With their Designed Realities Lab at The New School in New York, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are once again stepping beyond the boundaries of their own discipline. Together with philosophers, media theorists, and social scientists, they have been exploring new co-teaching formats that address design, humanities and social science students alike. At the heart of this venture is no longer speculative design but new forms of speculative thought.
Interview by Karianne Fogelberg
Fiona and Tony, since 2016, you have been directors of the Designed Realities Lab, a research and teaching unit at The New School in New York. Why this name? Why designed as opposed to designing, and realities as opposed to products, or interactions, or systems?
Tony: The idea for designed realities started to bubble up in an essay we wrote for Z33. We were trying to figure out the nature of our relationship to reality from a design perspective. There are fixed things like the laws of physics, there is a subjective reality that just exists in our minds, and then, there is some kind of hybrid mental reality that we understand collectively, that also exists objectively. As designers we probably play a very small part in the shaping of reality, although often very big claims are made for design. If this kind of in-between reality is designed – whether by technology corporations, government policies, social conventions or whatever – maybe it can be undesigned and redesigned – collectively, not necessarily by designers. The point is to challenge the way we think about our relationship to reality as designers.
In how far is this an extension of your speculative and critical design approach from your previous positions at the Royal College of Art in London and in Fiona’s case, at the Industrial Design course at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna? Or is it a departure from that?
Tony: During the United Micro Kingdoms project, we became very interested in the politics of world views and imaginaries. By coming to The New School and working with colleagues in social sciences such as politics and anthropology, we thought we’d take the practice that we developed in Vienna and London more deeply in that direction. But in doing that, we also needed to revisit design and see how the poetic, aesthetic and speculative aspects of design could work in a complementary way to political and critical thought. Whereas in a previous role we felt we had to bring some criticality to design, especially in the 1990s and early 2000s which was a time of techno-utopianism, here we’re immersed in criticality, at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) in particular. It’s critical culture and critical theory on every level.
Fiona: You can’t breathe! (laughing)
Tony: As a consequence, we’re finding ourselves taking on a slightly different role, not just advocating for criticality, but for a poetic imagination that offers a space to dream, not as fantasy or escapism, but as a way to expand reality…
Fiona:…and for different logics other than the prescribed ones. How can we break down logical paths in ways that different kinds of thinking can emerge?
What does your teaching involve?
Tony: Our brief at The New School was to bring design to the social sciences and other areas scattered around the university. The lab was set up to facilitate that. It offers a range of classes that don’t sit in any one program or discipline. The students come from anthropology, political science, economics as well as a variety of art and design fields and explore their interests in a kind of in-between disciplinary space. They can bring their ongoing research and we help them take it in new directions by introducing more speculative approaches – not speculative design, which has become a form of futures design or design futures – but speculative forms of thought, from magical realism to parallel realities to counterfactuals. We see these speculative frameworks as a powerful way of creating the conditions for social imagining. But we don’t bring design methodologies to the social sciences. In fact, we’re very conscious that we didn’t want to, like design thinking, attempt to colonize these other disciplines through design, but instead, provide room for different kinds of speculative thought grounded in different disciplines to flourish.
Can you give a concrete example?
Tony: Very early on, we had a masters anthropology student join one of our classes on world building, Heather Anderson. She had a background in law and wanted to test out her constitutional design skills. She imagined a country that decided to wind itself down over 100 years, and wrote its constitution, bringing up questions such as how you would legalize this process, deal with people’s rights, and so on. She consulted specialist lawyers to make sure it was as close to a proper constitution as possible. It opened our eyes to the fact that there are certain kinds of instruments, legal and other, that exist outside of the typical design fields and that, since they are “objects”, can be designed. She was also able to come into our class, do a hybrid sort of political science legal studies project and then take it back to her department as the basis for further discussions. We were not trying to turn her into a designer, but instead, allow her to take advantage of the speculative nature of our class to draw on her legal and anthropological background.
If you don’t teach design methodologies to social science students, how else can we imagine your teaching to unfold?
Fiona: We discovered that there is a massive gap between the social sciences and design. And even though we’re in the same school, bringing students together into the same class is incredibly difficult. If we are doing it on our own, we get the odd student from anthropology, political science, philosophy, but it’s mostly students from across the disciplines of design. So co-teaching makes total sense, and we have been doing this with colleagues from a range of social sciences and philosophy.
Tony: The university has a type of class called a U-Trans Lab, short for university transdisciplinary laboratory, which we adopted to create a hybrid space that combines the seminar with the studio model. It starts like a seminar with readings on theory, which are discussed in the part of the class led by our co-teacher and then, rather than writing response papers, we do a design response. The non-designers are not going to draw but they can do verbal or speculative imagining in mixed groups, with students from design. We see it as a more generative way of letting theory flow into practice rather than trying to prove through writing that you fully understand the theory. In those classes, it helps to have a co-teacher who’s an expert in the seminar model…
Fiona:…it’s not easy though, even if we’ve done it a few years now, because you areexposed to your limitations and you participate in a different set of conventions.
What are the skills that students take away from this teaching environment?
Tony: The aim of our classes is to generate knowledge, stretch the imagination and challenge the intellect. We don’t try to simulate the world beyond academia and say, as an anthropologist, you might need these skills, or as a designer, you might need those. They’re already doing that in many other classes. We can diverge from this since we don’t run a program and we’re not responsible for the entirety of the students’ education. Our classes are simply: here’s a space to challenge yourself in. We feel that experience is valuable to their development in whatever field they’re in.
Fiona: We have to keep everyone’s head away from the ‘elastic of reality’ so that they’re not just shuffling around what already exists. Our topics tend to be ones which don’t have any answers or solutions. We get rid of them very quickly at the beginning so that there’s no expectation that they have to solve a given problem in the usual frame. The only pressure in the room is that they go beyond known frames of reference.
Tony: We’ve seen often that design will bring a solutionist mindset into these fields, to help social scientists address complex problems. What we’ve been doing is the opposite. We’ve been taking a spirit of inquiry from the social sciences into design. What is it like when you are curious about an idea and want to pursue it through practice rather than theory?The aim is to push back against the forces that make us want to align our imaginations with prevailing thought. This is extraordinarily difficult. Once you move away from it, you feel very vulnerable and exposed. It takes a lot of time to build the trust and confidence where students feel comfortable doing that.
In how far is this an acknowledgment that design education needs to provide students with other things today than in 2005 when you started teaching at the Royal College of Art?
Fiona: What we see from thesis projects is how design studentshave really enormously complex projects. They start with the world’s problems on their shoulders and they think that they have to solve them. The proposals are so huge, impacting on everyone, so where does imagination fit in that? We try to give them that extra little space that can live alongside the bigger complexities that design students now have to deal with. And suddenly the students feel that they can be allowed to do this differently.
Tony: We wish to create spaces where the students’ imaginations can be nourished at a time when for us, reality is shrinking. This shift has happened in our work too, realizing that maybe we’re designing more for the worlds we carry around inside us, which are compromised and reduced at the moment – perhaps not exclusively, but most of all by social media, which are a tremendous force for conformity and homogenization, and by other media as a result of them. Rather than saying, here’s a fictional solution for a sustainability issue in the world out there, we’re saying, let’s design in a way that activates the imagination. The changes we can make might be more modest than is often claimed in design, but maybe they are real, in the way you are changed after reading a story or watching a film.
Where do the design students who came to the Lab work afterwards?
Tony: A couple of the students who attended our classes went on to work at companies like Twitch in California or Google Creative Lab in New York.It seems that the organizations that hire them can see through the apparent weirdness of their projects. And, while they might not propose products that align with business thinking, they demonstrate a set of intellectual and creative skills which they can bring into the culture of an organization in ways that encourage it to flourish.
Fiona: Imagination also needs to be part of industrial structures. This is an area where everyone is still struggling and trying to figure out its usefulness. Working with imagination is less straightforward compared to working on industrial things, where there is no tolerance and you can’t think outside the box for a second. So how do you set up structures that help expand those boxes?
If you were invited to run a design program at a German university, what would you put in the curriculum?
Tony: We would put imagination and speculative thought, rather than speculative design, at the heart of it, and not just interdisciplinarity but co-teaching. The big challenge though is to bring theory into design in a way that designers can actually integrate into their practice. Quite often design students are expected to go to a class on philosophy or ecological thought for example, and come back and design normal products. It doesn’t work like that. If we want design students to engage with current theories and debates, we have to be prepared for the kind of design that’s going to come from that, which can be quite strange, and unfamiliar, but it has an educational value in its own right. So while university isn’t an ivory tower, it does have its own unique qualities that we need to work with, critical thinking and a space for imagination being among them. We have to stop trying to design as though we’re working in industry.
Thank you for this inspiring conversation.
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