In Written Word

Design both as a discipline and as an act of creativity has always been close to the concept of utopia. Vision, and imagination, supported by the technical ability and craft were tools to propose an alternative configuration of reality, ideally better than the one we are currently living in. I am thinking for example at the ideals of “democratic art” that pervaded the Art and Crafts movement, but also at the provocative stance of “Autoprogettazione” by Enzo Mari, the playful critique of functionalism of the Memphis movement, as well as the enlighted vision of Adriano Olivetti whose company was not only pioneering in personal computing but was also proposing a utopian organization of the business around a community of workers where everyone could thrive. Looking back at the history of the discipline, design has always been a tool to shape the future toward more positive outcomes.

Reclaiming Utopia in Design - a critical debate to overcome the limits of technotopia and dystopia.

In the last two decades, however, it seems that mankind has lost its ability to imagine better alternatives to the reality we are living in. This is evident in pop culture how Mark Fisher has brilliantly noted in his work on “hauntology”, the nostalgia for “lost futures”. But it is also observable in the design discipline, now dominated by the pervasive mantra of “design thinking”, where too little “design” and too little “thinking” are left. On one hand design as a “tool for executives” (and not as a self-determined discipline or craft) has lost its ability to propose tangible alternatives in the form of artefact, in favour of more either too functional (“what the user/consumer says they want”) or too abstract outcomes (“vague and intangible concepts that very rarely see the light of the day). On the other hand thinking as a “step-by-step process” and not as a philosophical discourse lacks the rigour, depth, and vision necessary to challenge the status quo, but instead perpetuates “off-the-shelf” opinions animating unreconciliable debates on social media, which often only results in a greater divide of opinions and not any alternatives to move forward.

When we look at how the investigation of the future is carried out in our current society we notice two dominant narratives: the technotopia and the dystopia. Both of them are showing their limits when it comes to proposing alternatives. The technotopia is a form of neo-positivism that celebrates some sort of cutting-edge technological solution as the most appropriate answer to the many complex problems mankind experiences. Technological enhancements are seen as inevitable and good “per se”, often framed as “extra-ordinary” if not “magical”. This often results in a biased enthusiasm that celebrates technology and its benefits, while minimizing the negative consequences, often presented as a necessary price to pay. The vision of a company retaining the IP of a certain solution coincides with the vision of society which is shaped by the solution itself. In a world that is silently retiring in the “metaverse” or we’ll be soon uploaded to a server to continue our “life” beyond the decadence of the body, the means are often confused with the end. The novelty of the solution outshines the real benefits, while an explanation of how this solution has made our “life” better is still to be proven.

On the other end, dystopia has become a narrative genre “per se”, dominant (if not the “default mode”) in today’s representation of the future. In this view, any alternative available to mankind is ominous and conceals the elements that will eventually lead to the end of civilization as we know it. The first problem that I see in this view of the world is that it quickly leads to apathy and inertia. If doom is inevitable, why should we even try to imagine alternatives? However, I believe that there is a second and probably more dangerous problem in disguise: the romanticization of dystopia, the birds singing about their own cage. We need to resist the fascination for catastrophe and the “comfort” of a doomed future. If dystopia becomes our default mode of speculating on the future, we will soon lose the ability to imagine better alternatives

The intent of this talk is not to lecture anyone on how things should be done, propose a simple solution to a complex and multifaceted problem, or neither to celebrate the nostalgia of the “good old days of design”. The goal instead is to stimulate a critical yet positive debate where all different voices in the community confront themselves on different views of the future and better approaches to move in those directions.

Dimitri Berti, 2023