All Design Is Social

Michael Kaethler chats with Jan Boelen about reinventing design in order to reinvent the individual, society, and its various structures.

Michael: Let’s start with the programme you directed at Design Academy Eindhoven. Is it true that 10 years ago this Master’s programme had a question mark in its title (Social Design?)—if so, why?

Jan: Because there’s no such thing as ‘social design’: all design is social. I began this programme wanting to challenge the very idea of social design. For one, it’s a pretentious title—it makes a lot of claims as to the intention and capacities of design. Moreover, I wanted the students to explore what this notion could mean; I also wanted to co- explore it with them. Students are very annoyed by this lack of definition but it’s enriching to see how they develop their own interpretations as their practice progresses. After 10 years of running the programme, I still do not give a clear statement on Social Design. I still do not like the term, but I find it useful.

Michael: What interested you in the notion of social design?

Jan: I’ve always been interested in what design is doing with or for society—in other words, in the implications and repercussions of design. When you start to deconstruct or question design, all sorts of questions emerge: How does design affect our behaviour, our use of resources, our choices and freedoms to participate in social, political or economic decision-making, and the extent to which we feel we have agency over our lives? These questions show the power and possibilities within design and the need to better consider how it is executed, where, with whom, and so on.

Michael: What is your starting point in asking these questions?

Jan: The seed for me is at the object level. I’m interested in objects and I see each object as a type of hyper-object that is fully connected with social, economic, and political relations, as well as with what is currently happening in the world. This is how I begin—whether that’s making exhibitions or in my role as an educator. We need to focus on the object and look outwards from it. But it’s not enough to just look at the implications and get stuck on deconstruction. We need to look at what can be done: What can be built on the ruins of the twenty-first century? How can we use these ruins as a source to create a new reality—a new world with different values and relationships?

Michael: How is your approach to design different from, say, the current obsession with techno-innovation?

Jan: Innovation today emphasizes technological or economic aspects that are there to serve the market, ultimately acting as self-fulfilling prophecies. Take, for example, technology such as the LED light bulb: it does use less energy than a traditional bulb, but it has so many different micro electronic components that it’s almost impossible to reuse or properly recycle. Moreover, we end up using more LED light bulbs without questioning their use; and besides, they provide a worse quality of light. This example shows how so-called ‘sustainable thinking’ creates more problems that need solving and uses the same logics that gave us those problems in the first place. If we continue to point to technology as the answer, then we need to re-evaluate the question that it is purportedly responding to. And I don’t think technology is responding to a question.

Michael: Do you think it is possible for us to design our way out of our social, economic, and political collapse?

Jan: This is kind of a trap. On one hand, design is part of the problem; on the other, it is part of the solution. There is a mentality in design that is fashion-oriented, focused on the surface level and primarily appealing to either the ego or the market. This makes design a seasonal activity that responds to colours, surfaces, and textures and not to a need. The focus here is on keeping the production system rolling and accelerating profit margins through constantly providing new objects to purchase. This goes to show how the logic of the market is deeply embedded in certain tendencies of the design world, including designing superficial answers to serious questions, or answers to questions that nobody is asking.

Design is also responsible for shifting the blame and rarely questioning its responsibility in what it produces. In other words, instead of asking consumers to responsibly consume, designers could begin to responsibly produce. For one, designers need to take more responsibility and not shift it onto the consumer. Secondly, fuck, we’re producing so much shit—in effect, pushing a multi-cycle act of consumption—buying it, throwing it away, only to have it reborn as another shitty object that will only get thrown away again. It’s a vicious continuous cycle. We’re in a trap and we need to get out.

Additionally, design is often instrumentalized. For example, after the 2008 financial crisis there was a booming interest in social design, especially in the Netherlands. While the welfare state was on its last breath and as the public sector was washing its hands of its own responsibility, social design was being celebrated for its capacity to bring about positive social change. This synchronicity was no accident. Suddenly, complex multiscalar problems, which had formerly been within the remit of large institutions, were now in the hands of creative individuals—tasked with saving neighbourhoods, tackling public health shortcomings or addressing housing shortages. This is frightening; governments were not taking responsibility for their domains and instead were outsourcing to the freelance creative class. This resulted in embedding designers within structures of power—in effect doing their bidding for them. Since then, many of these same governments have become increasingly conservative, dragging designers and their programmes along with them.

I hold design up as extremely powerful; but as I just explained, it often ends up being instrumentalized, market-oriented, or superficial. So for me, it’s not a question of what design can do, or whether or not we can design our way out of our current situation. Rather, it’s a question of how to do this, where and with whom?

Michael: So, how then do we design our ‘way out’?

Jan: What is crucial here is fundamentally rethinking the broader systems, the power structures, and relations that are behind all of this. If we are to design our way out, we need to do it by critically questioning the fundamental basis of our design intentions, to foster design that can act and reason independently from these larger social or economic forces, taking back control over how material, data, tools, and systems are to be used, by whom and for whom. We need to rethink not only the underlying questions that design often seeks to address, but also how we go about the very process of ‘rethinking’ itself.


Michael: Let’s go back 10 years to when you first started the Master’s in Social Design. What was the social design mentality back then, and how has it changed?

Jan: The difference is that back then there was a certain optimism that we don’t feel today. There was a sense that design and designers could really change things, that with good intentions they could do great things and that they could really save the world. It was a bit like the mentality of missionaries. I found this frightening; there were so many dangers evident in this type of thinking. There are still conferences today that focus on ‘what design can do’, as if design is the new saviour for all our social and economic ills. It’s like that saying, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’: we find ourselves speeding downhill towards our own demise based on, among other things, the naïve intentions of ‘what design can do’.

Michael: You put designers between a rock and hard place. How does one begin to change our current situation without good intentions?

Jan: It’s about starting with yourself. I am not a social person in the sense of ‘socializing’ and surrounding myself with people. I relate to certain people in certain ways. By analysing myself, I understood this part of me, and why I react a specific way in particular situations. What I want to say here is that only through knowing myself can I begin to reach out better to others. In the same way, social design is as much about the individual designer as it is about the world around them. You cannot relate to the world around you unless you also understand your own desires, fears, tensions, and discomforts. It’s a troubling paradox, but an important one—social design is about me, myself and I. Only through knowing the self can we know the ‘other’.

Michael: Social design is often criticized for its naivety in engaging with complex issues. But at the same time, you promote an approach that is rooted in a deeply personal exploration—another type of naivety.

Jan: I believe that naivety is crucial, as is enthusiasm. There are different forms of naivety. For instance, if you go somewhere with the naïve idea that you know all there is to know, then you will fail to learn, to engage, to make something meaningful. But if you go there with that certain naïve enthusiasm that pushes you to leave your comfort zone and get lost in something, then you have a true encounter, from which powerful relationships and ideas can emerge. Learning is an act of ‘unlearning’: it is about forgetting preconceived notions and being able to see through different eyes—using your intuition or senses. This type of thinking precedes analysis; it provides the foundational knowledge, which can later be made sense of. First, we embody and then we take a distance to truly understand what is important, what is real, what is meaningful.

Michael: There are all kinds of kitschy descriptions and false distinctions that highlight the differences between art and design, such as ‘art causes problems, design solves problems’, or ‘design is a solution and art is a question’. Looking at the types of projects coming out of Design Academy Eindhoven blurs these distinctions.

Jan: We take a lot of inspiration from the arts. Design can easily fall into reproducing and amplifying the existing ways of thinking about problems and solutions. Art on the other hand creates alternatives, thinks sideways or invertedly, and plays by its own unique logics. Similarly, we’re not interested in producing products; instead, we focus design outcomes on processes, conversation pieces, scenarios, networks, and so on. With political or critical design, the statement is the ‘thing’, while speculative forms of design are about narrations and scenarios that challenge the way we think or process realities. We are situated here on this side of the spectrum and quite far away from the pragmatic, conformist, solutionist, and affirmative approaches to design.

Michael: Someone reading this might be confused by an internal paradox. We claim that if matter is social, then all design is social. So why do we need social design if all design is social? Why not just collapse it within the larger design field?

Jan: I don’t think social design is ready to be absorbed, it will be too quickly metabolized by certain superficialities of design, the market, fashionability, and ego. This tradition, which dates back to Papanek and even Bauhaus, still needs to be protected and fostered.

Michael: OK, so if you want to remain separate, does it bother you to work under the banner of social design when it is sometimes associated with arrogant, boring, aesthetically underwhelming and conceptually flat projects?

Jan: I believe we need to change it from within. There’s a valuable tradition here, as I just mentioned. Believe me, I’ve seen how shallow and misguided social design projects can be, all the while making bold claims and promises. I feel that we need to push social design from the inside, to change the discourse and practice by offering a deeper reading of what the social is and how design can interact with it through deeper engagements. Look at our student projects; they are long term, almost life-long projects that require a lasting and profound commitment from the designer. These projects are not intellectual exercises or self-congratulatory: no, they are born from deep convictions and are manifest through intuitive and reflective material engagements. With this, we can change the way we think about social design and prevent more shitty design projects.

Michael: How do you see the future of Social Design?

Jan: We, as a species, only have a future if our societal model changes. Our future is very bleak if we are not able to come up with new ways of organizing and designing democracies and economies. These two areas (democracies and economies) are the key topics for the next 10 years. We need to identify new ways of decision-making and participation in society as well as new models for contributing to society. If design cannot help us in this search then it will soon be redundant, as will our species. We need to re-think the fundamental pillars of society and do so from both theory and bottom-up through design, allowing both to communicate with each other. We cannot leave it to the economists or politicians to come up with new models or alternatives—they will follow the same path. Design, I feel, is key in this process and social design is absolutely essential. If not, our future is severely limited. This is a critical moment, an urgent one. I say these things with profound concerns while at the same time believing that change is possible. Voilà.

Jan Boelen is a curator, educator and researcher in art and design. He has been the head of the Master’s department of Social Design at Design Academy Eindhoven (NL) since 2010. In 2019, Jan was elected as the New Rector of Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design (HfG).

 Michael Kaethler is a sociologist of design whose work focuses on the transmission, production and embodiment of knowledge in art and design-oriented practices.

 The preceding is an excerpt from the new book Social Matter, Social Design, edited by Boelen and Kaethler (2020, Valiz). Reprinted with permission.