John Thackara | Essays

What Should Design Critics Write About?

Photo: Olive Linton

What Should Design Critics Write About?
The question is easy. You should write about humanity’s new place in a catabolically challenged world and the kind of future that awaits us.

By catabolically challenged, I mean the complex, connected and high-entropy world we’re in now — the one that can’t possibly be sustained into the indefinite future. Why? Because it depends on perpetually growing throughputs of energy and resources that are not going to be available.

AdbustersTrue Cost campaign calls our economy a “doomsday machine.” We strive after infinite growth in a world whose carrying capacity is finite. The better the economy performs — faster growth, higher GDP — the faster we degrade the biosphere that is the basis of life and our only home. It’s madness. And the world is waking up to the fact that it’s madness.

The trouble is that no society in history has ever been able to reduce its consumption of resources voluntarily over the long term. On the contrary, as the anthropologist Joseph Tainter has explained: when problems in a complex society such as ours emerge, tackling them requires more resources just as resources are becoming scarcer.

Another word for this is overshoot. But it’s slow-motion overshoot. Not like a mouse running off a cliff in a Disney cartoon — more like a goods wagon bumping down the unpaved side of a mountain, shedding cargo and parts along the way. Anyone traveling in Europe two weeks ago, when the volcano blew, will know what that kind of ride feels like.

John Michael Greer, another of my muses, who first alerted us to the idea of a catabolic collapse, wrote a book called The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age. Greer’s account of how our high-entropy society will degrade slowly and unevenly over many decades is pretty convincing. For one thing, that’s how the Maya, the Roman Empire and other civilizations declined in the past.

“The decline of a civilization is rarely anything like so sudden for those who live through it as it looks in retrospect,” writes Greer encouragingly; it’s a much “slower and more complex transformation than the sudden catastrophes imagined by many social critics today.”

Now catabolic collapse, overshoot and the end of civilization are too abstract to make decent stories as they stand. Besides, filmmakers and game designers have already claimed the social Armageddon space as their own. Bladerunner was made nearly 30 years ago, after all.

The stories that remain to be written concern the new and better ways of organizing daily life being born from the ruins of the old. By new and better, I do not mean the happy-clappy bright-green optimism promoted in some quarters these past few years. Let’s not kid ourselves that we can pre-design a smooth transition using immature green technology and wishful thinking. The limits of techno-optimism are explained in a new book chillingly titled Requiem for a Species, by the philosopher Clive Hamilton. He writes that “it’s too late to avert catastrophic change. Our politics and institutions are too dysfunctional to make elegant adaptations. We’d better prepare ourselves for surviving as best we can.”

My own view is that although "surviving as best we can" will be rough in many aspects, it does not need to be grim. We’re likely to experience decades of muddling through what Greer describes as “scarcity industrialism” while we liquidate what remains of the planet’s oil endowment, fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources. This scarcity-industrialism phase will morph into a “salvage society” phase, in which we’ll scavenge the ruins of abandoned manmade structures for their iron, steel and other raw materials.

Scarcity industrialism is well under way in India and Brazil, by the way. And I’ve learned from the resource ecologies of favelas and shantytowns that the concept of embodied energy — emergy — stretches forward as well as backward in time. Backward, emergy measures the energy necessary for raw material extraction, transport, manufacture, assembly, installation, disassembly, deconstruction and/or decomposition. Forward emergy, if we may call it that, represents potential for products or components to be repurposed — without the need to mine and smelt raw materials from scratch.

I’m describing a way of looking at the world through a fresh lens. It’s about searching for ways to preserve, steward and restore assets that already exist — human and natural ones, or so-called net present assets — rather than thinking first about extracting raw materials to make new consumables from scratch.

Designers have an important contribution to make. Not much, any more, as the creators of completely new products, buildings and communications. New is an old paradigm. But designers can very usefully cast fresh and respectful eyes on situations to reveal material and cultural qualities that might not be obvious to those who live in them.

This kind of regenerative design reimagines the built world not as a landscape of frozen objects, but as a complex of interacting, co-dependent ecologies: energy, water, food.

You'll probably think I'm strange, if not sad, but I can no longer look at paved surfaces without thinking about breaking them open to free the soil.

Nabeel Hamdi, the author of Small Change and Housing without Houses, pointing out that emergy-unaware “design disturbs that which it touches," says we need to give priority to the existing life and intelligence of place. There are vast latent resources in existing situations. As an example of this approach in practice, Hamdi is working with Habitat for Humanity on a mind shift — away from a compulsion to build shelters toward a greater appreciation of ways that existing social and ecological assets can provide shelter in different situations.

In multiple contexts, an ethical framework to creative work is emerging. In 1949, the American forester and ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed what he called a “land ethic” that would guide “man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community,” wrote Leopold. “It is wrong, when it tends otherwise.” (“Biotic community” here is another name for what we now call the biosphere.)

You may argue that this is to state the obvious: That of course you respect life, and the conditions that support life. But I stress the word unconditional. If a commitment is unconditional, it does not mean “take account of,” or “pay due respect to,” or “move steadily toward.” It does not mean “minimize adverse effects on nature.” It means a target of no adverse effects.

“A thief who tells a judge he is stealing less than before will receive no leniency. So why do companies get environmental awards for polluting less — even though they are still polluting?” The biomimicry entrepreneur Gunter Pauli, who I’m quoting here, is scornful of the “do less bad” school of environmentalism. Pauli demands that we commit to Net Positive Impact — that’s to say, “economic activity where the demands placed upon the environment are met without reducing the capacity of the environment to provide for future generations.” Otherwise stated: Leave the world better than you found it.

That kind of economy may sound fanciful, but it’s happening, out there, now. Between the “tech-will-fix-it” dreamers and the “head-for-the-hills” brigade, a third and much larger global movement is growing. Paul Hawken reckons it’s the single biggest movement on the planet, with a million or more active groups. But it’s been invisible in mainstream media.

This movement is evident wherever people are growing food in cities, opening seed banks or turning school backyards into edible gardens. The movement includes people who are restoring ecosystems and watersheds. Their number incorporates dam removers, wetland restorers and rainwater rescuers.

Many people in this movement are recycling buildings in downtowns and suburbs, favelas and slums. So-called slack-space activists work alongside computer recyclers, hardware bricoleurs, office-block refurbishers and trailer-park renewers.

You’ll find the movement wherever people are launching local currencies. Non-money-trading models are cropping up like crazy: nine thousand examples at last count. In their version of a green economy, 70 million Africans exchange airtime, not cash.

Thousands of groups, tens of thousands of experiments. For every daily life-support system that is unsustainable now — food, health, shelter and clothing— alternatives are being innovated.

The key word here is social innovation, because this movement is about groups of people innovating together, not lone inventors. A subset of this movement, Transition Towns, is especially significant. Transition initiatives, which only started a couple of years ago, are multiplying at extraordinary speed. More than 200 communities in Europe and North America have been officially designated Transition Towns, or cities, districts, villages — even a forest.

The transition model — I’m quoting their website — “emboldens communities to look peak oil and climate change squarely in the eye.” The key point is that they don’t just look: Transition groups break down the scary, too-hard-to-change big picture into bite-sized chunks. They create a community-level to-do list, with an order of priorities. This plan describes not only the skills and resources that a community will need to cope with the challenges coming down the track, but also how those skills and resources are to be put in place and who will do what.

The Transition model is powerful because it brings people together from a single geographical area. These people, of course, have different interests, agendas and capabilities. But they are united in being dependent on, and committed to, the context in which they live.

A second reason the Transition model is so powerful is that it uses a process of setting agendas and priorities — the “open space” method — that is genuinely inclusive of all points of view. Any alternative has to be system-wide and involve a variety of different stakeholders who will not, as a rule, have worked together before.

What Modes of Practice are Available to Critics?
To answer that question, I have to tell you about tomatoes. We have an allotment garden near my home in France, and I decided this year basically to copy the way my neighbor Pedro grows his tomatoes. I studied the bamboo supports structure, and the way his beds are laid out in such a way that water can flow easily from the canal that runs past our gardens. Having put a similar bed on our patch, I proudly planted 60 tomato seedlings. But then, disaster. When I opened the water pipe from the canal, I realized that my beds, unlike Pedro’s, are a foot above the water level. My plants will have to be watered by hand using dozens of heavy cans. The reason? I had looked at the form and structure of Pedro’s system, but not at its position in the soil, and I didn’t think once about the role of gravity in moving water from the canal.

The lesson of my tomato debacle is this: perception and understanding are both embodied and situated — and this goes for writing, too. Where you write is as important as what you write. Where you are from is often as interesting as what you have to say. Place gives a writer strength as much as it gives natural systems strength.

Their disconnect from place and context is one of the reasons global systems have become so vulnerable. Manmade systems are attenuated, hyper-connected and interdependent, but not resilient. They depend on high throughputs of energy, and we have systematically sought to remove human agency from their day-to-day operations. Think how parlous is our food security. Think about what one volcano did to global travel.

So my suggestion about where to write would be: select a bioregion as your patch. A bioregion is defined by the interconnectedness, and the interdependence, of its natural systems. It’s an ideal context in which to explore what co-dependency with one’s place can mean for people.

Many bylines these days describe a story’s writer as “London-based,” or “Tokyo-based.” My reaction is to think: So? Imagine how different it would be to describe yourself as a “Central Valley BioRegion–based writer” if you’re from that part of California; or a Hudson River Watershed–based writer, if you’re located in that part of upstate New York.

In Norway you could be a writer based in the Caledonian Buckling. Me? I’m a writer based in the “Steppic BioRegion” (formerly known as Occitania, or southwest France).

The transition toward sustainability is not about messages; it’s about activity. It’s not about proclamations; it’s about practices. Many professional designers are in the representation business, so their default response in recent times has been to design a poster about sustainability. Or maybe a website filled with green things to buy.

But projecting more signals into an already cluttered environment is like throwing confetti into a snowstorm. Advertising folk respond to what they call “the clutter problem” by adding to it. Social media? They’re part of the clutter conundrum too. Online communications are a mode of publication, not of conversation. The number of bloggers is growing at 35 percent annually; the number of people using the internet is growing at 10 percent. Do the math!

Emitting messages, however clever and evocative they may be, is not the same as being with real people, in real places, who are changing their lived material reality. That’s why I have a radical proposal: Consider speaking your words in a place rather than pressing “send.” Ivan Illich believed that our culture started to go off the rails in 1120, when monks stopped reading texts aloud to each other and became solitary scholars.

When I first read those lines of Illich, 20 years ago, I thought the guy was nuts. Later, when he told me in person, I listened harder. Embodied, situated and unmediated communication, he explained, was the norm before we invented writing, and later, mass media, and later still, social media.

Barely three generations ago, nine out of ten words that a man had heard when he reached the age of 20 were spoken to him directly — one to one, or as a member of a crowd — by somebody whom he could touch, feel and smell. By the 1970s, that proportion had been reversed: About nine out of ten words heard in a day were spoken through a loudspeaker. “Computers are doing to communication what fences did to pastures and cars did to streets,” Illich said in 1982.

Are social media playing a similar role today? For Illich, there was a huge difference between a colloquial tongue — what people say to each other in a context, with meaning — and a language uttered by people into microphones. Or typed onto a Facebook page.

When someone we trust tells us to our face that a thing is important, we pay attention. Conversation is usually a more powerful medium for provoking change in behavior than pre-packaged messages projected at us by media. Conversation matters more than content. Out there in the bioregions, and especially among folk like the Transition Towns groups, face-to-face is key.

There’s continuity here between today’s social radicals and the avant-garde of art in earlier times. For years, artists fought to bridge the schism in Western culture that separates the creator from the spectator. The Constructivists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Lettrists and Fluxus artists all fought in different ways against the idea that art was about the creation of beautiful, static forms.

As Guy Debord put it: “Representation separates life from experience.” The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty argued that perception is a process in which an active body enters into a “communion” with its surroundings. I empathize especially with the Lettrists, who invented a technique called hypergraphics, or super-writing. Their technique merged poetry as text with more graphic ways of communicating such as painting, illustration or signs. Rather as traveling storytellers have been doing in Rajasthan for 2,000 years.

How Does a Design Critic Get Paid These Days?
I’ve given you what I think are some terrific story leads: The catabolic collapse of industrial civilization. The design agenda for a salvage society. The replacement of a doomsday machine economy with a solidarity economy.

I’ve also suggested new ways to think about where and how to write: making a bioregion your patch and making a virtue of the spoken word. But I have yet to point out areas of hope in your future careers, which is a polite way of saying: how does a design critic get paid these days?

Some years ago, when the dot.com collapse was in full gory progress, I was at conference with Erik Spiekermann, the well-known German typographer and designer. Erik showed some exquisite work he’d done for blue chip cultural and business clients, such as typefaces for the German Railways and the Berlin Underground. We were all duly impressed.

But then a young design student stood up and said: “It’s all easy for you, Mr. Spiekermann: you’re famous; you can cherry-pick the clients you want to work with; and they have to pay what you ask. But I’m young; I’m unknown. And the economy is collapsing. What am I supposed to do?” Erik stood up and told the meeting about the unglamorous jobs he did, but never usually mentioned, in order to keep his studio afloat.

I remember his candid comments to this day, and I owe you similar honesty. If some of you think I’ve got it made, you need to know that, well, I’m still on the make. Some reality checks:

In my capacity as a portfolio worker, I’m earning far less now than I did before 2007.

I’m paid for 25 percent, at most, of the hours I work. I don’t get paid for writing my blog, or my newsletter. I don’t get paid for organizing Doors of Perception events.

I do get paid to give talks at industry events — and I’m rather proud of that line of work. And I learn far more from hanging with people in a new industry than I do at most design events. But that market, too, is most charitably described as soft.

I also work as an event producer — like a film producer, only for festivals. Here my client has tended to be a city government or government agency. Projects I’ve done like Dott 07 in England, or City Eco Lab in France, have been timely, popular and well-received — but these days it’s harder, not easier, to get projects like that funded.

I’m sorry if you were expecting me to share get-rich-quick revelations with you. The reality that I experience is more of a cold shower: I’m probably as puzzled about how to earn a living as you are. But let me share also what keeps me going, and why I am optimistic about the prospects for everyone here today.

The main thing is there a need for what we do: No one has time to think. There’s opportunity in that. Society needs to take a longer view. We can help with that, too.

"Adaptive resilience" is a script that needs to be rewritten continuously. So-called worker correspondents were important during the 1920s in revolutionary Russia and Weimar Germany when they collated materials on issues affecting their workplace and other aspects of everyday life. During the Depression years here, a good number of writers were involved in agricultural extension services. As I said, the main thing is there is a need for what we do — even if the business model to pay us to do it remains perpetually emergent, not emerged.

I am also comforted by the fact that we are not alone. Spare a thought, if not your sympathy, for the media empires of the world. They’re desperate for an answer to the question: how — selling what kind of content, and using what business model — can big newspaper groups survive? Empires are complex, far-flung and active on multiple fronts. That’s what makes them empires, and it goes for media empires too. But it takes an enormous flow of resources to keep them afloat. They are high entropy operations. Just like Rome.

And those resources are just not there. Many have given up on selling news. People simply won’t pay for it. Ad revenues have also collapsed.

Media emperors do believe that customers will pay for “actionable insight.” This is why Reuters recently paid $18 million for a multi-authored financial blog called BreakingViews. Not news: views. Subscribers are sent several well-crafted 350-word texts a day to their Blackberry.

But selling 350-word stories online is not a replacement for fat ad-filled newspapers. The New York Times website generates about $15 million or so a month, which translates to about a dollar a unique visitor. But its fixed costs are so high that it can’t make profit on that. Huffington Post, as a comparison, makes about 12 cents a unique visitor per month. And it’s finding it hard to make a profit, too.

Now think of your own position. No huge office building to pay for, no executive suite, no accounts department, no human resources, no private jet, no lobbyists. In fact, if you decided to squat rather than rent or buy a space to live in — if you were aggressively to share, rather than own, the tools and resources you need for daily life — your fixed costs could be as near as dammit to zero. Zero is a good place to start. Try to stay right there. When your costs are zero, how many multiples of 12 cents a month do you actually need to survive? Or, when you get established, how many single dollars do you really need?

But even that may not be the answer we’re looking for. If, as I’ve suggested here today, the future needs to be about conversation, not content, then maybe asking how to get paid to write is the wrong question. Maybe our salvation will be to be paid to listen.

Adapted from “The Revelation,” keynote address at Crossing the Line: The 2010 D-Crit conference, hosted by the Design Criticism MFA program at the School of Visual Arts, New York, April 30, 2010.

Posted in: Media, Theory + Criticism

Comments [8]

Great post John but still I think you are missing something. As someone who has done all of the measures you suggested to be able to write and also someone who runs a little non-profit aimed at addressing many of the concerns you raised early on, I agree with your general assessment of the role of a design critic in a society hell bent on consuming itself into oblivion.

Yes, we should do stuff for free when we can and dialogue (and action) is necessary to make profound social change happen. The thing about getting involved in slightest way with these issues is that is that you learn how much work needs to be done and how little money is around to do it. Meanwhile most of us reading this blog probably live in rich countries; we witness millions and even trillions being spunked within a system that rewards the people who care the least about the greater good, the sustainability of the planet and the livelihood of the majority world and our descendants.

The effect of actually trying to do anything about it is radicalizing because you quickly realize that the root cause of our problems is very deeply embedded into our cultural fabric and especially the way that business is conducted. So rather than became impoverished design critics commenting and philosophizing on the problems, we should be organizing and making something better - while also reflecting on our practice to make our actions more effective.

Yet too often these appeals to set up initiatives and especially Transition Towns (which I did in Brixton in 2007 btw) - leave the onus of change on a few individuals who can be bothered to make it happen. This is politically convenient for other people who don't want to change (stop driving their SUV, holidaying abroad, etc.) because they can point out how we are making progress because such and such place is a Transition Town. This is why the TT movement is such a hit with establishment conservatives (including, rumor has it - the Queen). But the carbon emissions I save in my expensive efforts to lower my footprint are quickly wasted by my neighbor who does not care. So these appeals are steering shy of the real problem by refusing to engage with the political reality that rich nations that have to COLLECTIVELY lower our consumption. Without confronting powerful interests intent on keeping things as they are - this won't happen and we will have destroyed our capacity to create regenerative change.
Jody Boehnert

Great post, I think that reducing cost is one of the smartest solution, especially if you don't get paid, but you do that work for passion. I've seen different blogs expiring in Italy with the final blogger's message reading "I close the blog because I don't get money from it". I have two blogs, just for passion since four years, I don't close them because of money, for me they are a good way to learn more than writing what I think about something. I'm a freelance graphic designer and of course I get money for my projects, but passion is something that people need to rediscover in way to do things with heart, I also agree with your suggestion of talking personally with people than sending mails! I lost two friends talking with them by sms or mail about important things becouse they didn't want to talk personally later about some problems but cope right away with it by media.



It's not our society that's a death machine, but the capitalist system it is built upon. Arne Naess estimates that the Earth's carrying capacity at current North American standards is 100,000,000 people. Until we agree to abandon our freedom to consolidate wealth to the detriment of others, and substitute a model that considers the needs of all, including non-human life, we will continue our downward spiral.

I recently passed through Amsterdam airport on a day when the volcano was having a little burp. The place was chaos, partly because, since the merger with Air France, KLM has been cutting costs. The transfer stations that used to be manned by lovely blonde-haired ladies in powder blue suits have been replaced by unfriendly computer kiosks. Talk about removing human agency from day-to-day operations!

I have long suggested that designers will need to abandon their dependence upon remote agency in favor of more direct contact with their world. Not for nothing is a footpath the Ugandan equivalent of the Information Superhighway.

How to earn a living? For thirty years my practice has been based upon non0profit activity, literally, non-profit publications, non-profit organizations, non-profit exhibitions, non-profit websites; it can be done, but is not recommended for the comfortable.

As for how to proceed, I still like the words Voltaire put in Candide's mouth when he has him say, "Tend your garden." I'd say you're doing a pretty good job of it John.

david stairs

I know that being smart in retrospect is easy but, at the risk of being rude, how (and why) should a design critic who can't figure out the role of gravity in an irrigation system get paid?
Gunnar Swanson

>Emitting messages, however clever and evocative they may be, is not the same as being with real people, in real places, who are changing their lived material reality. That’s why I have a radical proposal: Consider speaking your words in a place rather than pressing “send.”<

Is this a case of "do as I say, not as I do" (with the sound effect of a ladder being pulled up) or are globe-trotting lecturers given exemption (or included) because they're in real places at real times? This advice seems little more than protecting one's market share by eliminating potential competition. I'm fine with the suggestion philosophically but it would seem less like posturing if the speaker then called on organizations world-wide to stop inviting "outsiders" to lecture at them.
Kenneth FitzGerald

Hi John
Just read your article. Very interesting. I never got a penny for my tomato picture either! LOL
Olive Linton

Jody: most of us will have lower consumption forced upon us by events. What was the news this week - 1 in 7 US citizens on food stamps? That's why I don't believe in appealing to, or plain telling people, to consume less. A better road, for me, is to help people design better and radically lighter ways to meet daily life needs.

Marta: we probably agree that blog are a means to an end and not the end itself. Isn't one of those ends the kind of conversation we're having here?

David: I am taking Voltaire's advice - but as Gunnar points out, I'm starting from a low skill base.

Gunnar: I endure your lash for one reason: my tomatoes this year were the best I ever tasted.

Kenneth: Apart from pointing out that even poseurs have to eat, I have no defence. But I do have a question: would you consider micro-paying to talk with me remotely?

Olive: in that case the least I can do is send you a jar of our dried tomatoes. Tell me where!
john thackara

Hi John,

Loved your article of course, but also some of the comments on it.

I am an associate editor at a publishing house in India. We are scheduled to bring out a magazine on kitchen design. May I ask you if you could write for it?

Please do let me know.

Thanking you,

Kind regards,

Nikhil Khandekar

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