Buchanan’s Nightmare Or the Fragmented Landscape of Design Practice

By | June 30, 2022

Its within little known and less cited literature published at the very end of the previous century that hints of the challenges we face today can be found. Stumbling through these dusty old archives, I came across some thoughts and words which capture contemporary issues so well that I was moved to write this post.

Let me start with an article by Richard Buchanan (Design Issues, 1998) based on his conference keynote in Helsinki in June 1994. Its called Branzi’s Dilemma: Design in Contemporary Culture and the issues it raises are all the more visible today due to our deeply interconnected digital zeitgeist, accessible via our screens on demand. Its titled in response to an essay written in 1985 by the Italian designer Andrea Branzi, with whom Buchanan proceeds to debate on the future of design before concluding with his own directions. Branzi’s call for action envisioned a second modernity – one which was fragmented, tribalized, and comprised purely of individual designers pursuing their own concepts of identity and values, unguided by any one singular vision or value system. Thus, in Buchanan’s words, Branzi’s dilemma is that of identity and moral purpose, heralded by a collapse of modernism, and thus a “unifying ideology of design and world culture” (Buchanan, 1994; 1998). It is impossible to summarize or synthesize the well argumentated case against a lack of unifying ideology, with default to power and control, in the context of design and designers, and the power they wield to shape our world. What I will share instead is a snippet of Buchanan’s worst nightmare if Branzi’s second modernity came to pass – remember, this was said almost 30 years ago in 1994.

Going by what can be observed through my screen alone, it is not hard to arrive at the conclusion that this where we are now, in 2022 as we grapple with persuasive design, dark design, addictive design, and the plethora of individuated ills of fragmentation, tribalization, and lack of a vision of a healthier, more sustainable and resilient world.

“…the impact of tribalism on design and the development of technology is unconscionable for individuals who have made creativity and innovation their life’s work. […] At least as human beings, if not as designers and educators, we must think about the consequences of renewed factionalism and tribalism in the contemporary world. Where will our students find moral purpose to guide their work? Can anyone familiar with the events of the twentieth century seriously give their trust to personal sensitivity and good intentions in matters as complex as designers face today?” (Buchanan, 1994; 1998)

And why stop at the challenges posed by the internet and its disreputable algorithms and content feeds that foment hate and outrage as a profitable exercise in “user engagement”? Consider the planet and its future. Remember to get an airconditioned room. If there’s a unity in diversity that is possible, its the common home we all share under our sun – the Earth and all the life that remains on it.

“…it enables us to focus on one of the central problems of contemporary culture: if there is no unifying ideology shared by the design community and world culture as a whole, where does the individual find identity and moral purpose?” (Buchanan, 1994; 1998)

I find it interesting, a weak and shallow word to capture my feelings tbh, that Buchanan gave this talk at the design school in Helsinki, and writes that he is grateful for the innovative work at UIAH (aka Taik), as can be seen here. UIAH is now Aalto University School of Design, where I have taken a number of classes last autumn towards my doctoral degree in the Product Development department of Aalto School of Engineering. Creative Sustainability, for example, is an unusual interdisciplinary Master’s program that combines design, business, and chemical engineering. There’s an ideology that’s unspoken but palpable in every class – I’ve only taken a couple but I’ve made friends from the program – and it shines through in the commitment and belief that our living environment is as much of a stakeholder in our design actions as any “human” or “user” centered by design.

Its not yet a world culture unifying ideology for design as Modernism was for its own generation but it definitely has the capacity and sensibility to offer the seeds of one, as probably do the myriads of other design programs in the Nordic countries who focus on issues surrounding design’s relationship to consumer culture and thus strive to nurture a sensitivity to our collective footprint on earth. A healthy counter balance to the unchecked drive for design’s thinking and practice to create shareholder value and exploit our very breath as a datapoint in some big collection in the cloud.

For new readers who do not know my name, I pause here to contextualize my words with a data point or two of my experiential knowledge of the global design industry, its trajectories, its flavours, and it IDeologies. I am a very recent convert to the Scandinavian tradition, and spent close to 20 years as a passionate promoter of human centered design. A total of 32 years have passed since I walked out of the Eames designed conceptual framework of industrial design education for a newborn nation. The fragmentation and the dissolution of moral compass and a higher purpose for human creativity and innovation is a recent arrival on the world stage, deeply intertwined with the data gathering power of the social internet of the past decade or so.

“Indeed, the philosophical shift signaled by the new plan, with its emphasis on wind and rain and birds and bees rather than data and more data, seems like a pragmatic response to the demands of the present moment and the near future.” Source

Toronto’s philosophical shift meant rejecting the data driven Smart City concept for a return to nature. It also means a wholistic vision that can encompass diversity whilst offering a unifying ideology. Who wouldn’t want an emphasis on the wind and rain and birds and bees? Can’t argue with that kind of design thinking.

“Rather, in light of the challenges posed by the climate crisis and the emerging geopolitical reality of multipolarity, the future belongs to those who manage to lay down the material infrastructure for a sustainable world economy powered by clean energy and designed for shared prosperity.

That battle cannot be won by those who long for the past or those who are content simply to preserve the present. It can only be won by those who are willing to reinvent themselves first, before setting out to remake the world in their image.” Source

2 thoughts on “Buchanan’s Nightmare Or the Fragmented Landscape of Design Practice

  1. Michael Davis-Burchat

    Well, thanks for this Niti!
    It sounds like you are deeply enjoying a new path with design thinking. It is exciting to imagine chemical engineering getting stirred into things! Enjoy. I am noticing in my own ideations, more questioning of the role of biology in design as well.

    Thanks especially for drawing us back 30 years to the discussion of a second modernity. It would be fun to hear how Buchanan and Branzi reflect on that time in their lives. I wonder for instance if Branzi’s concept delves into a finer-grained appreciation of ‘all things natural’? I wonder if Buchanan’s interests in unifying concepts have at all been tempered by some of the dismal results on display in the push to ‘own the metaverse’?

    And about that human/user-centered chestnut that we stubbed our toes on for so many years now. I notice when I refer to it as humanity centered, there is plenty of room for things like wind and rain and birds and bees in a designerly consciousness. I feel like Charles L Owens would abide.

  2. Niti Bhan Post author

    Hello Michael,

    Thank you for the thoughtful comment. Its great to hear from you. You raise interesting questions that I wish we could put forward to both Branzi and Buchanan.

    I rather like your “humanity centered” approach, though I wonder if the word human rather than “life” for instance, still centers it too much around humans? There’s a trend towards considering non-human participants for sustainable participatory design I’ve noticed, and begun reading on environmental philosophy as a way towards finding better words to articulate this.


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