Interview: Maja Grakalić

October 14, 2020

Maja Grakalić, an interdisciplinary design practitioner and researcher from Croatia based in London: “you can only change the system from within”.

Maja Grakalić is an interdisciplinary design practitioner and researcher. She divides her time between her work as a UX and service designer at the BBC and academic work as a doctoral candidate at Central Saint Martins UAL in London where she is starting a teaching position at MA Material Futures and MA Environmental Narratives in the next school year. In her practice-based research awarded by the London Doctoral Centre (AHRC) she tracks the origins of Critical and Speculative Design in former socialist Yugoslavia and builds on these insights to redefine the historical narrative around the practice outside of the Western context.

How connected was your education with the Speculative Design (or related) approach you are using in your work today?

For a long time, the only places I could engage and explore Critical and Speculative Design were educational institutions and self-initiated research projects. It’s only in recent years, I started applying my skills in a commercial context. The commercial environment I’m referring to is the BBC where I work as a UX and service designer and help facilitate futurecasting workshops developed by Filippo Cuttica and Sarah Challis. Here we teach designers about speculative practices and methods like future cones and future wheel mapping, STEEP and other methods as tools for ethical innovation.

My interest in the practice started in 2001 during my time studying industrial design at the School of Design in Zagreb. Despite the university’s modernist curriculum, I was instinctively drawn to exploring design’s potential to ask questions and challenge the status quo. One of my first student projects was a speculative provocation. Studying industrial design in post-war Croatia was very optimistic. The economic and political transition from socialism to capitalism in former Yugoslavian countries, including Croatia, brought about radical de-industrialisation. There were no jobs for industrial, let alone speculative designers. I landed a job at Nova TV, the Croatian media broadcaster, and trained to be a motion graphic and info-graphic designer, designing brandings for TV shows and occasional VR sets. Today as we move towards transdisciplinarity all of these skills come in very handy.

My nagging and ever-growing interest in discursive design practices made me quit my job at Nova TV and go back to university. In 2011 I moved to London and took an MA Critical Design course at Goldsmiths University of London. Here I got the theoretical foundation and support to explore my Speculative Design practice further. The contemporary and historic examples I came across, however, lacked diversity in terms of topics, disciplines, economic and socio-political perspectives. With the realisation that I engaged with the same practice ten years ago away from the London centric discourse, I decided to formalise my interest in diversifying historical examples of critical design by focusing on socialist Yugoslavia. At the moment I’m doing a part-time PhD at UAL CSM where I’m also starting a teaching position at MA Material Futures and MA Environmental Narratives.

Could you please select one of your (own) favourite Speculative Design projects and tell us what you like about it?

My early student project from 2001 is a good example, it was a submission for a student competition organised by Electrolux, a Swedish home appliance manufacturer. The brief asked for a design concept to improve one of the following areas of people’s lives: play, home, work, wellbeing and education. The university’s curriculum was and still is rooted in modernist rational and functional understanding of design as a problem-solving discipline embedded in the context of industrial production and the market. Thinking about the number of potential new products that might come out of this competition I started researching mass production and mass consumption. Disposability, built-in obsolescence, waste and pollution production came out as strong themes. I decided to push the status quo into the extreme and design for a world where using protective masks is a daily reality and the item is marketed as any other cheap fashion item. I created a collection of products for various occasions. To bring it to life, I organised a fashion shoot with fellow designer and photographer Bojan Markičević. I designed a catalogue, wrote a manifesto and created my first ever animation. I created what would today be considered a provocation, a conceptual, self-reflective Speculative Design narrative. This project was not designed well at all! Nor was it meant to be mass-produced. Its purpose was to challenge the status quo by asking viewers to look beyond the physicality of it, think about the socio-economic values that could have produced it, and if these are the values we want to further encourage. I could have easily designed for our current coronavirus pandemic reality (laugh).

Project from Electrolux student competition (2001)

At the time I wasn’t aware of Critical and Speculative Design discourse at London’s RCA, and it wasn’t a thing in Croatia and the School of Design in Zagreb. I instinctively understood that design was a part of a complex socio-political and economic ecosystem and designing another mass-produced object would not probe deep systemic issues I felt the need to address. I didn’t win the competition, but I had a notion that design has the power to facilitate a debate about the future of society.

Another honorable mention is the Clearing Service by TEB LAB (The Eastern Bloc Laboratory). TEB LAB was a collective started by three of my designer friends and me. We were all from the various “Easts” of the world and this was our way of owning our “easternness” whilst living in the UK. The Clearing Service project was a playful exploration of our reliance on technology for meaning-finding. TEB LAB organised public interventions where we offered mind-clearing services to passersby, did guerilla interviews, and ran social media campaigns to promote our “services”. The project was heavily inspired by situationist pranks and their détournement technique.

TEB LAB, The Clearing Service

If students asked about the practical or professional applications of this type of design, what would you say?

The design has moved beyond individual disciplines of graphic, industrial and others, and has fought for its seat at the decision-making table. If we want to stay relevant we cannot afford NOT to engage with critical and speculative methods and tactics in theory and practice whether it be through academic research, discursive or market-led practices. Critical thinking embodied in Critical and Speculative Design has been listed as one of 10 vital skills for the future of work. Public institutions have started experimenting with Critical and Speculative Design proposals in the context of futurecasting as a tool for futureproofing and ethical innovation. The Economist wrote about “Why it’s worth reading crazy-sounding scenarios about the future”, NESTA UK, the innovation foundation working in the field of creative industry, education, government and health, asks: “Speculative design: A design niche or a new tool for government innovation?” Policy Lab, dedicated to bringing new policy tools and techniques to the UK Government, explores using Speculative Design to examine the future of open justice. The BBC’s R&D department explored the future of radio in collaboration with students from Goldsmiths University in London. Small design studios like Normally and large agencies like Arep alike are embedding Speculative Design approaches in their practice.

Now the question is, can critical design stay critical and speak truth to power so to speak from within the system? Ettore Sottsass, the most prominent figure of the Italian Radicals, founded the Memphis Group as he believed that critical work can be effective only if the design was re-integrated into industrial production. So-called design thinking, user-centred design, participatory design and co-creative design practices that democratized the design process were once at the margins and were seen by the mainstream as radical. So to the question whether Critical and Speculative Design can remain critical from within the system, I will paraphrase a talk that Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the co-founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party and former MP for Reykjavík, gave at the Republica Festival in Rijeka: you can only change the system from within, but don’t stay there too long as it will make you complacent.

In your opinion what is the purpose of Speculative Design? Please suggest up to three key metrics for evaluating the success of a project.

I see both Critical and Speculative Design as the equivalent to grassroots activist groups challenging the “this is how things have always been done” mentality. Firstly they are challenging modernist functionalism where design is seen only as craft bereft of its intellectual dimension, decoupling it with the market and reclaiming it as a discursive research method. Secondly and more broadly they tackle scientific, ethical, political and social issues, bringing them to light and opening them up for public debate. And thirdly as late SF writer Milena Benini pointed out in an interview, speculative fiction is the key to envisioning alternative futures. It’s an exercise in educated speculation on possible futures to help us rehearse and prepare for likely and unlikely scenarios. But most importantly the purpose of Speculative and Critical Design is to bring to light current issues like pandemics, climate change, social and economic inequalities and to serve as a collaborative communal exercise in envisioning a better future.

The most important metric for which Speculative Design practice has already been criticised is the lack of wide dissemination of ideas, measurable public engagement and the quality of the debate sparked by the projects. Even though speculative designers would like to pride themselves on being facilitators of public engagement and change, the reality is that the majority of these projects still only exist in gallery spaces, museums, universities and research studios and these spaces traditionally don’t allow for social and economic diversity. So there is work to be done around boosting audience participation, idea dissemination, and diversification of sociopolitical context.

Mapping Critical Design in Yugoslavia, LDoc group exhibition at the London Design Festival

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