Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Design as culture work

Reclaiming Media: Doing Culture Work in These Weird Times
Brenda Laurel, 2002

"We can obviously no longer duck and cover. These times require designers and content-creators to become involved in the economic context of our work. Of course economics turns out to implicate culture and politics as well. Poisonous ideas can be found lurking in the mightiest global institution of all - consumerism.

Here's what I want to say. Consumerism demeans us. Nobody wants to be a consumer. The power relationship implied by the term should be unacceptable to everyone, if they were able to understand it. I picture a 'consumer' as something like a giant slug, a simple tube through which stuff passes from retail to landfill.


But back to business. Obviously, an all-out revolution against consumerism would be, shall we say, resisted. But a serious head-change is definitely in order. I propose that each of us actively redefine the success criteria for business to include the cultural and material costs and benefits of the product, as well as what we currently think of as 'the bottom line.' I'm suggesting that we find ways to help both kids and adults have access to this material and the means to understand it. I want every person in this country to know the unauthorized biography of every single thing they buy.


Design gives voice to values. Design suggests what is useful or beautiful or pleasurable or good or true. The affordances of a design suggest desirable actions. A design that has not engaged the designer's values may speak, but with a hollow voice. We know the rules of good design. But it often comes as a delightful revelation to young designers that brilliant design not only permits but requires the designer's personal voice.

And so we arrive at the happy confluence of responsibility and power. We are only the victims and servants of business as usual if we choose to be. This work of transformation - which I have come to think of as 'culture work' - must be approached mindfully and with great conviction and effort. The strategy of culture work is not straight-ahead revolution; rather it is to inject new genetic material into the culture without activating its immune system. By intervening in the present, we are designing the future.

I wish us all a great deal of courage, self-discipline, and clear-eyed hope."

See also:

Brenda Laurel's website

Reviews of Laurel's _Utopian Entrepreneur_ - especially Geert Lovink on the limits of her capitalist/consumerist critique

Review of Laurel's _Design Research: Methods and Perspectives_

Laurel will also be giving the closing keynote at Ubicomp 2006


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