NESHAN, The Iranian Graphic Design Magazine

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Neshan 43


Transformation Design; Designers As Superheroes

Foad Farahani

In modern societies, collective life is assembled through the overlap of scientific and technical controversies. The inequities of growth, ecological crisis, and all other major contemporary issues emerge as a tangle of humans and non-human actors, politics and science, morality and technology. Because of this growing complexity, public life is becoming more and more difficult. To find our way in this uncertain universe and to participate in its assembly, people need to be equipped with tools to explore and visualize the complexities of scientific and technical debates. Designers can help to plan our future by understanding empathinzing with the needs of people.Transformation Design is looking for ways to change behavior and society through innovative ideas, services, and products. The existing user-centered approach to design must be extended to one that is oriented around society. […] The term, transformation design, was first referenced in RED paper 02, the British Design Council (2004), and presented as a new design discipline with this title. […] But the roots of this idea can be traced back to the concept of transformation based Karl Polanyi theory outlined in his book “The Great Transformation” (1944). […]

Bruno Latour, in his keynote (2008) address to the Design History Society entitled ‘A Cautious Prometheus: A Few Steps to a Philosophy of Design’ notes that the design disciplines have developed methods such as blueprint drawings and CAD technology for visualizing objects as matters of fact. The challenge now is to develop tools for visualizing matters of concern, and to represent the often contradictory and controversial nature of these concerns. […] The concept of matters of concern is embedded by Latour (1991) in the framework of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT). Initially, only a small group of design researchers expressed interest in Latour and ANT, but more rectenly, a broader acceptance has emerged. In the emergent field of data journalism, new, integrative forms of text and images, dynamic presentation, and mediated interactions are being developed for structuring and visualizing matters of concern. […] The systematic foundations that visualization standards will need in the future are potentially found in the medieval trivium of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. […]
In the today’s evolving context, media environments, and intelligent objects, the border between physical and virtual environments is becoming increasingly blurred. Now, by utilizing the ‘concerns’ concept as an denominator, we can integrate different perspectives. This perspective helps to consolidate the foundations of transformation design. But can we design Concerns? What are our Concerns, who defines them, how are they constructed, and how are they vetted by the public? We also need to clarify how Concerns, values, needs, issues, and framing work together and why some things matter to people while others do not.
The typical things people are concerned with constitute different frames of mind. Individual frames of the mind, in idiosyncratic and fluid combinations of concern, that may start or stop mattering. Concerns are defined as interpretations of values that are embedded in religious, cultural, and social contexts. Whereas values may stay constant over long periods of time, Concerns tend to change more rapidly. […] Values can be articulated in words, but Concerns manifest themselves through people’s actions and decisions. Concerns are not to be equated with needs, although some concerns may be linked to needs. Design contributes to the construction and deconstruction of these frames or mindsets by organizing perception and interaction into services,artefacts, and experiences that can enable new forms of social interaction. 
If designers are asked in the future to design matters of concern, they may start with the question: who does what for whom and why? Instead of taking products or services as a starting point for design, they should begin by asking questions such as: what concerns make people behave in a certain way? How do individuals interact with one another, with artefacts, and with the environment? Why and which subjects do people talk about? And so on...
The standard models of homo economicus, or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, are incapable of answering these questions. Designers can work with concerns and use the driving forces of concerns as starting points. It is no longer possible, as it was in the modern era, to address needs and solutions. Now, it is necessary to follow much older roots, as Peter Sloterdijk has described “the birth of design out of the spirit of ritual”1.
Engaging in a ritual means relying on an approved social form generated from the accumulated experience of generations. The evolutionary basis of culture and the basis of design can be found in rituals; primordial humans faced with the overwhelming powers of nature did not have the tools and knowledge to cope with them. But instead of being paralyzed by anxiety, they invented rituals to help themselves endure hardship. Although dancing to make it rain did not influence the weather, it helped people to survive. When rituals erode, as it is in our time, designers are called to invent new social forms that will help people to cope with enduring concerns.
The matters of concern approach can help to integrate the perspectives of technology, psychology, social interaction, and cultural innovation with design. This approach can help to overcome the fixation on needs that was central to design discussions for decades. Papanek, in his book “Design for the Real World (1971)”, offered a redefinition of design as an agent of change, working for ‘real needs’ in a ‘real world’. But by Papanek’s ‘real needs’, ‘What the people really want’ was left undefined.
[…] Instead of adhering to a normative set of values, designers will have to decide individually on what commission to accept, what compromises to make, what risks to take, and what strategy to deploy. New social forms cannot always be created collectively. Sometimes it is necessary, an iconoclast to propose a novel perspective. Transformation design calls for personal conviction, dedication, and often the making of lonely decisions: designers as superheroes.
In our Anthropocene epoch, man’s power to shape the world, himself included, is almost total. […] Permanent change challenges design. But change does not wait for the designer; social dynamics and technology are the drivers, with consequences that are unpredictable. Thus, the power of design is not necessarily the power of designers. Perhaps, it might be the power of nuclear physicists, molecular biologists, nano-engineers, or simply businessmen, who all have a different understanding and definition of design.

 1 Peter Sloterdijk, Geburt des Designs aus dem Geiste des Rituals, 2007.

Bruno Latour, What is the style of matters of concern?, Van Gorcum 2008.
Transformation Design: Perspectives on a New Design Attitude (Board of International Research in Design), Birkhäuser, 2015.
Making Things Public, Atmospheres of Democracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2005.

Foad Farahani

(b.1983) graphic designer, visual artist and researcher, began his career activities in the fields of painting, sculpture and conceptual art from 2001. As a freelance designer and art director since 2005, he has been engaged in various projects. His research on phenomenological art and perception philosophy is being published in the book Space as Support. Moreover, he has participated in several art events as a curator and exhibition designer. As well as participating in internal and international exhibitions in the field of fine art and graphic design, he has the experience of teaching in the courses such as publication design and discourses of modern art in his background.

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