What can design do? Response to a banana critic
by Thomas Wagner | 3/2/2012

Oh, these tropical fruits! It looks as if someone is fencing here with an especially bent blade. But what is actually being fought over? A better, more responsible sense of design? About designers not only designing clever products that are sustainable in terms of both materials and aesthetics, but also making certain the entire production process is structured to be more environmentally sound? It seems to me what we have here is someone defending their own play ground by criticizing the people that built it.

It is about power and influence

Let's get down to brass tacks: The debate on the future of design training is not even remotely (as Friedrich von Borries smugly asserts) about conjuring up the good old days (see also "Why are bananas curved? or `What is design?`"). Nobody mourns their passing. Nor is it about the classifications of Modernism even though it is certainly useful in design theory to be aware of their continued impact today. It is not about what constitutes the essence of art or design, and it is certainly not about segregating definitions that take it upon themselves to make absolute claims or proclaim new truths. Among other things it is about who occupies certain positions at a university and consequently shifts weightings to his own advantage. After all, there are those who believe that because 'art' with all its individual permutations currently enjoys such an immense social standing they can profit by changing camp and joining the 'art' side. To summarize: It is not only about education, art and design, it is also about power and influence.

So much for the assumptions. Let us take a look at how Friedrich von Borries argues. He writes: Design is a relatively young discipline and it sticks like glue to its original, industry-related image, although we know full well that classic industrial society is the solution to all things neither now nor in the future, and design must therefore reinvent itself because the world for which it is designing is unlike the one in which it originated. This is precisely the reason why in many quarters there's a great deal of discussion about what design actually is. It's a question that we at HFBK answer quite unequivocally: Design is a form of art, not its handmaiden, not its auxiliary, but one of the ways in which we tackle the world in artistic terms – in this case by 'designing', or to use the very fashionable term deployed by Thomas Edelmann and most recently by Konstantin Grcic in Süddeutsche Zeitung, by "design thinking".

What is claimed

In the interests of greater clarity let us sort out what is being claimed here.
Firstly: Design is purportedly a discipline that because it is young adheres to an image of itself and insists on its linkage to industry despite knowing better.
Secondly: Design must purportedly re-invent itself because the world it designs for has become a different one from the one it comes from.
Thirdly: Design is a kind of art, in other words one of the means we have of engaging with the world artistically, in this case by "designing".
And fourthly: Because the term design has negative connotations we now replace it with something we call "design thinking".

Design and division of labor

Let us go through these hypotheses: Unlike applied art, for example, design is bound in its historical development to a production of goods based on the division of labor. It does not "adhere" to this; instead this is precisely what its task is. Nor does this happen for want of better knowledge but simply because it would be negligent to leave the developing of mass-produced goods in societies organized according to a division of labor and a globally operating economy solely to the engineers and business folk or the marketing troops. In other words, it only distracts from these tasks if you choose to ignore them and instead revive the old hegemony of art over its applied affiliates. The fact that disciplines have to change because the world in which they are operating changes is nothing more than a cliché and holds true for all disciplines. Entire libraries can be filled with tomes answering the question whether design is a kind of art. Regardless of how you answer the question, if design is simply pigeonholed as art then this at least has the effect of eradicating all the differences. Evidently, from Borries' perspective design cannot and may not be an independent discipline but has to be "a form of art". Yet design not only engages with the world "by designing" but also intervenes directly in the capitalist production of goods by not only considering economic but also ecological, aesthetic, production-related and user-specific aspects. And as regards the term "design thinking", it quite specifically does not so much aim at design as at art.

Bananas and the base sensations

To top it all the banana is now brought into the equation and along with it a poisonous undertone. Probably the comparison with the banana was intended to be witty. But let us consider what Borries writes: " ... Because I find the question as to what design is about as interesting as the question as to why bananas are curved. And I don't mean this disparagingly, ..." Well, one could argue at length over whether a professor of "theory and history, design theory/ curatorial practice", as his official job description would have it, should have a clear opinion on what he deems to be design and what he sees as art, rather than entering into business with tropical fruit. What is more important is to investigate the chain of assertions that he then forges. What, one asks oneself, does Borries want to say when first comparing design with a banana, before confessing (hidden beneath the gloss of ambivalence) that the first thing "we" think about in connection with bananas (and thus also with design) are "apes", who are not "blessed with reason". Could it be that in an argument by analogy somewhat hedged by qualifying clauses, someone is suggesting that designers are apes blessed with little reason? Or is the only thing that we can discern the fact that the author has a somewhat strange relationship to the subject or the discipline he teaches? Be that as it may, Borries provides the answer himself when he implies that design (literally) "appeals to the baser emotions, as, for example, in the consumer/mass-production-related incentive to buy in order to own"; as such, it is quite rightly "decried as superficial styling". At the latest at this point you wonder who is aping what.

Design as a cooperative process

Let's put it differently: It is inevitable that anyone who bases the education of future designers or artists on such a limited concept of design must slip beneath the protective garment of art, in which naturally no economic interests, no adjustment to the market, no "incentive to buy and own" plays a role. It may be much easier to improve the world with an installation in a "White Cube" or a one-off teapot than to get involved in protracted discussions with manufacturers, and in the end not only be able to develop a better designed product but also a production process that consumes less energy and less resources. As I see it design – and not any reduced forms or other such as also exist aplenty in art – is characterized by the fact that it actively and comprehensively engages in design at the interface to the economy and does not rely solely on the ingenuity or the artistic genius of an individual. Unlike art, design is not a singular, individual form of expression, manifesting itself in auteur design, limited editions or one-off originals but often an arduous, cooperative process involving the division of labor. Of course, it is simpler to ignore all of that and to shove design into the pocket of capitalism in order to save the freedom of art.

Strange alternatives

Borries might subsequently strive to not entirely forget "the other side". But this also goes awry, when he writes: "There's another side to bananas, though, if we think of Josephine Baker and her banana skirts. There, the bananas are still exotic, but also erotic (which is of course also a baser emotion), but can be contextualized as referencing elegant night clubs and high-end Jazz. Here again the similarity to design – distinction, Modernism, progress and a little bit of sex appeal." By waving Josephine Baker's banana skirt and constructing an erotic alternative, one that again serves to denigrate design, it becomes absolutely clear what he is claiming: Either design serves base instincts or it becomes show business; either it produces (superfluous) needs or it is part of an ambitious entertainment industry.

Design, art and critique

As such, Friedrich von Borries most certainly does have a concept of design. However, what he labels as design between the poles of the base instincts and erotic show business should actually be termed the output of the culture industry. This is the crux of the matter. For him design is everything produced by an industry based on consumption. Once you have reduced it to that you can deal with it accordingly. Which explains why he comes to the conclusion that "design and bananas are the object of a principled critique of consumerism." What is right about this is that design must also subject itself to such a critique. It is also correct that design critique in whatever form is not very pronounced. But it is also correct that turning the argument on its head means the reader is presented with a naive concept of art, and it is assumed that in art and when dealing with the art things are principally different. Should art in whatever form not have to face up to a "principled critique of culture"?

But our author just will not let go of the banana: "For all these explanations, we have still not established why the banana is curved. As we all know, bananas are curved because the bloom, which initially hangs downwards, turns to face the sun. Thus the curve has nothing to do with the banana, but its relation to the sun. The same applies to design. The question of what design is cannot be answered as a matter of design but of the tasks it has in this world." Fair enough. It cannot harm to look at design from the perspective of its tasks or its function. It is just that you cannot tell from that what its working relationship to art is and how this relationship can be brought to bear to advantage and discussed within a study course. Unlike Thomas Edelmann I am in favor of differentiating between two things: On the one hand the fact that through the Bologna reform universities have become places where the origin of good ideas is obstructed by a huge increase in administrative tasks and time wasted in trying to reach a consensus (which may well have been intended politically). And on the other hand the question of how art and design specifically interrelate within the context of university education. Admittedly, that does not alter the fact that on reading the text from the Hamburg banana republic you cannot help feeling someone is not so much playing with tropical fruits as with marked cards.