The Realm of the Unreal, an entirely irrational concept?

April 19, 2017

Isn’t our world a beautiful paradox? Although so many things often seem entirely irrational we, people, and they, businesses, strive to look for rationality. This, of course, applies to design, which is often seen or described as a clean process while it is often super dirty. In the eyes of marketers, however, selling clean and proper stuff works better. And in the end design is problem-solving, right? Yes, we know that – it creates solutions.

But, of course, the design process is more. It has a beginning: the problem and its definition; and an end: the very solution to this problem. The simplified definition of problem-solving, thereby, losses a bunch of critical design activities. Yet it has been a sufficient tool for industrial production. Because it includes what is likely, plausible and what consumers will prefer. Recently I have started to look into what’s to expect when we try to leave all of those rational approaches. So to say shake off the shackles of production and consumerism and see if there is a different methodology or model of designing. But where should I start?

[…] we enter the realm of the unreal, the fictional, or what we prefer to think of as conceptual design – [which is] design about ideas. Dunne & Raby, 2015, p.12)

The authors Dunne and Ruby write in their book Speculative Everything that an approach to design which is concerned with the unreal can be summarised in the concept of Conceptual Design. For them, that is design about ideas and summarising a variety of design genres. They believe this is a place where the fictional rules. Sound tempting, right, at least to me! A design without a client, a design where only the designer himself sets the rules, a design that does not care for financing – a design that never becomes real – how surreal.

Well, here the designer seems to act in an empty wireframe model, a grid that yet has to be filled with texture. But then what is that grid? Who built the wireframe beforehand? For whom is researched and produced? That is the strange part. Of course, speculative approaches are concerned with the unreal, with circumstances that reimagine status quo, at least to some extent. Perhaps the exciting part is combining ideas with ideals in place of ideas with consumerism.

Ideals are not measured by whether they conform to reality; reality is judged by whether it lives up to ideals. (Susan Neiman)

But this is not a new phenomenon. Ideas for ideals have been with us ever since by being part of our myths and culture. The Faber Book of Utopias lists 101 of such tales. The oldest dating back to 2000 BC. Further artists and designers have always used the unreal. A beautiful example is the photographic works of Moholy-Nagy, Lindner, or Günther . Their pictures reinterpret human empirical experience. A little later, M. Duchamp, the trickster presented a urinal in a museum. Isn’t that unreal. Well not today, but back then that was pretty unreal. He snatched the real object’s functions whilst raising its aura to an object of speculation. Of course, Duchamp’s provocation met success. The museum’s audience walked off in distress and the Avant-Garde proceeded in excess (sorry for that ;-)). From then on ideas for ideals are unstoppable. The beginning radicalism echoes in art forms like Futurism, Dadaism, and Surrealism. Artists question their own human existence in an unreal, un-possible world that straight ventures into war.

Later in the 60ties capitalistic belief is booming, at least in the West. There is scope for rebellion and of course for the unreal. The architectural studios Archigram, Archive Zoom or Superstudio, examine design aginst a bourgeois world. By detaching design from its capitalistic tasks and condemning taste they propose an architecture for the monumental. Future Research, as Superstudio describes it, is what thy do. Their aim: Radical Design. We see the design for the unreal has always been part of us. The idea of speculative designs is not new at all. Now makes it sense, that is the problem.

In 1972 Victor Papanek summarised what probably is an interesting venture point for this question:

As long as design concerns itself with confecting trivial ‘toys for adults’, killing machines with gleaming tailfins, and ‘sexed-up’ shrouds for typewriters, toasters, telephones, and computers, it has lost all reason to exist. Design must become an innovative, highly creative, cross-disciplinary tool responsive to the true needs of men. It must be more research-oriented, and we must stop defiling the earth itself with poorly-designed objects and structures (Papanek, 1982, p.10)

We are a forward-looking species. Speculation (speculor: watching, peeking, scouting) is an integral part of us. We speculate about everything: the past, present, future, the others and ourselves. Perhaps we should learn to speculate a bit more and not think that everything that is unorthodox is stupid. Designers and artist have long called for a way to allows conceiving the world beyond what is economically feasible. this work analyses aesthetically. Its capital is ideas. These ideas can show a distorted culture without solving any particular problems – but hey, isn’t that interesting? These ideas can be a great source of inspiration. Of course, they often may seem stupid, and probably childish to those that only care for business. But aren’t  perspectives and thoughts slightly off the norm the things we need? Decide for yourself but don’t be a smartass looking for simplified ways to new ideas. No 10-rules to anything! Better start fooling around and getting comfortable with the unreal – again a beautiful paradox.