16 July 2010

Essential Reading

The whole infuriating so-called debate over "Design Imperialism" has annoyed me to the point where I've had to try and stop paying attention. (and no - I'm not linking to any of the drivel on the subject - feel free to use Google).

That said... I have no choice but to vent a little - but then also suggest a solution to my issues.


This whole design imperialism argument illustrates one of the things about "design thinking" as practiced that I find most irritating. Just as with almost all "design thinkers" the folks in this pissing match demonstrate a sense of arrogance and entitelment that is infuriating. It seems like almost none of the people involved feel like they need to bother to learn.

I'll be specific... they all seem to feel like learning about Design is all that is needed - as if all the problems would be solved if everyone else learned about Design. But they seem to feel no need to learn about anything but Design. In some cases, in fact, it's as if they feel that learning about other than Design would be bad.

It's like they cannot even imagine that they might get value from discovering the 50+ years of study, analysis, theory etc that already exists in and around the ideas encapsulated as "Cultural Imperialism."

Anyone who comes from a cultural studies or political science or cultural anthropology or even post-structuralist critical theory background who reads the stuff being written by these folks is going to alternately laugh hysterically and scream with rage.

My guess is that a tiny percentage of the people loudly voicing their strongly held opinions have ever read even the basics like Orientalism and Communication and Cultural Domination. I doubt more than a small handful even know what Theory, Culture and Society is.

And it feels like they don't think that it's an issue that they know nothing about any of this.

This incredibly narrow and bounded perspective is the most significant failing in design today. The lack of any sort of cross-disciplinary learning or perspective does more to balkanize Design than any externally enforced prejudices might.


At the request of good friend Gong Szeto, I've put together the start of a sort of "essential reading list." This is very rough and incomplete at present, but should evolve over time.

Some caveats:
  • This is targeted largely at designers but most of all at "design thinkers" and "design strategists."
  • The single largest hole in the list is in fiction. I'm shocked and saddened by how few designers I've met have read great fiction. You can learn at least as much from great fiction as great non-fiction.
  • These are listed in order of suggested reading - but this ordering is largely informed by the current topic (Design Thinking and "Imperialism").
  • I'm not saying that all these books are "great" or even that I agree with all of them. They're included as source materials to enable people (designers for the most part) to start to develop a broader, more integrated cross-disciplinary view point and understanding.
The books:
  1. Edward Said, Orientalism
  2. Roland Barthes, Empire of Signs
  3. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
  4. Sun Tzu, The Art of War
  5. Clausewitz, On War
  6. Roland Barthes, S/Z
  7. Edmund Husserl, Experience and Judgement
  8. Peter Schwartz, The Art of the Long View
  9. McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto
  10. Bruce Sterline, Shaping Things
  11. Naomi Klein, No Logo
  12. Jon Steel, Truth, Lies and Advertising
  13. Bogusky and Winsor, Baked In

A basic rule of thumb in dialogue is that is only truly effective and powerful when both parties respect each other and their perspectives; speak a common or shared language, and have bothered to learn about what each other bring to the table, value, etc. If either party doesn't do this while at the same time insisting that they know best - the other party perceives them as both ignorant and arrogant (a fatal combination in any relationship).

It's time for designers to step up to the plate. No more laziness.


At 11:33 AM, Blogger Justin Garrity said...

I was prepared to be pissed off based on the intro, but found myself agreeing with you. I love this article and it needs to be said. Designers, and I consider myself one, need to stop assuming that design is being questioned. We live in an era where design is celebrated and appreciated.

I've read half of those books, but half are new to me. I can't wait to check them out.

I would add, "In Search of Stupidity" by Merrill Chapman

At 11:54 AM, Blogger chris said...

I've not read the Chapman book but have added it to the queue.

Thanks for the suggestion and feedback!

At 6:02 PM, Blogger graham said...

Your reading list brought the point home to me -

Specifically, realizing that even an 'imperial' soldier like Sun Tzu put a higher priority on understanding local practices than do many 'humanitarian' designers.


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