Søren Rosenbak: Failures and Obstacles in Design

The notion of ‘failure’ hold a key role in design. Across industry and education, failures are praised, even celebrated, as crucial shortcuts to better design solutions, as epitomized in David Kelley of IDEO’s famous ‘fail faster to succeed sooner’. While failures in design practice thus are gospel, they are supposedly close to non-existent in design research. Here we find no celebration, and very limited articulation.

Design Research Failures. © 2018 Søren Rosenbak. https://designresearchfailures.com

This clash of failure cultures perhaps reaches its zenith of absurdity in the intersection between design practice and design research: the field going by the names of practice-based research, research through design, constructive design research etc., where knowledge is generated through practical design experiments. While one could assume this to be a field littered with spectacular failures in its materialized pursuit of innovative new ideas and disciplinary advances, here too failures are largely unacknowledged and unarticulated.

The puzzlement I felt from this curious situation served as the entry point for developing the project Design Research Failures (DRF), a critical open-ended conversation focused around one single question: “In what way has Design Research failed in the last 50 years?” DRF was originally launched as part of the 50-year Anniversary Design Research Society conference, and has since mutated into a more permanent and far-reaching conversation, revolving around the website https://designresearchfailures.com/. In addition to this online presence, DRF has been present at numerous design research conferences, such as DRS2016, RTD2017, PhD by Design 2017, with interactive exhibitions, presentations and a workshop. Further, on November 23, 2017, the first spin-off satellite DRF event was held as part of the Public Innovation Week (La Semaine de l’Innovation Publique) in Nantes, as a way to engage local stakeholders in reflecting on the way in which the approach of designing policies and public action has failed.

From its single central question (“In what way has Design Research failed in the last 50 years?”), DRF collects an ever-growing amount of responses (each below 100 words), designed into a poster format by Marije de Haas or myself, unless submitted in handwriting during one of the DRF events.

One of the key objectives is to continue to facilitate an inclusive, open-ended conversation characterized by fruitful dissensus, rather than aiming for a single conclusive answer (“THIS is how design research has failed in the last 50 years”). In this pursuit the discipline of design research is embraced in its entirety and diversity; across gender, age, race, geography, politics, religion, institutions (or lack thereof), academia + industry + third sector. Importantly, asking the question: “In what way has Design Research failed in the last 50 years?”, is not about reflecting on “why didn’t we” but instead taking a shortcut towards “why don’t we”. By facing the failures of design research together, DRF aims to better anticipate and co-create the future of the design discipline. In this sense, the project is devoted to resuscitating ‘failures’ in design research by shifting them from unarticulated and undesirable occurrences, into an explicit driving force for advancing the design discipline.

DRF further helps shed light on the curious relationship between failure and obstacle. Within DRF, I believe we can fundamentally think of each designed response (articulating a way in which design research has failed) as an explicit obstacle in our way, a focal point that allow us to actively navigate a space that has hitherto been foggy terrain. As an example, a large part of designers and design researchers might have a feeling that design research currently constitutes its own little bubble, with little interaction and impact in the larger design field and society. But going from this feeling to a precise articulation of this problem and further identifying it explicitly as a failure (as several DRF responses do), is a massive leap forward.

DRS 2016 Event; University of Brighton; Edward Street & Grand Parade; 29th June 2016 © Pete Jones. pete@pjproductions.co.uk.

When presenting the driving question put forward in DRF, I sometimes get asked about the particular formulation and the focus on failures rather than success: Why not ask in what way Design Research has succeeded? Going with this critique and doing the thought experiment of flipping the question in this way is revealing. Imagine what kind of answers you would get by asking “In what way has Design Research succeeded in the last 50 years?” Surely, a very different discussion would emerge. Firstly, what is the purpose of asking this question, what motivation lies behind? Personally, I sense an underlying logic of tracing success from the past into the future. As a discipline dedicated to the complex phenomenon of change, it can be slightly ironic to uncritically buy into the familiar risks in this linear model, as e.g. experienced in predictive analytics, when economies suddenly crash despite all models showing continued (eternal) economic growth. That said, surely much can be learnt from examining past victories. But as a second objection, one could ask whether design hasn’t already done so sufficiently? The biggest problem I see with this formulation pertains to a strong risk of falling into a familiar thread of self-aggrandizement and consensus-driven canonization. This is by no means a problem unique to design or design research. And while this tendency to focus on past success is understandable both in a larger business context (design produces monetary value), as well as from an academic perspective (design produces valuable knowledge), I believe design research has both the capability and responsibility to offer more nuanced, diverse, and (self-)critical perspectives. In other words, to offer us better roads ahead.

In contrast to this retrospective, consensus-driven and canonical approach, DRF is forward-looking, dissensus-driven, open-ended and non-definitive. The diversity in the growing number of responses, as well as their agonistic, and often provocative nature, are matched by the design of the posters, employing a celebratory range of diverse design styles, centered around playful use of typography and color. A standardized set of dimensions for all responses and a grid-like layout unites them in a flat hierarchy, enabling them to continuously align in new constellations, as they intersect, cluster, converge, diverge and clash with one another. As a whole, DRF thus can be viewed as a designed landscape of failures/obstacles. The negative white space plays an important role, in that it visually signifies the space for reflection and action. The project poses a field of obstacles in a space otherwise foggy, essentially ungraspable and highly difficult to navigate. As the fog–with its obscurity, vagueness, and unchallenged assumptions–clears, it reveals a fertile ground for asking “so what?” To use a different metaphor, it’s a bit like populating an assumed vacuum with matter. The big question is what we do at this point: What are the consequences, the thoughts and actions needed? How will we design and research our way out of these obstacles, or perhaps through them, around them and so on? How does the explicit failures signify directions for future successes? This indeed seems to be the inescapable challenge put forth.

Søren Rosenbak is a design researcher currently pursuing a PhD in design as critical practice at Umeå Institute of Design in Sweden. His research revolves around the question of how pataphysics can infuse and advance a critical design practice.