Jean Schneider



by Jean Schneider


Conferences are nicely formal, but dinners offer in many case the casual settings for open ended discussions, brutal opinions, brilliant intuitions. Because the format of Jonas's project is open, let's imagine that we are all in one of these moments.

Here are some of my thoughts, more or less elaborated, probably upsetting for some readers, about design and theory.


1· What would I expect from a design theory?

- First of all, it should definetly make me more clever. For instance, I should be able to get a richer understanding of some transformations in my material surrounding and their dynamics, so that I can influence them. Either as a designer, or as a citizen.

- Maybe, a design theory that I would elaborate would allow me to justify, in a language that non designers would understand, my own way of doing (or not doing) design. It should then help me to change my way of doing (and the things I would do) by allowing me to invent methods.

- Any design theory should allow me to discover, describe, interpret and (maybe) evaluate qualitative differences between artifacts.

And I also think that a design theory that doesn't allow a reading of history has no value : it is a programme.

I believe that any design theory must allow me to evaluate (I mean : sense the differences, not to judge) methodS and proposalS, and increase my understanding of their diversity.


2· What makes me unhappy in most of the current discussions (and in many attempts that have been made to develop design theories, at least during the last century)

- Once digged out, most texts are in fact the formalisation of a personal practice (if not : of one project), or some kind of manifesto, statement or programme. The text that is produced is a rethorical construction, not a theory.

- Many papers nowadays suggest to situate design in some intermediate state : neither art (we work with and for others), nor engineering (design includes symbolic values), not even a science (designers don't mess up with truth) it is design! Those elaborate models offer, mutatis mutandis, a tautological definition : design is design or Design is Design.

[well, of course, it doesn't take much effort to realize that artists work with and for the others, that many designers are fascinated with ultimate techno gear, and that self criticism is not the most common activity among designers]

Funny enough (I admit being mean here), many of these papers are long, elaborate, and suggest various metaphorical models : the cube, the star, the stream etc. The number of components, strata, links, phases etc are, in most case that I can recall, descriptive (and sometimes declarative), but the truly important thing, which is : the legitimacy of the (supposed/proposed) connection(s) is seldom problematized.

> The "corpus" on which the formalisation is elaborated is seldom (as far as I recall, it would be never) declared or analyzed. There is a serious problem of "reality" (and this is a nice paradox when one thinks that design is supposed to shape a reasonably material reality). In that matter, intersubjectivity is very suspect. It doesn't take long to figure out that there is an implicit reality between designers; and that this is a rather narrow subset of our material culture. The least one would expect is the declaration of what is excluded, even temporarily.


3· What are the consequences of this "lack of reality"

- debates become necessarily vague, and shift to ontological issues. Well, formulating the ontology of the act of designing, or of the contemporary object/subject is maybe a better job for philosophers. I don't mean at all that we shouldn't deal with the foundations of our discipline(s), quite the opposite, but our way of dealing with these foundations requires, at this stage and in my view, more rigor and less Aristotle; more grounded sense and less philosophy. Bearing in mind that for a huge majority of designers, it is enough for a designer to design to be a designer, thinking about design, or thinking with or thinking through design are not exactly sufficient (see for instance on which ground academia tends to select teachers). If we would accept this as a sufficient condition, then the approach we should have to define our foundations would be on the side of reflexive action, not on the side of disengaged contemplation.

-If we agreed on the fact that design is a cognitive ability, and, more generaly speaking, a human primary skill, then the question is : what can we bring to the anthropologists? On which ground can we defend continuity between some prehistoric tool and today's computers. Or can we, on the contrary, identify disruptive moments, and qualify them (such as the industrial, or the French revolutions for historians).

-If we agreed on the justification of design is its purpose and usefulness, then how can we enrich our relations with those we work for. Is it possible to mix concrete stakeholders with ethical notions? Can we offer democratic control on our projects, and at which stages? What would be the tools for that? Do we have the means to generate public debate(s) and include the feedback in the design process?

-If design was about the creation of forms (in the strongest sense), then oooppps, nobody seems to like that idea anymore.

-If design was a reflexive and productive activity concerned with the evolution of our material culture, then we would have to build some links to history, and to elaborate a toolbox that offers connections between each project or proposal and possible alternatives.


Your turn


Jean Schneider