dunne reading

(this is a late post, not necessarily for the better)

It is ironic that a few days after reading Hertzian Tales, someone posts a status update on facebook with a question on what a design-led university should be doing in the 21st century and how all the disciplines contribute to that mission and he further explained his position – to quote: “Politics tends to be about the human in general; design about the inhuman in particular. Or rather: universal subjects on the one hand and particular things on the other. Neither is particularly helpful. The latter because it tends toward empiricism, the former because it simply doesn’t exist.”

Which, I feel – is a brilliant starting point to understanding what Hertzian Tales is about. One of the key issues about design is the idea of human optimisation – that for many years, design was all about the optimisation of human-ness; human commuication, human mobility, human efficiency etc etc the problem with this optimisation was that design – much like any form of discourse; carries it’s own form of bias (for instance, the finger swipe movement in smartphones) and the objects now govern and shape our behavior to what is “familar”.

This bias has carried to such an extent that we have forgotten the ideologies behind these signs or motions (is it possible, to consider it a “habit”?) and the political overtones have been implicitly subsumed by users. For instance, data visualisations showing multiples of men as a signifier for masses was originally conceived as a Marxist universal sign alphabet and yet is now re-appropriated into everything from Powerpoint to advertising and everything else. Another interesting example is the QWERTY keyboard – deliberately made more difficult because computers didn’t have the sensitivity to cope with the speed of a traditional alphabet and now the QWERTY keyboard and typing style has become convention despite improvements in processing and hardware.

What Dunne proposes is a push towards post-optimal design or critical design pushes that by exploring user-*un*friendliness (i.e. the stairs in Cooper Union are deliberately made difficult and steep) and its that tension/gap within interaction that makes design interesting… He calls this practice a “poetic” one (a term he uses at least 73 times) which unfortunately – he never defines!

I think this is one of the major flaws in this book. I’m OK if you don’t define your terms early, or you don’t define minor terms at all but this is obviously a KEY term in your book and you should define it. It’s problematic because this is exactly the kind of thing that causes unnecessary conflict between what I loosely term “media cultural studies” and the older traditional discourses surrounding philosophy, aesthetics, history etc. That careless disregard and willynilly use of explicit terminology is one of the barriers that causes design writing and design discourses to be considered “lower” or more disregarded in concept-academia. It just shows a lack of rigour and care in practice. Just like designers have to care about the materials they use, writers need to care about the diction they choose.

I’m picking on the term “poetics” partily because he uses it so often, and secondly because it creates confusion. Philosophically, the term “poetics” could refer to “poet-like” as in the form that is like poetry (as in verse) or it could also refer to “poetics” as a form of inventive way which I have a feeling that Dunne probably intended to be. The problem with using it as “inventive way” is that the term “poetics” was tied to “mimesis” (representation) and it was only through poetics (the affect) and mimesis that aesthetics was produced and this leads to a lot of messy overtones which I’m quite sure that Dunne did *not* intend (for instance, the implication that fine art can only exist through representation and the politics of such representation………….which, unless he’s a big fan of Rancerie, is probably unlikely.)

Dave (studio tutor, also has a patience of a saint) said that he understood it as an abstract form – like some kind of exit way of practice, like a methodology of critical design where the intent usurped function and form was not the dictate but rather a result of intent. OK I’ll buy that, however such careless use of language still leaves me uneasy….

Personally though, I think the focus on objects to post-optimal object is now shifting towards a design of systems – if we know what a post optimal/critical object will be, can we then create post optimal systems? can we make a system poetic, without affirming empiricism?


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