Tricky Design
Tricky Design

Tom Fisher

Tom Fisher is Professor in the School of Art and Design at Nottingham Trent University, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Lorraine Gamman

Lorraine Gamman is Professor of Design at Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London, UK. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Visual Arts, 2019


Content Type:

Book Chapter

Related Content

Introduction: Ways of Thinking Tricky Design

DOI: 10.5040/9781474277211.ch-001
Page Range: 1–20

We don’t have to disengage from the world … because we may happen to think we will never be able to grasp it.

George Perec (2008: 265)

The purpose of this collection of chapters is to grasp (at) some of the ethical dimensions of Design. Perec wrote about the experience of Robert Antelme, deported to Buchenwald in 1944 – an event that remains hard to grasp, but was clearly the result of ‘design’. He proposes that such events challenge us to really look at them, arguing that this necessary looking is made possible by art, by literature. While the subjects of the chapters in this book may not be as challenging as Antelme’s experience, they cover some topics that we may find difficult to look at, and some we may find hard to grasp.

The scope of these examples, and the scope of the designed responses they in turn imply, may challenge the assumption that designers’ ethical and political potency is limited to their responsibility to be competent by the standards of their discipline (Donahue 2004). Fenn and Hobbs (2015) point to the complexity, the tricky difficulty that characterizes the ethics of situations designers find themselves engaging with, and advocate a design process that eases the designer’s task in such cases by accepting the ‘problem ecologies’ they are presented with. In contrast, Clive Dilnot has recently sought to shift our attention from design as a bounded, professional(ized) competence to design as ‘mode of acting in the world’, which is fundamentally about ‘the negotiation of incommensurabilities’ (2014: 68). This book is aimed at designers who like Fenn and Hobbs recognize that design offers no easy answers or solutions to the problems we face in our moment in history, but whose conscience means they cannot stop there. Like Dilnot, they are forced to consider the tricky nature of some of those problem ecologies, the interests that generate them and their political consequences.

By reviewing some of the challenges that particular contexts bring with them, the book intends to make a contribution to design debate that helps disentangle designers’ desire to address problems from the conditions that define what such problems are and what might be valid solutions to them. The characterization of ‘design’ that is operative here is broader than the efforts of professional designers, but it includes them. It extends to encompass both the efforts of designers and the results of those efforts – the tools and techniques of designing, and the ‘things’ that result. It includes both the practices of designers and their social and commercial placement; both the material practices of design and their immaterial, social, effects. It demonstrates the degree to which design actions are ever entangled with their setting.

The book uses the idea of trickiness to inspect the ethical implications of these instances of design’s entanglement. The word’s common-sense usage is relevant. It indicates something that is difficult, requires care and skill because it is awkward to resolve. The wicked problems that design is argued to be good at addressing are tricky (Rittel and Webber 1973; Buchanan 1992). They present us with challenges that we know for their contradiction, uncertainty and ambiguity, but about which we have incomplete knowledge and with which we engage through unequal power relations. Here, the personification of trickiness in the trickster figure found in cultures across the world begins to become relevant – the problem fields we confront perhaps require such a figure; shape-shifting, dissembling, contradictory, mobile.

The chapters draw on this trickster archetype to cover topics that include the right of individuals to autonomy, the politics of representation, technological agency and government policy, all areas of concern that lie within the scope of design. They reflect on both the processes involved in designing and the consequences of those processes, discussing how design should be conducted, and in parallel considering the consequences of particular contexts for designing. The ethics of design processes connects to institutional concerns with the ethics of research processes in general, which seek to minimize risk of harm and ensure participant autonomy through informed consent. However, as Light and Akama’s chapter shows, design research can involve principles that do not feature in institutional codes of research ethics, and such codes never cover the outcomes of research, or the uses to which it is put by those who commission it.

This is another dimension to the tricky – difficult – position a designer or design researcher is in who is concerned about the ethics of their practice, with only partial guidance on the ethics of their process and none on the ethics of its consequences, no control over the ‘problem ecology’ it is part of (Fenn and Hobbs 2015). This follows the logic of design’s apparent subaltern status, serving rather than leading (Dilnot 2014: 59, 2015: 208). As the designer Milton Glaser put it:

designers per se are usually in a very weak position in regard to what they do; they don’t make the determinations, they don’t decide what is to be sold, they don’t decide on the strategy or the objectives very often. (quoted in Soar 2002)

However, the chapters in this book reflect efforts to push against this tendency, to use other types of trickery – which are perhaps design’s special power – to bring about ethical consequences, ethical things. And the fluid, context-dependent nature of what we can identify as ‘things’, in this sense, is matched by the fluid trickiness of design itself. Design is defined by the fluid relationships between humans and matter that bring things into the world; it is a practice of ‘thinging’. Archaeologist Michael Shanks proposes ‘pragmatology’ as a way to understand ‘things’:

Encompassing the richness of the old Greek meaning of the term, pragmata are ‘things’, but also ‘deeds’, ‘acts’ (things done), ‘doings’, ‘circumstances’ (encounters), ‘contested matters’, ‘duties’, or ‘obligations’. The verb at the root of pragmata is prattein – to act in the material world, engaged with things. (2012: 69)

Put so, and extended to include the processes that bring ‘things’ about, design could appear to be beyond ethics, simply a practice, literally pragmatic, an instance of prattein. But this abstract view obscures the degree to which design is implicated in (and perhaps defined by) the where, when, why and how in which it takes place. Design’s ethics are awkward – tricky-difficult – because they are always conditioned by and entangled in the setting in which the practice finds itself. The chapters in this volume both represent the range of those conditions, and exceed it.

Some of design’s radical roots

There is another sense of trickiness that characterizes both design and the ethical dimensions of the conditions that affect it, in the gathering and re-gathering of the elements that make up the ‘things’ on which design works, and its relationship to the shifting ‘social multiplicity’ (Whitmore 2015: 43) that conditions it. Both are ‘double’, dissembling, contradictory; slippery-tricky. Currently, that social multiplicity is throwing up particular political challenges that take our attention beyond a discussion of design, as constrained by its apparently subaltern position. A desire to extend the scope of design beyond those constraints has long been evident and continues to be. Writing in 1970, Christopher Alexander drew the remit of design widely, ascribing to it an integrative purpose: ‘Human feelings, climate, engineering, social problems, ecology, transportation, economics, must all be integrated’ (Alexander 1970: n.p.). The association of design with ‘human feelings’ points towards a relationship to ethics; ‘social problems’ strongly implies politics – ‘thinging’ with ethical and political purposes.

Subsequent years have seen this call for integration answered through design’s response to developments in technologies. Digital technologies have made demands at the broadest level on our understanding of the relationship between people and the world we make (Kimbell 2013). On a more practical level they have meant design research has developed rich connections with the other disciplines in the ‘human sciences’, to meet the methodological and conceptual challenges that these technologies have instigated. A significant contribution here has been the development of participative, action-based methods, drawing from a non-positivistic epistemology. While the Human Computer Interaction (HCI) research community is clear about the antecedents of these tendencies (see Kock 2011) in the ‘cooperative enquiry’ developed by John Heron and Peter Reason (1997, 2008) and Freire’s participative approach to pedagogy for social change (Freire 1970), these roots are perhaps less evident in the design literature, with some notable exceptions. Victor Papanek invoked Freire when he called for a postgraduate design school ‘for the southern half of the globe’ in 1983, and recent years have seen a growing awareness of the connection between participative and social design, and particularly design methods and their radical roots (DiSalvo 2012, and see Koskinen 2016 for a review).

There are other current and recent symptoms of this awareness. The call to ‘decolonize’ design – reflected in Chapters 2, 5 and 6 – is one of them. Cinammon Janzer and Lauren Weinstein (2014) identify quite precisely the relationship between efforts to bring about social change through design – ‘social design’ – that are relatively embedded, or not, in the social systems they seek to change, warning against those that are not and appealing to Freire’s precept of respect for those served by design. Eduardo Romeiro Filho (2013) uses Freire’s work to construct an ethical frame to establish how best to use design to promote craft industries in Brazil. In Europe, Pelle Ehn and colleagues show how this radical orientation can be harnessed to an approach to design’s role in bringing about ‘things’ in ways that go beyond an instrumental approach to ‘users’. As they put it: ‘In theory and in practice, users are much too often not only taken hostage by neo-liberal capitalism but also patronized by advocates of human-centered design’ (2014: 8).

The origins and present of some aspects of design theory and practice that engage with the consequences of thinking about the ethics of things are at least critical, if not political.

Our political context and what tricky design might do about it

Design’s progressive roots are especially relevant currently, given the character of our times, when liberal values seem under threat. In this respect, design has moved beyond its response to the opportunities presented by modernization and industrialization, which at the same time ameliorated some of modernity’s negative consequences through design for better health and increased hygiene (Forty 1986; Lupton and Miller 1992). Since the 1960s, fear of existential threats from our own human activity has stimulated design that seeks to engage at a societal level with the consequences of new technologies and consumption (Koskinen 2016), using designs as social provocations (Ehn, Nilsson and Topgaard 2014), building on work motivated by concern for environmental sustainability (Charter 1998). Recent events have spurred calls directed at the HCI community to consider design’s role in responding to existential crisis (Light, Shklovski and Powell 2017), along with war, migration, violent religious extremism and/or the impact on our communities of issues raised by technology, economic inequality, corporate greed, crime and intolerance.

Statements of dismay at the ethical consequences of design are not new. A list of eighty-five manifestos circulates on the internet from as far back as William Morris’s ‘The Arts and Crafts of Today’ (including a couple of anti-manifestos).[1] The list includes the 1964 ‘First Things First’ manifesto, attributed to Ken Garland and signed by twenty-one other designers, which gained notoriety for criticizing the application of graphic design to consumerism. It was re-launched in 2000, this time signed by thirty-three designers, Ken Garland among them. The distaste this manifesto expressed for the spectacle of consumerism, and disquiet at design’s involvement in it, were amplified through the ‘culture-jamming’ phenomenon that appeared late in the twentieth century (see Soar 2002 for a summary) and it was again updated in 2014 by Cole Peters to reflect the influence of the internet on communication design. Garland’s intervention continues to resonate. In 2015–16, the American design agency Mad*Pow developed a tool through which designers can generate a version of the medic’s hippocratic oath that suits their situation (Dempsey and Taylor 2016) because they are ‘sick of selling junk food’ (Quito 2015).

Latterly, these expressions of distaste for consumerism, perhaps linked to what Armstrong and colleagues (2014: 1) discuss as a ‘social design moment’ have been joined by statements from thought leaders in design with a more explicitly political focus. Concerns about democracy have prompted Victor Margolin and Ezio Manzini to send an open letter to the design community containing a call to action, to ‘take a stand, speak out, and act’ against ‘attacks on democracy’ (2017: n.p.).[2] The year 2017 also saw a letter from the technology design community laying out some principles on the ethics of design that combine the distaste for low-brow, exploitative applications of design expressed in 1964, with a degree of engagement with the politics of these times. Calling for ‘digital citizens, not mere consumers’, the letter was generated by discussion at the Techfestival in Copenhagen,[3] gathering over 3,000 signatures online in the month after the festival. Later in 2017, the Montreal World Design Summit produced a declaration[4] intended to further the objective to develop ‘an international action plan for harnessing the power of design to address pressing global challenges’ rather than reinforcing consumerist values, that was signed by representatives of design associations from across the globe.

These interventions into the ethics of design practices point to the necessarily awkward (tricky) entanglement of design practices with Whitmore’s ‘social multiplicity’, as well as the risk of hubris in practitioners who are necessarily in a subaltern position but take a high-minded view of the ethics of their work. By acknowledging the ethical and political discourse that has grown up round design over the last half century (see Margolin 2012), it is possible to set this contemporary discourse on design’s ethics into an historical continuum in which the pragmata of design have a role in humans’ relationships with each other, with Whitmore’s ‘social multiplicity’, as much as with things. The idea that designers can stand up and make the case for democracy, as urged by Manzini and Margolin in 2017, reflects a background of contemporary uncertainty, including global problems of climate change and sustainability that may currently be overshadowed by immediate political tensions.

Design’s engagement with these aspects of the ‘social multiplicity’ is implicated in design’s trickiness in both the senses introduced so far. Responding to the challenges foreshadowed by Margolin and Manzini is ‘tricky-difficult’ and design often appears ‘tricky-slippery’ in its response. Sometimes design’s engagements with the ‘social multiplicity’ seem diffident when measured against the scale of the challenges it throws in our path. Design always exists partly in imagination, and imagination is necessary to it. However, the speculative and critical design (SCD) subjected to critique in Chapter 6, by Luiza Prado and Pedro de Oliveira seems a slippery, albeit well-theorized, retreat to the gallery from the bizarre consequences of new technologies and circumstances, and consequently is perhaps an inadequate response to those challenges. And this (tricky) difficulty with dealing with future ‘things’ that goes beyond speculation and critique confounds philosophers as well as designers – as a 2013 interview with Graham Harman demonstrates. Harman implies that the speculative ‘counterfactual’ is design’s only recourse to responding to the future as it arrives (Kimbell 2013).

Along with the description of the trickster figure that features in Latin American mythology to be found in Chapter 6, the concluding remarks at the end of this book explore the history of the trickster concept, and the ways it has been related to design by Vilem Flusser among others. Some threads of the trickster’s history are particularly relevant here so worth pre-figuring. There is a useful distinction to be made between the trickster character that appears in cultures across the globe and trickster characteristics. This distinction, between the ‘trickster figure’ and the ‘trickster mind’, could equate to the difference between ‘design’, as a professional category, and ‘design thinking’ (see Kimbell 2011, 2012; McDonnell 2015), as the special ability that design brings to situations (see Kimbell 2011, 2012).

Returning to the problematic set out above – how design can engage with challenges such as that set by Manzini and Margolin – it is useful to note another aspect of the trickster character in global cultural traditions. This figure appears to be transgressive – they break the rules – but is actually normative. The trickster doesn’t alter the rules, they only make them more evident by challenging them, always to be co-opted. We have seen above that aspects of design have roots in participative and political pedagogic practice that challenges rules and seeks to change assumptions, such as the conventional lack of power of those at the bottom of the economic heap. As Fisher sets out in Chapter 1, historically, design has been seen as a force for good, and continues to be. It is figured as an agentive, purposeful pursuit, exemplified in Hebert Simon’s oft-cited comment ‘everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones’ (1996 [1969]). However, design’s tendency to diffidence, being the slippery trickster who exposes power but does not seek to change it, leads some commentary on Manzini and Margolin’s letter to acknowledge an obvious and simple corrective to Simon’s dictum, which is both ethical and political. Writing on the DESIS website, which focuses on design for social innovation and sustainability, Carla Cipolla insists that ‘to be transformative, social innovation has to consider the direction of the desired transformation’ (Carla Cipolla 2017, emphasis in original). Her call addresses the question of ‘whose preference’ should prevail, and can be laid over the topics addressed by all the chapters.

Relational tricks with things

‘We are mingled with the things of the world in such a way that we are ontologically indivisible’. (Webmoor and Whitmore 2008: 59; emphasis in original)

The discussion above has drawn from the academic attention to things seen in the last few decades. This move has seen a shift away from an obsession with symbolic meaning, interpretation and a privileging of human rationality in understanding our relationship to our material surroundings. Instead, recent work has acknowledged that agency is distributed through networks of relationship that encompass humans and non-humans, which touch each other socially, materially and aesthetically, are contingent and time-bound (Appadurai 1986, 2006; Kopytoff 1986; Brown 2001; Fisher 2004; Latour 2005). This is deep relationality; contemporary philosophy deals with material agency at the level of particulate matter (Bennett 2010; Barad 2012), and our relationship with, and definition by, technologies (Harman 2002).

This ‘move to things’ can be positioned in the history of design theory through a brief digression into the systems-orientated approach that was prevalent in the mid-twentieth century. In his early work, Christopher Alexander’s focus on the identification of patterns of ‘fit’ between ‘form and context’ led him to propose a systems-orientated approach to correcting misfits, to compensate for the inadequacies of the individual designer. This ‘bewildered’ (1964: 4) figure was to be assisted by the systematic approach that Alexander proposed. While he later much revised this conception of a solitary designer, it has a family resemblance to persistent ideas of designers who are relatively cut off from the context in which they operate, perhaps occupied mostly with manipulating meaning, isolated from the consequences of their practice. Isolated in a sense from its ethics. The correctives to such isolation found in ‘social design’ approaches range from Margolin and Margolin’s practical overview of ‘what a designer can contribute to human welfare’ (2012: 28), orientated towards the needs of clearly delineated groups, such as the elderly, to more recent and arguably more systemic work discussed below (Ehn et al. 2015).

On the face of it, this move is welcome. Understanding design as a practice restricted to playing in the symbolic realm downplays both the relational material and human engagement that characterize it (drawing, making, representing) and the connectedness to its setting that may motivate it. From the perspective of design, there is a sense that in this move towards materiality the rest of the human sciences have been catching up with insights that design may have been unable to articulate, but always necessarily operates with. The move to materiality makes available for analysis matters that design has worked with intuitively. In an equivalent way, the ethical dimensions of design have necessarily been present, but relatively unarticulated. Exploring the ramifications of the relational principle may help us to bring them into the open too.

The relational principle has expressed itself in recent work that develops ways of designing with the ‘social multiplicity’ through a focus on ‘things’ in a series of publications by Pelle Ehn and colleagues, coming from HCI towards social design (Ehn 2008; Binder et al. 2011; Björgvinsson, Ehn and Hillgren 2012; Ehn, Nilsson and Topgaard 2015). In Design Things (2011), Thomas Binder and colleagues describe design and designing as a mode of inquiry rather than as professional competency in a particular domain of expertise. Their purpose is to move from ‘designing “things” (objects) to designing Things (socio-material assemblies)’ (Björgvissen, Ehn and Hillgren 2012: 102). Their reference point for this re-assessment of design’s relationship to the ‘social multiplicity’ by introducing the ‘Thing’ concept is the ancient Nordic sense of the word to mean a place of meeting or assembly, as well as matters of concern and inanimate objects, preserved in the name of the Icelandic parliament, the ‘Althing’. This ‘reinvention of the Nordic thing’ has put in the foreground the potential for design’s capacity for making to mean it engages with governance, and consequently with ethics (Ehn, Nilsson and Topgaard 2015: 8).

Setting this formulation in the participatory design tradition, with its roots in the Scandinavian movements for democracy at work, Ehn’s 2008 essay and his later work propose that an orientation to ‘things’ allows design to engage with Latour’s enfolding of humans and non-humans, in ‘constantly changing collectives’ (1999: 16, 174ff) to construct a ‘socio-material design thing, a meaningful potentially controversial assembly’ (Ehn 2008: 94). This offers a more sophisticated way of talking about design than an object-based or professionalized account can offer and is developed further in Design Things, which explores how design things can ‘modify the space of interaction and performances … as sociomaterial frames for controversies, ready for unexpected use and opening up new ways of thinking and behaving’ (Binder et al. 2011: 1).

Among the roots and antecedents of this work in design, and of the broader ethical concern with things of which it is part, are some strands of the sense of ‘thinging’ that Heidegger developed. It is possible to extract from the complexities of his phenomenological approach to the essence of things a simple (and perhaps obvious) principle, into which the ethical consequences of ‘thinging’ are bound – that things act back on their makers. So his jug is ‘an object which a process of making has set up before and against us’ (1971: 165, emphasis added). This principle (admittedly rather crudely extracted from Heidegger’s work) points to relationality and engagement as the necessary factors to help design articulate its connection to technologies, ‘problems’ and societies, and the consequences for design of doing so.

Designs acting back on design

A recent (and ongoing) project in London, strongly informed by the ideas outlined above, clearly reveals the potency in this relationality. Using ‘hacked’ air quality sensing technology with a group of ‘citizen scientists’ to generate air quality data through ‘citizen sensing’, Jennifer Gabrys has deployed experimental tactics in a domain normally dominated by institutional (governmentally controlled) technology. Her tactics trouble normal relationships between air, sensing technology, data and citizens. Gabrys frames what she is doing through a set of ideas drawn from A. N. Whitehead and Gilbert Simondon, which complement the ‘thing’ orientation described above. For Whitehead, ‘the actual world is a process’, a process that populates the world with ‘creatures’ that may be human, or non-human (Whitehead 1929: 22). The work of Gabrys’s citizen scientists – gathering air quality data – produces citizen scientist creatures, at the same time as it produces data ‘creatures’. As Gabrys puts it: ‘Environments, as understood within Citizen Sense research … are then at once an “object” of study as well as a mutually in-formed and coproduced relation through which monitoring practices and gathered data take hold and gain relevance’ (2017: 16).

It is appropriate to wonder what are the ethical consequences of this ‘acting back’ of the creatures of the world (in Whitehead’s sense) on designers and on our understanding of design. Clearly, this effect might be restricted to work undertaken in the spirit of ‘thinging’ with the relational principle to the fore such as that touched on above, and more conventional design and designers may be unaffected by the consequences of and context for their work; it may not act back on them. As editors, however, we bring our particular inflections on this question, modulated through our work on design in the context of social transgression (Lorraine) and in armaments (Tom) and it runs through many of the chapters below.

Graham Harman notes that material agency, and the relationality that is its consequence, is not much considered in design (Kimbell 2013: 109). However, it takes little imagination to accord independent agency to weapons – drones are at least semi-autonomous (Chamayou 2015) – and it is not difficult to impute to weapons what can seem to be a will to act, that affects their human creators, including their designers. Mieches’s (2017) account of weapons acting on us through our desire for control is perhaps only a particular, and particularly obvious, case of a mechanism through which the qualities of all designed things act back on us. Noting that ‘as weapons become, so do their users’ we may simply be pointing to things with agency that are not in principle different from any other designs in their effect on the humans involved in their ‘thinging’ (Bousquet et al. 2017: 4). Weapons are just a particularly clear case of the premise that ‘what we make changes us’, in which arguments for controlling the design, production and exchange of the material artefact have strong ethical validity.

Design is often characterized as a positive force, the practice that brings us new things that are going to solve problems, give us pleasure, make us feel good. But reflecting on the entanglement between our changing, mutable human being and what we make throws up many instances, apparently less charged than our relationship with weapons, where that entanglement produces questionable results. Technologies of communication produce social isolation, while ‘connecting’ us. Systems of provision of cheap food produce ill health. Collective/commercial responses to environmental crisis design ‘solutions’ that load responsibility for action disproportionately on individuals. As Light and colleagues put it: ‘Our tools shape us, so what we make affects how we handle uncertainty in constructive ways’ (2017: n.p.). This is not a matter of what we make failing, or ‘going wrong’, or a matter of the actions of people using them; it is a systemic matter, a matter of relationships, with things.

Another obvious question that arises is whether there are boundaries to this relationality, or if there are not, whether there are different complexions on it as it plays out in different aspects of human–thing entanglement. It is tempting to describe technologies as if they were independent of us. This is evident, for instance, in the writing of Gilbert Simondon (1958: 17), who talks of technical objects evolving ‘by virtue of internal necessity’, in a discussion of the ‘evolution’ of the internal combustion engine, where the necessity is clearly brought about by relationships between non-human elements that have the characteristic of Latourean ‘actants’. Academics and practitioners interested in ‘things’, from designers to archaeologists, have previously thought in terms of a dichotomy between the functional and the symbolic – one material, the other not – and such a view would position Simondon’s engine components in the ‘functional’ domain. Paul Graves-Brown (2000) seeks to dispense with this division, suggesting they both demonstrate in their different ways the degree to which the function that we ascribe to objects is in a sense the ‘materiality’ of human culture, because of the fundamentally relational nature of function.

The unpredictable, tricky, consequences of interventions into sociomaterial entanglements are a consequence of this relationality, with weapons again being a clear example. Benjamin Mieches discusses the becoming of weapons in terms of the object-orientated philosophy developed by Graham Harman and others. As he puts it: ‘According to these theories, objects of all kinds resist the categories, representations, and strategies applied to them while producing unintended or unanticipated changes in politics’ (2017: 12). If we distinguish between designers who occupy the group identified above who have relatively little autonomy and designer-researchers who undertake design as a knowledge generating process, perhaps a lack of predictability in the way that designs play out in the world may make it easier for the former to wash their hands of the ethical consequences of what they are employed to do. But it doesn’t let the latter group off the ethical hook and even for the former group, working in the mainstream, weapons may provide an analogy to the effects of their efforts in apparently less charged settings. Our discussions on these matters led to the creation of twelve new chapters by authors herein, either as part of conference stream engagements or from conversations that we as editors continued with other scholars who also agreed to write about tricky issues for this book. These accounts are located and grouped within three main themes which clearly emerged from the focus different authors took: they provide accounts of (i) tricky thinging , (ii) tricky processes and tricky principles , and/or the potential of design to address them, and (iii) tricky policy issues, as we summarize below.

Chapters introduction

The variety in the way they use the trickster theme matches the variety of the topics the chapters cover. The trickster is itself a slippery character – simultaneously inside and outside institutions; simultaneously truth-telling and deceitful; simultaneously powerful in its trickery and powerless; simultaneously wise and foolish. But a common feature of these manifestations of the trickster is an engagement with ethics, in some form or other, very often bound up with articulations of power. Till Eulenspiegel delights in tricking the powerful into debasing themselves with scatological deceits – because Till tricks him, the holy priest ends up in the shit (Oppenheimer 2001: 185).

Many of the chapters engage with an ethics of ‘might’ – power – and its resistance. In the first, Tom Fisher engages with what is perhaps the clearest materialization of might, weapons, which seem perhaps an odd focus for a discussion of ethics and design, since they are not characteristic of most of the work that design does. They are relatively hidden and have more in common perhaps with industrial equipment than with the consumer goods familiar from everyday life. But one of his chapter’s purposes is to trouble the assumption that the world of weapons is so separate from everyday experience. To achieve this, Fisher is in a sense playing tricks on himself – trying to get a view that is outside what he (and the rest of us) are inside, a militarized culture. And vision is the theme he uses to unify his discussion of design as a particular instance of the generalized desire for action at a distance that underlies weapons. The destructive potential in this desire, a desire for control (Mieches 2017) which acts back on us, is realized routinely in the fearsome consequences of military designs that are taken to be at least ethically neutral, if not as a positive good for their economic benefit.

Discussing products that cross over between the civilian and military worlds, their presence in both making obvious the close relationship between the two, Fisher draws out a question about our assumptions about design as an inherently beneficent practice. Part of design’s tricky duplicity is exposed in its capacity to be both world improving and world destroying. Certain aspects of modern warfare are reflected in some of the other chapters. ‘Defence’ has changed from conventional conflict to policing, from counterinsurgency to antiterrorism, from battle to assassination using drone technology, predicated on the assumption that bad outsiders can be identified and ‘taken out’. There are echoes here of the prison industrial complex approach to crime that is the topic of Chapter 7 by Shana Agid, and clear relationships to Mahmoud Keshavarz’s discussion of passporting and borders.

In Chapter 2, Keshavarz lays out a ‘critical trickification’ of design by levering open the conventional coupling of design practices with practices of power. He uses the trickster as a figure from which to build a criticality into a discussion of designed regimes of control and exclusion through passports, and their subversion through carefully designed forgery. His proposition is that the subversive ‘re-design’ of passports by forgery and of the border system by migration brokers exposes the constructed nature of the mobility regime and is a critique of it, showing up the workings of the legal control of mobility. It works that classic trickster trick of exposing what it reflects, and what generates it. The transgressive act of forgery challenges the ‘things relations and environments’ of the bordering system that make up the ‘material articulations’ of the prevailing Foucauldian ‘mobility regime’.

Keshavarz discusses a particular context for what he suggests is design’s ‘inherent violence’ – its conventional alliance with power that in the case of bordering renders some secure at the expense of the insecurity of others. Passports clearly project power, they act at a distance in time and space, but as Keshavarz indicates, they are themselves ‘tricky, shape-shifting artefacts’. Their systematization of control – what he names an ‘affirmative material practice’ – can be subjected to a ‘critical material practice’ through forgery.

But this is not a distanced, academic critique, it is critique through an ‘act of refusal’, more pointed, and more significant, than the critique practised in the seminar room or the art gallery – the critical design that is all about ‘fetishising critique in the skin of commodity’ as Keshavarz puts it. But neither is it pure – migration broking can be a moneymaking venture that might take advantage of vulnerable people. The generalizable point contained in Chapter 2 draws from Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘Critique of Violence’, giving a tricky reading of the opposition of the violence of law-making with the ‘non-violent violence’ of resistance, promoting the resistance inherent in forgery, while refusing its exploitation of the vulnerable.

In contrast to the engagement with the systems designed by states that is the focus of Keshavarz’s criticality, Nidhi Srinivas and Eduardo Staszowski’s chapter describes the tricky features of processes of socially engaged designing that provide ‘moments of contestation’ in particular urban locations. Setting their discussion in the context of civic design, they discuss the designer–client relationship in terms of trickery and guile, to resolve tensions between designers and public clients. Maintaining that it is through the complexity of such relations that designed things come about, they seek to move their discussion beyond the established function of design processes to manipulate meanings to address well-articulated problems. Instead, they acknowledge the degree to which design engagements are ever mixed and entangled with social relations, offering a more complex reading of the relationship between design(ers’) actions and their consequences.

Srinivas and Staszowski’s view interrogates the relationships that prevail in design processes. They point towards the principle of entanglement/mixture by drawing from the elements of design through two case studies, of the modernist development of Brasilia and a project in the Public and Collaborative programme in the Parsons DESIS Lab. They conclude by identifying three forms of trickery, taking the slippery trickster as a force that can ‘make novelty fall in line with latent expectation’. They focus on relationships in the design process, between the roles of designer and client, which vary according to the type of design process, and its setting. Their discussion reaches towards the consequences of the entanglement that they set out, translating it into language relevant to the practice of design, where tricks are a ‘form of social cunning’ in a process that constantly throws up effects that defeat intentions.

Chapter 4 takes a phenomenological view on a type of object that exemplifies the gap between material facts, and the ethical consequences of the ways that objects play out in actuality – guns. Discussing hand guns specifically, and pointing up their significance for discussions of human and material agency, Tim Dant takes the reader through a carefully inflected discussion to argue for the primacy of collective human responsibility for their effects. Stressing a point that relates this chapter to Fisher’s discussion of (other) weapons of war, for Dant it is guns’ symbolic potency that is at the heart of their ethical consequences, which being an aesthetic matter is the link to the discussions of design elsewhere in this volume.

To establish his position on our collective rather than individual responsibility for the moral power of guns, Dant discusses relevant aspects of the philosophy of technology. He argues that our collective responsibility is compromised by the human-object symmetry found in Latour’s Actor Network Theory and Peter Paul Verbeek’s postphenomenology. Instead, Dant appeals to ideas from Hans Jonas to position guns as a problem for ‘collective cultural responsibility’, contrasting Heidegger’s ‘framing’ of technologies which accords agency to humans with Latour/Verbeek’s idea of ‘mediation’.

Dant’s position hinges on the proposition that guns are morally relevant but do not have moral agency, which is ‘ultimately human, however morally relevant the technology is’. While this is clearly true of a gun, or other technology once it exists as a separate thing from humans and all other things, it does not account for the considerations that enter into a process of design that might bring an as-yet non-existent gun about. Dant’s discussion is therefore restricted to considerations that affect designs, rather than design(ing), aligning with the point referred to above in respect of the power of object-orientated theory to account for processes of design.

However, it is clear that in practical terms, a challenge does exist to design a world where the destructive potential of guns is appropriately constrained by the dispositif within which they exist. Dant’s chapter ends on the potential for guns to have decivilizing effects that threaten social relations, emphasizing the moral agency of their possessor, which is the locus of the threat. This points to the relevance of his emphasis on the importance of changing their cultural and symbolic status as a way of controlling their inherently anti-life quality.

Changing the dispositif in this respect presents a tricky challenge and while there are various ‘takes’ on the trickster theme in the following chapters, Cameron Tonkinwise is the only author to pick up on the befuddling sleight of hand that is one speciality of trickster figures. However, he distinguishes between ‘trickery’ and ‘magic’, arguing that because design’s process (abductive synthesis) is invisible and the workings of the technologies that it brings into the everyday world also obscure, it functions as magic, in the sense that Arthur C. Clarke set out:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (1973: 38)

He contrasts what he argues are the properly ‘magical’ properties of the designed world, which appears to have no limits in extent or scope, to enlightenment assumptions of the power of reason, and the colonialist othering of those who remain influenced by magical thinking, noting that if we accept that design’s trickery is indeed magical, we accept that the distinction involved in that othering is untenable. In an apparently determinist – non-relational – argument that aligns with Dant’s analysis of guns, he holds design responsible for turning

materials into forms that can act at a distance on groups of people in lasting ways that those people find difficult to resist and that consequently become predictive of their future habits.

This stands in contrast to Fisher’s chapter, which acknowledges the desire to act at a distance, but sets this in systems of relationality and Tonkinwise’s reading of fetishism actually seems neatly circular, and therefore relational. He identifies that fetishism ‘has the very power it wishes to dispel’, and that magical value persists. He also proposes a circular notion of use – material is defined by person as thing, thing defines person as user. His discussion holds to a view of design as beneficent, which it clearly is not always, though the elements of the beneficence of the design process that he identifies – empathy for instance – can be understood independently from their application to any particular end, with attendant moral consequences. However, even empathy with an other does not require care for that other.

While Tonkinwise points to the entanglement of design with actor networks, and the necessary ethical dimensions of the things that result, Pedro de Oliveira and Luiza Prado take a view of the recent phenomenon of Speculative and Critical Design (SCD) from the perspective of theories of coloniality. They inspect two pieces of SCD work, by Burton and Nitta and by Montgomery and Brillatz, finding in them clear evidence of the persistence of coloniality in relation to people and places, through their characterization of non first-world ‘others’ and ‘other places’. Their reading of this work, strongly informed by their citizenship of the global south, is a convincing basis for their argument that by acting as a ‘mildly dystopian wing of the status quo’, SCD, and potentially design as a whole, reproduces coloniality.

Their discussion of the origins of this contemporary coloniality in an uncritical inheritance of colonial assumptions bears out Clive Dilnot’s observation of ‘the almost complete lack of historical perspective in design research that renders [it] all but null-and-void as genuine understanding’ (2014: 59). However, by recommending a ‘tricky’ design that is located in both past and future, Prado and de Oliveira develop a position that can amount to practical steps for doing design that address this nullity. They offer this proposition as an outcome of their analysis of SCD rooted firmly in the Latin American mythology of the shape-shifting trickster, perhaps making a richer use of the concept than any of the other chapters. As they put it, this ‘requires designers to act as trickster figures: debating, listening, and crafting possible, speculative worldviews’ that challenge coloniality, instead of reproducing it.

As a route to this decolonization, they offer a practice based in two principles: ‘yarning’ and ‘siting’. The first is devoted to a dialogic untangling of the one-dimensional representation offered by SCD, by bringing into design discourse ‘discussions initiated by decolonial and feminist thinking’. The second, which is a component and consequence of yarning, draws from Haraway, bringing to the foreground the position that the researcher occupies and the need for awareness of it against the Eurocentric approaches to knowledge which design inherits. This brings them back to the shape-shifting trickster that allows divergent thinking by allowing navigation between world views.

Prado and De Oliveira’s critique of fictional(ized) design engagements with an abstracted, and ideologically loaded, ‘social’ is answered by Shana Agid’s chapter, with its focus on crime and safety. In contrast to the SCD cases just covered, this discussion is structured round design engagements with actual social and political matters, in a specific location, working collaboratively with people directly affected by the reality of the prison industrial complex. The theoretical focus of Agid’s discussion brings Donald Schon’s principle of ‘problem setting’ into a critical relationship with Paulo Freire’s concept of ‘problem posing’. In this, Agid identifies the potential to expose the implicitly political dimensions of the designer-centric aspects of Schon’s formulation through the explicit politics of a ‘collective and dialectical’ process that draws on Freire.

Agid situates the discussion of the systemic conditions that affect the politics of policing and incarceration in the United States, and their effects on people in Oakland, California. Relating it to the design process in the participative design literature, Agid places the case study in the literature on crime and policing. Here, the chapter’s argument finds strong support for its historicized, politically inflected approach to participation, in which its design approach can seek to answer fundamental questions, such as ‘What might it mean to design for “freedom” or “well-being” instead of against crime?’ in imagined futures that are politically intelligent.

Moving from an account of social design methods in a particular setting, and the ethical dimensions of problem setting, Ann Light and Yoko Akama’s chapter takes a broader view of the ethics of design research processes tied into cases of design research in the UK, Ghana, Chile, South India and New South Wales in Australia. At the centre of the chapter is a discussion of what characterizes the ethics of working with participant groups in these settings, which extends the focus of Agid’s chapter.

Whereas the ethics of research processes are heavily codified to ensure the rights of participants, and researchers’ obligations to them, Light and Akama propose instead an ethics of care. Through the range of the examples of research that they cover they are able to bring the challenge that they present into relief – it is ethically tricky to work with diffuse and ‘nebulous’ groups of people, when the unboundedness of the groups of participants is matched by that of the design process itself. The chapter proposes that this unboundedness implies an evolving ethics of trust, as an efficient replacement for the constant negotiation necessary in an ethics of rights and obligations. Trust in the particular and the personal acknowledges our ‘primordial interrelatedness’.

As the first chapter in the book’s final part, ‘Tricky Policy’, Lucy Kimbell’s chapter turns the focus from Light and Akama’s account of the ethics of research processes, towards design and policy, drawing from her extensive experience of working closely with government as part of the UK Cabinet Office Policy Lab. She notes that this experience, embedding design process in government, can be seen as a result of a move away from top-down technical rationalist approaches to policy development. Her chapter develops a rich exploration of the implications of this move, which amounts to an acknowledgement of the value of design as an aesthetic method, which is paralleled by moves in other disciplines, for instance international relations (see Gibbon and Sylvester 2017), but in this case is for the development of ‘socio-material policy objects’.

Kimbell draws on Agamben’s (2009) characterization of Foucault’s concept of the ‘apparatus’, the force that in the context of public policy development subjectifies both citizens and public servants. She points to design’s capacity for the ‘manipulative gamble’, a characteristic of the quality that the ancient Greeks named metis, as an element in an ‘anti-heroic’ revision to design, and its role in what Agamben called the ‘profanation’ of apparatus through feeling, through the aesthetic. There is a counter argument here, and in the other chapters in this part of the book, to the assumption that design necessarily occupies a subaltern position (Dilnot 2014). However, Kimbell’s own assertion that such an anti-heroic design engages with a problem field such that its contributions are ‘co-emergent with their context’ suggests that this design is by definition what its context makes it. Nonetheless, the built-in trickery of her anti-heroic design makes it an attractive proposition.

Kimbell’s focus on policy pre-figures a move to the tricky situations that design finds itself in when its potential for engineering change is applied to innovation in public service provision, which is unpicked in Adam Thorpe’s chapter. He builds from a reading of Rittel and Webber’s foundational text that identified the ‘wicked’ nature of problems in planning, and therefore in design, but rendered this wickedness as simply difficult, rather than ethically negative. The case studies of the design of public service innovation that Thorpe discusses are defined by the contemporary politics of neo-liberal austerity, which he identifies as both ‘wicked’, and ‘tricky’ in the sense of ‘deceitful and crafty’. He identifies the ethically tricky consequences of austerity politics for public service innovation through detailed case studies from the ‘Public Collaboration Lab’ at Central St Martins, University of the Arts, London. From these, he draws out what are examples of the ‘molecular’ social design that Koskinen and Hush (2016) identify. In the re-design of a home library service; youth club services; home over-crowding, he makes a strong case for the potential for design to responsively make space, openings for action – a political design that can address the ‘problem with politics’ (DiSalvo 2010).

From Adam Thorpe’s discussion of the design of public services in what it is to be hoped are temporary conditions of austerity, Lorraine Gamman and Pras Gunasekera discuss design’s potential to engage with the permanence of voluntary death: suicide; ethically tricky and potentially crushing in its effects on those left living. Reviewing current debates, and drawing on work with postgraduate students, their chapter covers potential design interventions in public spaces that might discourage suicide as a result of mental illness, and the possibility for design to work with assisted suicide systems to help terminally ill individuals to end their own lives. While the former covers matters that relate closely to the situational crime prevention on which Gamman has published extensively, the latter takes their work into new territory. In this, they draw on principles close to the centre of design practice – its capacity to pre-figure situations through processes of enactment and visualization, to offer new ways to understand design for death. They propose using designs for assisted suicide to test what could work and what might work less well to both engender debate and engage policy makers by bringing the ethical/political dimensions of a future situation into the present. In this, they draw on Mouffe’s (2013) principle of agonistic democracy, applying this to design that can produce ‘positive conflict’ over assisted dying.

Through case studies in art and architecture that have strong connections to the theme of hygiene, and by implication to death, Jeremy Kidwell develops a different take on the conundrums for design that arise in the light of recent thinking on human/non-human engagements. These cases focus on the variety of design ethics that have emerged in response to changing ideas about the agency of microscopic life. His discussion links the human/material through the effect of ‘hygienic’ modernism on the sense of self – proposing that there we are made up of ‘tricky substances’ that were hitherto thought of as ‘dirty’. As well as confounding modernist assumptions, he connects his discussion to the ethics of personal spaces and a move from a conception of the self as bounded, to one that acknowledges its porosity.

Kidwell reviews design’s engagement with dirt, and fear of disease, and therefore death, in an obverse to the connection Gamman and Gunasekera’s chapter makes to the voluntary management of the end of life. Both reach for elements of the significance of life itself for designing, Kidwell’s focusing on the relationship of design to a pathological pursuit of hygiene, which at its extreme invokes the ‘hygiene’ of collectives expressed as racial ‘cleanliness’. His account of the hygiene ethics of modernist purity can be supplemented by the link recently established between Le Corbusier’s political activity before the Second World War, and his relationship to the collaborationist Vichy government during it (de Jarcy 2015).

From identifying modernist forms motivated by the avoidance of death through prohibiting the contamination of individual bodies, Kidwell moves to examples that illustrate his argument for design that acknowledges a ‘liveliness’ that includes death – of objects and materials – in unfolding cycles in which design can engage. Here, there is perhaps a way to move beyond the concern expressed by Lucy Kimbell (2013) that contemporary thinking on lively human–material engagements is limited to a retrospective view. Design can engage in the cyclical vibrant relationships that Kidwell sketches in his concern to help design to ‘express a wider and more holistic range of liveliness’.


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[1] See the ‘Social Design Notes’ blog, hosted by the design and technology consultancy Backspace: https://backspace.com/notes/2009/07/design-manifestos.php

[2] ‘We are in difficult and dangerous times. For many years, we lived in a world that, despite its problems, was nevertheless committed to principles of democracy in which human rights, fundamental freedoms, and opportunities for personal development, were increasing. Today, this picture has changed profoundly. There are attacks on democracy in several countries – including those where democracy had seemed to be unshakable. Faced by these developments, we believe the design community should take a stand, speak out, and act: practitioners, researchers, theorists, students, journalists, publishers and curators – all who are professionally involved in design-related activities.’

[3] The text of the letter can be found at https://copenhagenletter.org