Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist. Read More

Design and Social Life

Essay published in Design Life Now: National Design Triennial (Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, 2006).

Sitting on my desk is a monograph about the Dutch designer Hella Jongerius. The book is designed by COMA, a design partnership based in New York City and Amsterdam. In place of the digital renderings and photos of finished goods that dominate most design books, this volume presents objects as part of social life: products appear in a workshop or studio, often in multiples, in spaces inhabited by people. The cover photograph, shot in an immaculate factory workroom, shows seven red and white vases cradled in the arms of seven men who, presumably, helped birth them.

The book you are looking at now also was designed by COMA. This volume resulted from a social process that transpired among curators, writers, designers, editors, manufacturers, and booksellers—a process that now includes you, a potential reader. Perhaps you bought or borrowed a copy of the book, or you have picked it up in a store, or maybe you are viewing a digital version on the pages of Amazon.com or another on-line seller.

Across the room from me, my eleven-year-old son Jay and his friend Tony are playing Will Wright’s game The Sims, which models the workings of an ordinary household. As players decide how people in their artificial family unit will spend their time and money, the software spins out a life, generated automatically according to simple rules that yield unpredictable results. Some households hum with joy and prosperity, adding rooms and attracting friends; others go bankrupt or catch on fire.

Jay and Tony have built a pair of unemployed Sims who have purchased a huge television set for every space in the house, even the bathroom. These characters are headed for disaster. The boys squeal with delight when a social service worker arrives to take their baby Sim into custody. “We neglected it!” they exclaim happily as the infant is carried off. The TVs remain, but not for long. [Sims screen capture: Too Many TVs]

These two artifacts—a sophisticated art book and a hugely popular video game—mark different positions along the spectrum of design practice today. One is a low-tech, high-minded publication aimed at design-world insiders; the other is a high-tech, mass-market product that belongs to one of the world’s most successful series of electronic games. Both items exist without conflict in my own house, sharing space with thousands of other books and dozens of digital games. Drawing together these two works of design is a common interest in observing social systems, from how goods are produced to what patterns govern human behavior.

Design has always been a social activity, arising in response to a problem, opportunity, or circumstance in the world. Whereas we might think of an artist as a loner confronting a self-defined challenge, designers rarely work in solitude. The sociability of design is, indeed, what attracts many creative people to this diverse field of practice. To make their projects happen, designers collaborate with clients, fabricators, suppliers, retailers, editors, illustrators, art directors, ad agencies, schools, community boards, end users, and more. The Clear Rx project, by Debra Adler and Target Corp., began with a single design student’s observation that standard pharmaceutical packaging was failing people in her own life. Her project grew to include the efforts of other graphic and industrial designers as well as a major corporation with the power to bring her idea to market.

Over the past decade, design has connected with the living fabric of human use in new, once unimaginable ways. Designers are creating not only finished images and objects, but also tools that people put to work, spaces that people bring to life, and forums that buzz with the exchange of ideas. Designers no longer view the public only as a “consumer” to be persuaded or as a “user” to be studied and analyzed, but also as a community of intelligent individuals equipped to engage objects and information through customization, reverse engineering, do-it-yourself production, and two-way feedback. “Push media”—which thrusts itself unbidden in the face of viewers—must compete with user-driven “pull media,” a fact that is changing the face of advertising. Design has helped build new publics, drawing individuals together around a common interest or a shared piece of software. This essay explores the social life of contemporary design, pointing to broader cultural movements that are shaping—and shaped by—design practice.

The burgeoning of the blogosphere is a key event in design’s recent social transformation. Blogs (short for “Web logs”) give voice to everything from the political views of prominent activists to the personal musings of anonymous teenagers. Blogging software makes it easy for authors to post information and for readers to join and follow threaded conversations. Although the medium dates back to the early 1990s, blogging blasted into public view during the presidential election of 2004, when unaffiliated writers from both the left and right trailed the candidates’ campaigns on their own blog sites, speaking in independent voices unfettered by journalism’s customary civility. “Netroots” emerged as a new breed of political activist, who use the Web (especially blogs) as a means to actively participate in politics—locally, nationally, and globally.

Numerous blogs have bubbled up from inside the design community as well, including SpeakUp and Typographica (founded 2002) and DesignObserver (founded 2003). Each of these blogs has helped build a new, participatory design discourse. Armin Vit, creator of SpeakUp, describes his site as a “community shaped by its authors, readers, and random contributors.” Blogs have triggered a journalistic paradigm shift: the editor is now charged with setting forth an inviting social space. A blog is not just a publication; it’s a party. Twenty-five years ago, the future of design criticism was assumed to lie in books, magazines, academic journals, and museum catalogues like this one: expensive, slow-moving media to which only a few writers could expect to contribute. Now, an inclusive body of design writing is being produced every day—more than nearly anyone has time to read. [illustration: Web page(s) and/or t-shirt from SpeakUp]

Design authorship, a theme explored in the 2003 Triennial, remains a strong impulse within the design community, but for many designers, collaboration is becoming more important than the individual signature. Designers are using their own social networks to build partnerships whose value exceeds the sum of individual effort. Designer and illustrator Nicholas Blechman published a book-length edition of his independent zine Nozone in 2004, launching a collective visual assault on the deadening effects wrought by “empire” on the world’s ecology, economy, and culture. Blechman’s project pulled together the efforts of dozens of illustrators, designers, cartoonists, and writers. As in a rally or a march, the book’s impact derived from the combined efforts of the group, not from a single voice. [Empire, Table of Contents, showing contributors]

Blechman is one of many designers producing independent projects while also working for pay in the profession (he is an art director at The New York Times). Rick Valicenti is a graphic designer in the Chicago area, has been combining experimental design with a successful commercial practice for over twenty-five years. Through his company Thirst, Valicenti has constantly experimented with new ways to collaborate with designers inside and outside his own business. Recently, he formed a new partnership with two designers in Los Angeles, Louise Sandhaus and Lorraine Wild. Working under the moniker Wild LuV, the threesome is able to take on bigger projects than they would individually. J. Meejin Yoon operates under two different company names: MY Studio, for her independent artistic work, and HY Architecture (with Eric Höwler), for collaborative building projects.

This move to collaborate is taking place across the disciplines of design. In architecture, many younger practitioners have formed partnerships that allow them to attract prominent commissions and make a bigger impact on the field than if they were working alone or for an established firm. Studios such as Open Office, FACE, Freecell, Lewis Tsurumaki Lewis, and ShoP are pursuing a hands-on, workshop model that allows architects to test and prototype details in their studios rather than working in a purely digital mode. Rejecting traditional corporate hierarchies, these designers are tapping the social energy that comes from working side-by-side with creative peers, often sharing tools and overhead costs with other young businesses.

The National Design Triennial installation is designed by Matter Architecture Practice, a small firm led by Sandra Wheeler and Alfred Zollinger. (The team also designed the 2003 Triennial.) MATTER operates its own machine shop for prototyping and short-run custom manufacturing. Zollinger was trained as a precision machinist before becoming an architect, and both partners are more comfortable developing ideas through full-scale physical models and prototypes than on the computer. Their hands-on approach streamlines many parts of the design process, from eliminating construction documents that are intended solely for communication with fabricators to reducing dependence on contractors to judge the feasibility of an idea. [illustration: making stuff with tools at Matter Architecture Practice]

The impulses to make a blog, publish a zine, or prototype a wall structure by hand reflect another revolution in contemporary culture: the exploding interest in do-it-yourself processes. The 2003 Triennial documented the allure of craft and making things in contemporary design. This fascination continues (as witnessed in the obsessively produced jewelry of Steven and William Ladd and the hand-wrought decorative wall sculptures of David Wiseman). Bringing such desires home to consumers, various new products invite people to customize their living spaces. Blik’s removable vinyl wall graphics are an instant, reversible alternative to paint and wallpaper, while the pre-fabricated housing projects of Craig Konyk and Charles Lazor are exploring the house as a flexible, customizable kit of parts. Ron Gilad’s Vase Maker is a ceramic holder that doesn’t become functional until the user places it over a piece of glassware or other container. Ransmeier & Floyd’s D.I.Y.M. (Do It Yourself Modern) lampshade is designed to easily slip on and off any hanging light bulb, providing an instant retrofit for utilitarian fixtures. [illustration: Ransmeier & Floyd, D.I.Y.M. lamp shade]

Just as professional designers want to become authors, publishers, builders, and fabricators, members of the so-called “general public” want to try their own hands at designing spaces, making furniture, building Web sites, editing video, modifying software, and so on. Arts and crafts have become a big business. Warehouse stores like Michaels provide consumers with a bewildering array of supplies and equipment for everything from decorative painting to scrapbooking, a growing hobby that has spawned its own vast consumer subculture. The international Church of Craft, founded in 2000, is an urban, non-commercial offshoot of the mass-market craft explosion. The furniture and objects of Jason Miller quietly nod to the new craft populism, employing such humble materials as Play-Doh, popsicle sticks, and colored glue. [illustration: Jason Miller, Play-Doh]

Design technologies—and information about how to use them—have become widely available. Especially among people who have grown up with Internet access, the urge to make and share media is second nature. Just as the professions of law and medicine were transformed in the Internet age by public access to information, design has become more open to participation. The self-taught multimedia designer Jakob Trollbäck, founder of Trollbäck & Company, was a disk jockey and nightclub owner in Stockholm before moving to New York City to begin a career in graphic design—a field Trollbäck refers to as “visual deejaying.” He learned his trade by doing it, working in the legendary offices of R/Greenberg Associates. [illustration: Jakob Trollback playing ping pong]

At the core of D.I.Y. is self-education. Readymade magazine, founded in 2001, shows readers how to produce domestic items—from coffee tables to garden furniture—out of recycled or repurposed materials. Howtoons, founded in 2005, brings D.I.Y. technology to children through a Web site and other publications that show how to make rocket launchers, marshmallow shooters, hovercrafts, and other devices out of ordinary household stuff. Make is a hybrid book/magazine (“mook”) launched in 2005. Aimed at tech-savvy geeks from all walks of life, Make celebrates the right of citizens to “tweak, hack, and bend” the technologies they encounter at home and work by showing readers how to build their own gadgets and get under the hood of products. [illustration: cover of Make magazine]

A reigning goddess of this reverse-engineering vanguard is Natalie Jeremijenko, whose work examines the ecological impact of high-tech manufacturing and the interface between nature and technology. Her Feral Robotic Dog project (an experiment in “do-it-yourself toy mechanics”) invites high school students to rebuild and reprogram commercially-made mechanical dogs so that they seek out toxins in public parks and landscapes. Jeremijenko is an artist, scientist, designer, and engineer. “I choose a label based on convenience,” she explains. In some cases, it’s easier to get approval for an “art” project (because scientists require clearance for work involving human or animal subjects), while other pieces move more smoothly under the aegis of science (getting a green light for research can be faster than for public art). All her activities are framed under the name of her research lab, xdesign, an entity that has moved with her as she has joined the faculties of Stanford, Yale, and University of California, San Diego, where she currently teaches. [illustration: robot dogs]

Like the readers and producers of Make, Readymade, and Howtoons, Jeremijenko approaches design as an open network rather than a closed discipline. In a similar vein, members of the open source software movement view operating systems and other programs as public property to be tested and refined by a broad community. Wikipedia.org, founded in 2001, is a vast, on-line encyclopedia to which anyone can contribute. CreativeCommons.org, founded the same year, is developing new standards of intellectual property that protect authors while encouraging the spread of ideas; the phrase “Some rights reserved” has become the hip way to license content on the Internet.

Like D.I.Y., these social movements reflect the opening up of knowledge for public use and public authorship—the construction of an “information commons.” D.I.Y. relies on access to tools and materials on the one hand, and access to information about how to use them on the other. Computer languages reflect a highly ordered mode of D.I.Y.. A program is a set of instructions: loops, subroutines, if/then/else statements, and so on. Saul Griffith, creator of Howtoons, argues that all forms of physical making are, at bottom, “programmable.” A recipe is a unique string of generic “subroutines” (sautéing, frying, chopping) applied to particular ingredients (chicken, fish, onions). Digital designer Golan Levin argues, “If writing is a medium of thought, then software is an agent of will,” a set of actions performed on the physical world. The popular interest in arts and crafts (expressed by Readymade) and the parallel play with digital tools and programming (voiced in Make) stem from a common instinct: to produce things via transparent forms of mental and physical knowledge: knit one, purl two; for i data, perform x function.

Most commercial software is packaged inside an interface that hides its command language from users. Benjamin Fry and Casey Reas are the creators of Processing, an open-source programming language made for students, artists, designers, architects, researchers, and hobbyists. Processing is a tool, a social space, and an educational resource that is being creatively deployed by people all around the world. Processing builds on the work of John Maeda, Fry’s and Reas’s teacher at the MIT Media Lab. Maeda’s book Design by Numbers pioneered the use of computer languages as an educational tool—a tool intended to open up public understanding of how things work in the digital age, running counter to centuries of increasing specialization and intellectual protectionism in the arts and sciences. [Processing: snapshot of Casey Reas teaching]

The impulse to expand our knowledge of digital tools drives designers using commercial software as well. Joshua Davis is called the “guru” of Flash, the widely-used application for Web design and animation. Flash is an accessible commercial product that nearly anyone—from kids to professional designers—can learn to implement with some degree of facility. Davis, however, like other high-functioning Flash designers, has mastered this standard-issue software from the inside out, using the program’s custom scripting language to construct complex interfaces and interactive digital environments. Not interested in keeping his working methods a secret, Davis writes books about Flash coding and conducts frequent seminars and workshops.

The “remix culture” that emerged in the 1980s and 90s has become a matter of course. The sampling of everything from audio loops to computer code—once employed by artists as a critical strategy—has merged into normal life. Media critic Lev Manovich describes “Generation Flash” as a new cadre of producers for whom the distinction between art and design has melted away, and for whom the borrowing—and sharing—of information and ideas has become second nature. A new modernism is on the march, valuing production over critique and the design of tools and situations over the creation of finished works.

From the user’s perspective, interactivity is the social promise of the World Wide Web. Unlike a book or a conventional TV program, on-line media can anticipate our desires over time and assemble content on the fly in response to our queries. The rise of Google (marked by the company’s IPO, filed in April, 2004) is a fundamental event in design’s social evolution. Google’s “sponsored links” are generic text ads with no flashing graphics, no brand images, and no clever copy. They just may be the most influential typographic form of the current era.

Sponsored links have provided the advertising business with a new (and, to some ad agencies, scary) model of accountability¬—a fee is paid to the search engine only when a link is clicked. Life in Google World requires advertisers to devise new ways to reach consumers, including marketing campaigns that append commercial messages to an interesting piece of Web content—the goal is to inspire people to pass the link on to their friends, affirming the coolness of the brand through word-of-mouth transmission. Design-driven multimedia companies such as PSYOP in New York City and Planet Propaganda in Madison, Wisconsin, have created quirky, artistic Web spots that become entertainment in their own right. Whereas some traditional advertising works slams viewers with information they can’t avoid, spots like these succeed by attracting notoriety and then traveling through social channels.

Meanwhile, “vlogging” (video blogging) allows amateur producers to circulate their own digital clips. Some sites tack a commercial message onto these home-grown movies, providing a financial reward to videos that attract downloads: viral marketing goes D.I.Y.. Podcasting represents a similar revolution in audio media. Soon after bloggers began publishing audio commentary on their sites, Apple integrated podcast subscriptions into its iTunes software service, creating what CEO Steve Jobs called “TiVo for radio.” Mainstream media quickly followed up on this D.I.Y. phenomenon, giving listeners access to audio content any time, any place. Podcasting stems from an iconic work of industrial design whose importance lies as much in its link to social movements as in the sleek functionality of the thing itself.

There is a dystopian side to user-driven design. As advertising goes underground, we may worry about how it penetrates our personal lives. We used to watch TV; soon it will be watching us. A Web site that knows our preferences might be tempted to share them with others, assaulting us with unwanted offers. We may welcome an interface that anticipates our purchase patterns, or a car that knows our exact location—yet find it uncanny, too.

Stage designer Marsha Ginsberg has made surveillance a dramatic element in her design for George Bizet’s Carmen, set in a suite of low-rent offices in present-day Brooklyn. Don Jose is cast as a security guard, and throughout the play he sits at his desk viewing Carmen—a woman he hardly knows—via video monitors. The monitors allow the audience to see into hidden parts of the set while participating in Don Jose’s voyeuristic obsessions. [Illustration: Ginsberg/Carmen with Scouts] The human use of interior spaces is the subject of Ginsberg’s work. Whereas architects typically construct new environments, Ginsberg investigates the “mess” of living, revealed through peeling wallpaper, chipped paint, and worn furniture.

Electroland, a design partnership based in Los Angeles, creates environments that respond to the movements of visitors using tracking devices and lighting effects. These systems openly engage visitors in interactive experiences with buildings, but they also subtly suggest that technologies placed in public spaces may be following our movements in less visible ways. Electroland’s projects render surveillance transparent. [Electroland: Target Party People]

Designers create interiors that support certain kinds of human activity. Retail environments promote shopping, libraries inspire study, and pedestrian bridges and walkways (a specialty for Electroland) encourage people to move along to their destination. The legendary furniture company Herman Miller, Inc. has created furniture systems for nearly three-quarters of a century that facilitate office work. The company is now developing the New Office Landscape, a series of furniture components that aim to stimulate creativity by providing places for spontaneous face-to-face social interaction. Hovering between furniture and architecture, the pieces create semi-enclosed areas that are less formal and static than a conference room and but more private and inviting than the area around the water-cooler.

The National Design Triennial is the result of joint social labor—albeit wholly unaided by collaboration-inducing furnishings! (Our curatorial meetings were held in a beautifully appointed museum conference room from which food and beverages are barred.) Launched in 2000, the Triennial has always been organized by a team of curators, drawn from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s own staff and from leaders in the design community. For this latest installment of the Triennial, the curators’ work process emphasized group consensus over the individual curatorial voice. And, for the first time ever, we invited the public to bring ideas to the attention of the Triennial team. For nearly a year, we operated a blog-style Web site that collected nominations. These suggestions, regularly reviewed by the curators, exposed us to dozens of new names; those that made it into the exhibition’s final cut include Electroland, Nicholas Blechman, ShoP, and Marsha Ginsberg. Although the Triennial remains a curated exhibition—not a juried competition—it has evolved into a more open, collaborative process. [illustration, oprtional: Triennial blog screen shot]

Design builds and participates in society. Every designer is a citizen, and every citizen is, to some degree, a designer. The broad-based cultural and technological phenomena that are shaping the design professions in the new century are molding the consciousness of us all. These social transformations include the spread of blogging and two-way communication on the Internet, the accessibility of D.I.Y. design and technology, the growth of the open source movement, and the push to protect and populate an information commons. At a historical moment when many people are alarmed by ill-advised warfare and the downsides of globalization, the changes discussed here are, by and large, cause for optimism. We are living in a time of unprecedented public awareness of design. In the U.S. and around the world, people have more access than ever before not only to well-designed products but also to the tools and thought processes that designers use every day. Such citizens are well equipped to face the future.