Designs for the Pluriverse: Chater 1 Reflections

How has design shaped modernity?

Reflections for Interaction Design Seminar, Professor Molly Wright Steenson, Fall 2019

In Designs for the Pluriverse, Arturo Escobar presents a major critique of modernity and design’s hand in shaping the imminent ecological and social crises humanity faces today (wicked problems). He asserts that the world is “one big design failure.” This failure is due to traditional modes of design. This traditional identity is one that is “linked to objects, technological change, the individual, and the market and carried out by experienced experts.”

He calls for a radical way of thinking in which designers part from these old ways and turn to design practice that is more “user centered, situated, interactive, collaborative, and participatory, focused significantly on the production of human experience and life itself.” In this new vision, he calls for designers to become interdisciplinary facilitators or mediators, paying the practice of design forward, transforming it into a participatory practice that can be applied to largescale problems.

Currently, design reinforces and supports“the business-as-usual” modes of living, creating, and consuming. This status quo being capitalistic systems of inequality that continue to perpetuate wicked problems.

Interestingly, Escobar says that designers have predominately practiced functionalism. Functionalism’s aim is “to improve mass-produced goods and people’s quality of life through the use of new materials and techniques.” This is good, but only half of what’s needed for design to reach its full potential. Designers need to adopt a more critical perspective and transition design towards more radical ways of thinking.

Escobar asserts that design is fundamental to creating a better future for humanity. But how did it come so important? He makes a strong case for design being central to human identity. Humans design tools, and in turn, these tools affect our perception of ourselves and of the world around us (“being-through-practices). We then use these tools to continue designing and creating the world around us. Thus, he establishes as central in shaping our physical and mental environment. Design has always been “tied to decisions about the lives we live and the worlds in which we live them.”

“Toys are us, aren’t they?”

Further, because design is so central, it is and has been inherently political. Notions of “progress” and “development” have historically been tied to technology and design. Currently, design and technology are at the center of modernity. This matrix of modern design includes:

Counterargument and Gaps

Ecological worldview

I disagree with Escobar’s urge for a more “user-centered” design practice. Throughout the work, I could not help but think of Transition Design. Transition Design calls for an ecological worldview. If we are to design ourselves out of future crises, we need to adopt a perspective that considers humans not as separate from the Earth/environment, but as existing within it. This reframing will change how we think about sustainability, how we define it, and how we design for it at different levels of scale. I think we should be moving towards more “ecologically-centered” design practice; one that considered humans and environment as central.

How do we get there?

At numerous points during the chapter, Escobar calls for a “significantly new culture” supported by “radically new ways of thinking.” Although only the first chapter, Escobar doesn’t offer ways to move from traditional modes of thinking to radical ones. How do we shift entire ways of being that are entrenched in concrete systems? How do we push designers to think outside of these systems, and then inspire populations to follow suit, in a short amount of time? If radical modes of thinking are imperative to humanity’s survival, how do we get there? And, how do we get there soon? How do we normalize this idea of “futuring”?

Poetics of Space

During Escobar’s discussion of Poetics of the Home, he mentions how “the act of dwelling” is a “fundamental medium of our being-in-the-world.” Functional architecture and modern living have foreclosed “poetics of the home — linked to memory, emotions, dreams, identity, and intimacy.” He uses the example of how in a contemporary house, the fireplace is replaced by a television. Could it be argued that functionalism presents new ways for people to dream or connect? Are models of what fireplaces and televisions do assumptions? This argument assumes that a fireplace fosters connection, whereas a television does not. Does this replacement really mean that we have a “growing inability to genuinely connect with the world”? Although rooted in the works and arguments of other authors, I do think there are big assumptions being made here.


Victor Papanek

This reading very much reminded me of Victor Papenk’s Design for the Real World. Published in 1971, Design for the Real World presents an unforgiving look at designers hand in destroying the world. Papanek asserts that designers currently reinforce the status quo of bad design. This status quo is one that is powered by capitalistic industry — it is unsustainable, indulgent, and unequal. He further urges designers to become ethically and socially responsible, and practice design that is local, participatory, and interdisciplinary.

Escobar proposes very similar ideas. He calls for a new way of thinking about design that challenges the status quo (in his words: “the business-as-usual mode of being, producing, and consuming”). He writes:

“Instead of filling the world with stuff, what design strategies will allow us to lead more meaningful and environmentally responsible lives?”

This connection felt important because there is a legacy of designers urging for similar ideas.

Transition Design and Donella Meadows

This work also reminded me of Transition Design and of Donella Meadows’ Leverage Points to Intervene in a System.

Escobar calls for thinking that moves from “defuturing” to “futuring.” I think transition design offers a good way to think about how we might towards more radical thinking. And Meadows’ offers a way for us to begin shifting parts of the system. Change on a large scale requires finding points of intervention at various levels of scale. Designing within the same “epistemic and cultural order that created the problems in the first place”, as Escobar says, is not a good solution. But we first have to find small gaps within these orders in order to be able to shift our society towards a more sustainable future.

Further, Meadows mentions that the most impactful, but most challenging way to intervene in a system is changing mindset/perception. This is something Escboar calls for throughout his work.

Interaction Designer | Carnegie Mellon University, School of Design | MDes ’21

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