Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 94, November 2010

Design at the front

In a recent blog-post, management researcher Roger Martin highlighted how the latest US Army Field Manual, called F-M 5.0, has included “design” as a central feature in the core battle doctrine. Gone is the mechanistic perspective of separate parts and objectives and instead today’s military planning requires the design of holistic full spectrum operations. Design and war seems intimately connected.

In our world we often come to hear that design is shallow, it is a façade and only surface. Especially in one way it is true - design is a front. It is a front as in an outer shell, the look and the interface, but it is also a front in the meaning of a conflict zone. Indeed, one could say that design is stuck in an arms race where we designers are the warmongers. Let’s examine how.

The designed interface is a battle zone. It is a territory split between two or more conflicting wills. Take for example clothes, the outer surface of our dressed body. My clothes is a battlefield. I look for fashion which say something that resonates with what I perceive as my identity. However, suddenly I recognize that some stylist or subculture has subverted my message and suddenly my style means something else in the eyes of others. Without my consensus the message of my clothes has changed. I am an innocent victim, caught in the frontline in a war of codes and meaning.

war machine

We also encounter the fronts at the war of everyday undertakings. I fight with getting the pram up the stairs. I fight with the sensor registering movement to open the automatic doors. I fight to get the heater to make my room the right temperature. The parking meter refuses my coins and asks me for more money in an impolite tone. Sometimes the machine even makes noises when it is annoyed with me and I blush as people in the queue behind look angrily at me.

I fight to get the car to start in the cold morning and I even call upon magic to make it work: first I smooth talk it (-“come on come on..), after a while I curse it (“start you piece of shxx!”) and I even use force on it, striking the steering wheel before it starts. When a tool does not work I animate it to release my stress, I imagine it is alive behind the mechanistic front. This projected magic is true voodoo; like a doll being another human or a car being a living creature. And voodoo is a way to wage war.

But it is important to notice that voodoo is not about projection, we believe in voodoo because we experience that objects have agency. Objects influence and shape us with propaganda and everyday torture. We fight back the best we can.

war machine

I wrestle with Microsoft Word. Word is awful as it really fights back. For example; I try to write some abstract Dadaist poetry, and word counterattacks by correcting my spelling. I erase and rewrite. Word retaliates and underlines my words in red, blood red.

This behaviour of Word is a typical counterinsurgency tactic created by interaction designers, and we can see it everywhere: the pre-programmed “correct behaviours” firing back at us innocent users. This unjust battle recruits honest users to become guerrilla fighters in the war of interactions. Most of us only want peace, but the front calls us. We desperately seek a diplomatic solution in the preferences menu, trying to stop some corrective grammar function, but most often to no avail.

war machine

With a quick look at the history of warfare we can easily draw parallels the evolution of design. It seems like war, just like design, is always fighting for new dimensions to open new fronts. Old battles were about points and battlefields. Generals assigned places for battle, like duels, and castles could be sieged. This was the one-dimensional war; combat was done at specific points.

Then comes World War I and the points get extended into heavily defended and entrenched lines drawn across the landscape. The war got pinned in two-dimensional contours dug into the soil, which required the invention of armed airplanes (to fly over the trenches) – and tunnel warfare (to dig under the trenches). To avoid the stagnated line the war became three-dimensional. But still the war preserved its other dimensions and specifically it still kept the idea of one specific decisive point; that of occupying land, or the capital, to make the opponent surrender. The ends of war were still clear; defeat the enemy and conquer the land, while the means open for creative thinking.

war machine

Before getting into more recent times, lets have a second look at the dimensions fought over here. Except trying to outflank the opponent by new dimensions, it is also a question of speed. Castles and bunkers are about digging down to stop time and petrify time and the opponent, to keep a status quo. Not too unlike copyrights or blocking Internet sites. But new techniques are invented to fly over the trenches, to increase the speed, to dig tunnels and circumvent the defences. Think of rockets, bitTorrent protocols for file sharing or openDNS.

Today the ends in armed conflicts are often unclear, and the means are constantly changing. In most conflicts today there are a mulitude of political, economic and ethnic ingredients. Conflicts erupt at some places around the planet while the rest of the planet lives in a constant threat, of terrorism, bombs or other forms of violence. New frontiers and dimensions open endlessly and in new densities; nuclear war, cyber-war, bio-war, cultural wars. The fronts dissolve into a continuous blur of constant insecurity, as enemies seem to be everywhere and nowhere. Just like design.

war machine

Indeed, we can recognize the same patterns if we re-examine fashion design. Once the struggle was about the dominance of one frontline; the meaning exposed at the surface of the garment. The designer had an intention, a proposed meaning, and the user could choose to wear and identify with this meaning. But subcultures came to undermine this meaning. The denim jeans of the US miners were worn by artists and rebels and became ubiquitous fashion. Over the years some ethnic garments become guerrilla statements; some colours become loaded with explosive meaning.

Today fashion has so many fronts and meanings the voice of the designer is almost unheard among all magazines, blogs and forums. And not only meaning or identity; today the fashion fronts cut through ecological materials, ethical production, chemicals of various sorts, new fibres, composting and cradle to cradle product service systems. Marketing gurus look for even more dimensions; every brand wants a break through. Fashion design seems impossible to overview, ends and means mixed, all styles coexist at the same time and only a fragment seems to be about the clothes themselves.

war machine

Yet, still most designers work as if the only front was the surface of the object. They design to produce glossy photos and headlines (“another successful offensive on the t-shirt front”).
We need to stop the arms race and rethink. How do we design for negotiations rather than war? How do we resolve conflicts rather than engage in the arms race? How do we find reconciliation with design?

The war is over. If we want it.


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