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Postindustrial Design

“Process design”, “postindustrial design”, “interaction design” are terms which, emblematically, feature in almost every text concerning studies at HyperWerk. In the following contribution, the focus will, above all, be on process design (which should, more correctly but less communicably, be termed procedural design), whereby the significance of interaction - in whatever constellation – and, in particular, the connection to a postindustrial understanding of design will hopefully become clear.

The title of this contribution already alludes to the essential quality of process design, specifically the repeal of the conventional distinction between design, production, and usage. Instead, process design thinks of all fields as belonging together and forming parts of an integrated process. The traditional and in many respects still practised separation of these fields into discrete steps are a heritage of the industrial age and imply a product-fixed understanding of design.

In order to follow up the question as to how a postindustrial understanding of design manages the switch from the old industrial conditions to today’s needs through the application of process design strategies, it is worth taking a look back at these previous conditions. Not least, because retrospection may provide insight to all those who are wondering, occasionally even quite desperately, what the term postindustrial design means in the first place. After all, at least the term “industrial design” is linked to a specific institution – industry – which we all are familiar with, along with the aesthetic, social, economic, and cultural expressions the age brought forth. But who has ever heard of “post-industry”? Moreover, the path to any kind of spontaneous, associative comprehension of what postindustrial design actually means is seriously hampered because, unlike in the case of industrial society and design, we have no mental image to go by, no picture on our inner screen, to explain what the terms postindustrial and postindustrial design signify.

Thus, in order to grasp the transition from (product-based) industrial design to (process-based) postindustrial design, we need to detach ourselves from the image level and instead focus on the structural properties of the industrial mode of production, which up to now has strongly shaped our thinking and actions and actually still does even though the social and economic realities have in the meantime changed radically.

Fundamental principles of industrial society in the 19th and 20th centuries included the typification and modularization of products – indispensable prerequisites for mass production – as well as Taylorism, or scientific management, and the highly differentiated division of labour in production processes – all in the interest of maximizing efficiency and profitability.

At the same time, this setup created the conditions under which manufacturing – and above all the idea of industrial design – fundamentally changed the design principles upon which craftsmanship and artisanship had been founded. All creative and design-based activities now had one single objective, namely to bring forth adaptable products suitable for mass production.

The systemically necessary division of labour between design (product focused), product (mass produced) and usage (in the sense of consumption of the product), which peaked in the age of industry, is still reflected today in the clear distinction made between design, product, and usage, in society at large as well as in education and training. 

The conditions that favoured and legitimized the emergence of such divisions, however, changed radically with the arrival of information technology. It resulted not only in changes to the way worked is organized, it also opened up an opportunity to reinterpret and implement design, product, and usage as integrated, inseparable parts of a single, design-driven process.

Such an integrated understanding of creative action is today needed more than ever, considering the current social, economic, and ecological challenges that we need to overcome. Neither can they be explained with reference to any specific discipline, nor can they be solved on the basis of any single one. The practices of industrial society may carry much of the blame but the problems cannot be addressed, nor solved for that matter, by the institutionalized values, mindsets, and ideas of the foregone industrial age. They cannot be resolved by design alone, but the field of design is certainly one of the main cultural venues where such issues are contested and negotiated.

In the meantime, interdisciplinarity has become sort of a buzzword in the “modernization” of design, especially in the context of education and training. It is associated with the idea of bringing down walls between the various disciplines in the hope of developing novel approaches and reaching new results. However, a closer look reveals that it often does not result in more than in an additive practice of disciplinarity in the sense of a “coming together” of discrete subject fields. If the traditional understanding of interdisciplinarity still requires a fundamental revision, then simply reorganizing interdisciplinarity will not suffice; what is required is the development of a new understanding of design from scratch on an interdisciplinary basis. In short: it is primarily never about quantity. Even a single person can think, shape, and act in an interdisciplinary manner.

A diagnosis of current civilization conflicts and, in particular, of ecological problems results in a shift in emphasis within the triad of “design, product, and usage”, bringing the way we use, or better exploit, our environment into the spotlight, a fact that is markedly influenced by design strategies, to the better and the worse. With it comes the recognition of the irrefutable fact that we are changing our environment simply by making use of it. Looking at it from this angle reveals interdependencies and, as part of them, creative strategies, which strongly suggests that operating on the basis of a separate understanding of design, product, and usage is no longer sustainable.

The philosopher and social critic Cornelius Castoriadis once commented on the paradigm change as follows: “Design is the intention of changing the real, guided by a notion of the meaning of this change, grounded in the actual conditions, and eager to set an activity in motion.”

Design and usage must be seen together; the product, on the other hand, loses its prominent and hitherto ultimately singular position in the creative discourse. While, according to conventional understanding, the product up to now was defined almost inevitably as being part of the “solution to the problem”, it now becomes a mediator in the manner we creatively design the way we make use of our lifeworld. At the same time this perspective departs from understanding the consumer as a merely passive user of objects, structures, etc.; instead it raises the claim of conscious appropriation of the world through usage. A change to the traditional understanding of usage, hitherto restricted to the ease of consumption, is supplemented by the dimension of communication/interaction.

If the potentials that information society has to offer are introduced creatively, they not only serve the purpose of optimizing production and design processes, they can also link usage with communication in the form of strategies of creative action.

The programme at HyperWerk, which sees itself as the study of process design, is an experiment in cross-departmental and multidisciplinary design practice. What this actually means is being investigated by the researchers and students at HyperWerk from just about as many different angles. In other words, there is no fixed dogma at work here, only a few inalienable aspects and considerations which I would briefly like to touch upon in conclusion.

If the conception of process design is not reduced to solely understanding processes as a flow of events, with one simply following the other, but as a design concept that creates impact on processes of which we ourselves are part, process design ties in with the explanations offered above, that is, it merges usage, design, and production.

The method of process design tallies with the social situation in which we presently find ourselves: we are all inextricably tied to automatic processes. As always, the situation determines the method. For, after all, today our lives, jobs, and economies are based on information which also shapes and drives processes, and not on an individual product ready to be used or consumed effortlessly.

So, if at HyperWerk importance is attached to the fact that the students' project work is always carried out in connection with the “outside world” – that is, with people and institutions who have nothing to do with their immediate training, or at least are not part of HyperWerk – then it is due to the fact that process design is seen as a field halfway between production and experimentation, a mixture of reflective and pragmatic action. In the end it is not about models but about interventions in our everyday life on a scale of 1:1 which stand to debate as interjections.

Prof. Dr. Regine Halter

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