Incubating the Design Author


7 March 2016

“People who have the artistic talent, intuition for the times in which they live, people who are motivated by curiosity and a researching attitude, and have the guts to ignore conventions and come up with their own distinctive answers.”

This is one of the ways in which the theorist Louise Schouwenberg defines design authors, or authors-in-design, those designers who aspire to do more than simply offer solutions to practical questions. “Their designs”, to quote Schouwenberg again, “are vehicles of knowledge that contain many layers of meaning and references.”

As head of the Masters programme in Contextual Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven (DAE), Schouwenberg's course aims at fostering such individual talent. At a moment where the design world is beginning to focus on collaboration rather than star designers, this might seem regressive. But Schouwenberg’s conception of the design author is more complicated – and more ambitious – than that of a dictatorial auteur. It takes in co-authorship, a sense of responsibility and a meaningful desire to shape the world.

In the interview that follows below, Schouwenberg lays out her vision for a new type of design authors, along the way discussing Roland Barthes, the artist-designers of the 1990s, methods for fostering creativity in students, and the issues facing design education today.

What does it mean to refer to a “design author”? The term seems loaded with theory and sounds compelling, but does it actually accomplish anything more than “designer”? If a designer and a design author differ, how do they differ?

There's probably no designer who would distance themselves from the term if asked. In all likelihood, everyone probably imagines themselves as an author, because it has a positive ring to it. But one has to earn that title. At Contextual Design we aim to educate tomorrow’s design authors. For that reason the programme accepts only applicants whom we trust have the capacity for developing a personal vision on the surrounding world and a personal way of working.

There’s a difference between a designer who foremost tries to offer direct answers to practical questions and a designer who would always consider the larger narrative and ideals, as well as being true to their subjective intuitions. Whereas there’s an obvious need for problem solvers – and thus an obvious need for schools that prepare for such a career – there’s a danger of conservatism in this approach to design. It usually stays within the confines that the industry offers, even if focused on technical innovation, and abides with the demands of the market. Instead, we also need designers who ask questions foremost, who set the agenda and redefine the field.

Designers such as Dieter Rams, Konstantin Grcic, Jasper Morrison, Hella Jongerius, the Bouroullecs, Jurgen Bey, and many more, have not merely produced nice products, they have also reflected on their work's implications for the world. Their designs are vehicles of knowledge that contain many layers of meaning and references.

Are Roland Barthes’ reservations about authorship relevant to design? Does speaking about design authors, for example, risk sidelining focus on how a user actually interacts with and understands a design?

The very words "author" and "designer" seem at odds with each other. Design should serve others, which is an essential characteristic built into the profession’s DNA, while authors highly value their own intuitions and views on the world. So yes, Barthes’ reservations are relevant to designers. The Death of the Author was a compelling essay, but isn’t his outcry most of all an invitation to reconsider authorship, to give it new meaning and link it to current cultural developments? How could we ever abandon the notion and practice of authorship? That would blatantly deny the very existence of creative minds in our world.

Barthes, and also Foucault, created awareness that the traditional description of authorship was no longer valid. Any author is part of a historical continuum: there’s a multitude of voices in each cultural production, to which no single person can stake a definitive claim. Each design author stands on the shoulders of giants, who in turn stood on the shoulders of giants. Apart from this legacy, almost all elements of the design process require some kind of collaboration with others. The design author is, at best, a co-author. But this does not mean the author has been extinguished. Relying foremost on personal intuition and insights is as valid as it has always been, and will probably remain so.

Does authorship in design risk sidelining focus on how a user interacts and understands a design? I would claim that authorship actually risks this less than other approaches. Design is closely linked to the market. While the market seemingly answers the needs of users, one might question whether users really need what the market tries to manipulate them into buying. Of authors, of whom one may expect a consistent vision, we might expect less interest in immediate economic profit, but more of an overview of the larger picture, more empathy, commitment, and awareness of how each design is a node within complex networks of meaningful relationships. Of authors, one may also expect more guts to jump into an unknown future, more idealism, and a greater desire to improve the world through their designs. Their own reputation is at stake, so they cannot hide behind a company’s brand.

Is it at all contradictory to suggest that Eindhoven is interested in training authors and teaching students to ignore conventions? Isn’t a formal academic structure potentially hazardous for encouraging free-spiritedness?

All artistic domains have to deal with this question: isn’t the very structure counterproductive? It’s not, in my view. One needs a strong structure to conquer freedom and autonomy. There’s no such thing as total freedom, and it’s not even desirable. Freedom only "happens" within the contours of a frame, within the confines of a given context, whether culturally, socially, or technically.

For us, it’s challenging to define that frame and to challenge students to push the borders of that frame. We often see how students in their first year, in which they work on assignments given by the tutors, tend to make better projects than students in their second year, where they're able to define their own graduation themes. In the course of two years we try to teach the students to define their own frames and to create freedom within those frames. Conventions can only be ignored if you first know and fully understand them.

How, practically, can you train authors, however? The school invites artists to give talks and workshops, but is “authorship” something that can really be picked up by close contact with authors?

Students don’t necessarily become authors by being in close proximity of authors. However, authors can exemplify and demonstrate their free spirit to students. As we educate designers there’s a danger that they will copy their tutors’ works. That will not happen if the tutors represent an attitude, and come from cultural fields outside of the design world. In the first year, the students are guided mostly by artists and architects, who encourage the imagination and pull students out of their comfort zones. Gradually, especially in the second year, designers come in, as their expertise and knowledge of the design world is needed in the final phases of a student’s study.

The complexity of projects that designers now work on, as well as the scale of the problems that they are interested in looking at, seems to demand that they collaborate and rely less heavily on their own talents and intuition. How comfortably does encouraging individual expression sit with the demands of working with others and marshalling varied skill sets and knowledge pools?

True, design projects usually are complex and require the collaboration with many other experts, and naturally all these experts should receive full credits for their contribution and the special roles they played. But sensible collaboration can only take place by linking strong individuals to each other, with distinctive voices. Only then will a strong debate lead to novel insights.

Linked to this issue of giving credits to all collaborators and not merely celebrating one "genius", there are the legal aspects such as the copyright of a design or invention, a subject that will presumably become more and more important in the near future. And finally, authorship can be viewed from the vantage point of signature style, or individual expression. Authorship in design does not only deal with individual expression, but also with a surprising expression of a distinctive and consistent vision on the surrounding world. So it’s not about signature – at least, not only about that. It’s about vision. Any team is helped with the presence of strong visions.

Does this approach risk encouraging a certain self-indulgence amongst students? How well does it prepare the majority for life after Eindhoven?

We aim to prepare for volatility and flexibility, and to inform about the various positions one might take in his or her professional career. That is very demanding and the opposite of self-indulgence. Sometimes we work on real-world issues and collaborate with external commissioners, ranging from governmental institutes and NGOs to museums and companies, and more often we work on topical themes brought in by the head of department and the tutors.

A school can never fully prepare students for all that they will encounter after studying and I don’t think it’s even desirable to try. Once they start their careers they will soon adapt to reality, especially as they have become acquainted with the various positions they could occupy. But there’s another reason for not allowing too much of the outside world into education. We only have a limited time, so we have to prioritise. I consider education as an in-between, a free zone, to discover one’s personal talents and learn how to trust subjective intuitions. Never again will such freedom reappear. The real world will probably leave little room and time for developing an unburdened approach. If you don’t know how to appropriate a given brief, it will be hard to take a distinct position. If you have never learned how to fly high during education, you will probably not fly high when working in the real world. Before starting a career, designers should know who they are, which ambitions and hopes they cherish, which talents they can rely on.

A consequence of Eindhoven’s approach might be students crossing over the borders of design, or returning to something similar to the design art of the 1990s. Are these things to be concerned about or is that kind of boundary expansion a positive?

Authorship is different from stardom. Authorship is a normative term, which implies that the designer has something valid to add to the world. We should not confuse it with the star designers of the 90s, who seemed more preoccupied with acceptance within the art world for one-offs and limited editions, than with the development of meaningful ideas about design’s primary arena: daily life. Design-art turned out to be a dead end for design, a perverse deviation from the essence of the field. The dream user of design-art products was the museum visitor, not a real user.

I consider awareness of the essence of design, and awareness of context, paramount. And as you can understand, that’s especially true for a department called Contextual Design. For which world do you create something? If one speaks about creating things for daily life there should be a real user, or at least the designs should reveal on a more abstract level something valid about the way humans interact with things in their daily life.

The discipline currently accepts a whole range of approaches and practices, but it’s wise to take a clear position within education: which positions in design are we critical of. Would we promote designing for an exclusive market? Would we promote ignoring the functional essence of design? The answer is a definite no! What we do want to promote is knowledge of, and care for, the world we live in. We promote a sense of responsibility. That having been said, it all depends on each student’s own development. We tend not to stop their creative processes, but we do confront them with our questions to sharpen the choices they make.

How viable is fostering an atmosphere of creative experimentation in the way in you describe? In the UK, for example, a lot of art schools that once encouraged that spirit have either closed or are under threat of closure.

We aren't living in a time that fosters creative experimentation and this phenomenon is true in the Netherlands too. Economics has a firmer grip on governmental decision-making and more and more Dutch universities and schools need to account for their programmes in terms of output, or even economic profit. Art schools have to shrink their population as legislators fear insufficient demand and opportunities for artists in the "real world". To me that is akin to taking away the oxygen of a society. Even the art students who will not reach the highest ranks in art and end up in other professions will have benefitted tremendously from their art education. They may have become more complete human beings through art education.

In 2012, the heads of the Masters departments in Eindhoven rebelled against this threat of market orientation and the growing tendency of bureaucracy within education and you know how that ended. So there’s hope, if only we join forces. More revolts will come! Fortunately, at the moment the board at Eindhoven – artistic director Thomas Widdershoven and director of education and research Jurrienne Ossewold - fully subscribes to the need to safeguard artistic freedom.