London, and the MAK in Vienna. Anthony was awarded the Sir Misha Black Award for Innovation in Design Education in 2009, and in 2015, Dunne & Raby received an MIT Media Lab Award.

We are living in complicated times, politically, environmentally, culturally… After 20 years of Speculative and Critical Design do you think that it can have a more influential role in shaping futures/alternatives beyond the discussions that typically take place in the design community?

These days I’m a little wary of using labels which although helpful in the early days, mainly to focus discussion, eventually hold back new ideas and thinking. I prefer to think more broadly about critical forms of design practice, or speculative forms of design practice. They allow more room for different approaches and new ideas to emerge.

As we’ve often discussed, speculation has a long history in design, think of concept cars for example, but it was used mainly to sell new ideas and future technologies to consumers. One of the things we were trying to do in DI was to relocate this way of designing from a strictly commercial context into one where it could be used for other purposes – exploring potential implications for emerging technology for example. In this context, I’m not sure it was ever about “shaping” futures, at least not directly, but more about raising awareness, or concerns.

Many of the problems facing us today are political in nature and far beyond the scope of design, despite its claims. Speculative and Critical Design practices do have a role to play, but designers need to recognise their limitations and work with them.

Do you think that the formation of dystopian imaginaries has become a dominant approach in Speculative Design? Does this distract from the need to imagine more positive futures?

No, not at all. I see many different stances being taken by students today. The most interesting ones avoid being either utopian or dystopian and instead present dilemmas and tradeoffs, they’re far more ambiguous and nuanced. But dystopian projects always seem to get more air time.

Interestingly, in our teaching, we’re finding that the future as a concept for facilitating imaginative thought is just too restrictive. As others have remarked, the future has long been colonised by the technological dreams of industry, and even its aesthetics and forms of representation have ceased to evolve. In our classes we’re trying to move beyond using the future as a framing device for ideas that do not belong in the here-and-now, and beginning to explore other ways of framing and thinking about alternative possibilities, worlds, realities… And to take more seriously how they are represented aesthetically which far too often is overlooked, leading to hackneyed results that just wash over people. This kind of work needs to resonate with people if they are to fully engage with it so we’re experimenting again with estrangement, subtle forms of absurdity, and wrongness.

Speculative Design and its relatives had moved from the edges of academia and cultural production, into the design mainstream.

This is one more for Tony (and feel free to disagree or re-articulate the question). I think that during our time together at the RCA the only thing we didn’t completely agree on was where to best situate a speculation – I would talk about a tethering to reality whilst you preferred exploiting the freedom of imagination facilitated by speculation (exploring the aesthetics of the future for example). Can you reflect a little on this with a thought on how your approach relates to the purpose and audience of Speculative Design?

Absolutely. I think if anything Fiona and I are going further down this road. After Speculative Everything we felt the small island of design we had spent so much time inhabiting and exploring with a small group of designers and students had become something of a destination. Speculative Design and its relatives had moved from the edges of academia and cultural production, into the design mainstream. The specific approach we developed with yourself, students, and others at the RCA had at last become just one way of doing it. And within that particular variation, the work Fiona and I did was even more specific. Having approached the looking glass of speculation, rather than turning back to explore more practical applications, we wanted to step through it, to see what lay beyond. Something we began to explore in some of the projects we did after the UMK project.

Since joining the New School, we’ve come to appreciate a less instrumentalist approach to design. This might sound like a contradiction of sorts as for most people design is surely the most instrumental of all the applied arts. But working with other socially and politically engaged disciplines has reminded us that, despite the many claims being made for it, design does have limitations. But it also has unique capacities, and one thing it does do uniquely well, is give tangible form to ideas, beliefs and worldviews through the stuff of everyday life. It can make other realities, and even systems of reality, concrete and accessible in ways that spark thought and further imagining about the kind of worlds people wish to live in rather than prescribing any one particular future or communicating a vision of how things will, or should be.

This does not mean that design should turn in on itself though, we both believe there is great value in design approaches that emerge from encounters with other disciplines. Our interactions with computer scientists and digital technologies in the 1990s as part of the CRD Research Studio led us down the road of critical practice, while our collaborations in Design Interactions with scientists in the 2000s working with yet-to-exist biotechnologies such as synthetic biology, pointed us in a more speculative direction. At The New School, we’re looking forward to seeing what new design mutations will emerge from our interactions with scholars and students working in the humanities and social sciences.

We recently wrote a very short text about this here – https://www.designedrealities.org/texts/design-for-the-unreal-world (scroll down for the PDF).

Do you think that designers can make living by doing just speculative practice, or it is still mainly connected with academic and research institutions? What are the risks when SCD connects to industry?

Yes, but like anything, the more experimental the practice is the more difficult it is to make a living from it. If you are prepared to work with industry, think tanks, research centres, policy units and so on, it is becoming increasingly possible, but it still has a long way to go, and compromises are necessary.

If on the other hand you are more interested in pushing at the edges of practice, then like research in any field this kind of work needs to happen in an environment suited to the exploration and production of new ideas, such as academia.

Universities are part of the real world too and for me, doing this kind of work in academia counts as making a living. But as with any discipline, there needs to be a dialogue between researchers and practitioners, something practice-led research encourages. My hope is that as more designers undertake PhDs and set up labs in universities they will integrate their practice into their research and resist the temptation to abandon it altogether.

Design students in our classes are moving away from solution-driven approaches and beginning to experiment with designerly forms of inquiry.

What’s happening at Parsons New School? And how has the move to New York affected your practice post-RCA?

At The New School we co-direct the Designed Realities Studio which experiments with new ways of linking design to other disciplines across the university. At the moment, we’re focussing on working with faculty and students at the New School for Social Research (NSSR) and we’re discovering that speculative forms of practice and thought resonate well with some of the disciplines here. We’ve been working with masters and PhD students from anthropology, sociology, philosophy and politics to explore ways speculation can impact their ongoing research. Meanwhile, design students in our classes are moving away from solution-driven approaches and beginning to experiment with designerly forms of inquiry. It’s still early days, but the crossovers beginning to happen are very promising.

We also recently completed a year long project with colleagues in Anthropology and Politics at The New School called Imaginative Mobilities which was supported by the Mellon foundation and had the aim of bringing designers and social scientists into closer dialogue. The seminar group consisted of about 20 faculty and post-graduate students from design, politics, anthropology, international relations, fine art and other disciplines. We’re just about to begin work on the next phase which will present some of the research and experiments that came from it in an exhibition in the Spring as well as experimenting with ways of collaboratively writing across disciplines for a publication later in 2020.

In our own work, we’re working on an Archive of Impossible Objects — a collection of specially designed models that belong to different systems of reality. Models as physical proxies for different kinds of realities, impossibilia, abstracta, and ontological oddities. It’s slowly taking shape through a number of small design projects, workshops and texts that may end up as a publication at some point.

We have a new website for the lab, it’s more of a sketch book, but provides a few glimpses into student work-in-progress as well as occasional detours into projects and texts – www.designedrealities.org.

An Archive of Impossible Objects: Globes, 2019

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