Sunday, 11 September 2011

The Design Activism Conference

Four busy days at the Design History Society's Design Activism conference in Barcelona. I have a PhD to finish off this month so I have to keep this short but I am compelled to share my good fortune by writing a few words. Convenor Guy Julier has a more thorough conference blog here. The conference provided a space to debate emergent themes in design activism: politics and design, ecology and design, the role of agency, reflection vs. action, the importance of the language we use, peak oil and the capacity of design to address social and environmental problems within capitalism and current forms of democracy.

Things started with Henk Oosterling's keynote describing a movement to a philosophy of relations. Attempts to repress ontological connectedness are destructive and a role of design is now to internalise what is currently externalised in order to better reflect the essential conditions of connectedness.

Suchitra Sheth spoke on 'Designing Modern India: Gandhi as Design Activist'. The paper examined how Gandhi 'created a complex web of visual symbols, products and institutional systems' focusing on the 'Salt March' campaign of 1930. Look out for her paper which should be available on the conference website soon.

A problem for some of the activists presents was the extravagant amounts of food and the heavy meat content in our lunches and dinners. A little thought about the politics and ecology of food is necessary. Although conferences are terminally unsustainable due to carbon intensive nature of the gathering, food is one of the easiest things to change.

The conference ended with a discussion by Cameron Tomeron, Damien White and Karen Pinkus chaired by Clive Dilnot about Tony Fry's work the current de-futuring state of design, stuck in a system of structural un-sustainability. Some of us had already assumed a role of presenting the ecological situation that is so keenly avoided in design, but this panel examined the environment crisis in its most serious and logical implications. They thrashed out the critique of liberalism and pluralism presented by Fry. Damien White discussed problems with Fry's apparent top-down approach to solutions. Design has been complicit with the creation of de-futuring conditions - can it change? Fry's notion of re-directed practice holds potential. Existing institutions cannot deliver the kinds of change we need to make - what role can design play in creating new social institutions and forms of democracy? Meanwhile, how can designers deal with the lack of agency that accompanies the racketing up of apocalyptic themes? My only regret was that I stayed out far too late the night before so I regret not being able to present a more thorough review of this session.

The final keynote speaker was Laura Kurgan whose work on maps includes 'million-dollar blocks'. Here communication design engages with complexity and the development of spatial thought. Maps are interpretative representations of data - there is no such thing as neutral data in communication design. In the process of making information from raw data we necessarily make strategic decisions on which data to highlight. This is an important theme for the blossoming field of information design.

Drinking strong coffee outside the conference at 9am on the final day I was approached by two young activists who explained they were part of the 'Fuck for Forests' group. The group raises money from sex to stop the destruction of the rainforests in Tasmania and the Amazon while simultaneously confronting the legacy of repressive sexual attitudes: 'Our bodies, sexuality and nature are under suppression. FFF wants to reclaim nature & sexuality and show a sex positive culture. We need pleasure, not power!' They set up at the entrance to the conference and there was then an interesting merging of worlds as the design historians and design activists confronted these two young FFF activists.

In fact the merging of world was a feature of the entire conference. The combination of two communities, design activists and design historians was a fertile mix. Design historians have cultivated a discursive space for their field and the potential is now for design activists to develop a community of practice. A little support is needed, but there was a real desire to bring forth some sort of outcome. Stay tuned and get in touch if you are interested.

The Design History Society's conference next year will be in Brighton on the theme of sports in material culture. From the point of view of an environmentalist living in London, few things could be as de-futuring as the Olympic Games. I hope that ecology is not a subject that is considered to be 'accomplished' by the Design History Society in their engagement with social and environmental activism at this conference. Thanks to the Design History Society for sponsoring my attendance.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Design vs the Design Industry

I have just finished a new paper for the Studies in Emergent Order. The framework of emergence is extremely helpful in describing problems with design and sustainability. I am looking forward making the paper public, but for the moment all I can post is this abstract.

Design as an Emergent Order and ‘Tensions’ with the Market

As the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services, infrastructure and communication, design manifests the creative vision of individual designers for solutions to meet human needs and desires. Design is an emergent order that evolves as the skills and capacities of designers change with new technology and communications practices. New cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics creating the potential better solutions to contemporary problems. Yet despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems due to ‘tensions’ with the emergent order of the market. Critically, ‘design’ is not the same as the ‘design industry’. This paper will describe design as an emergent order with a specific focus on communication design and the profound conflicts between this order and the market. This conflict results in distortions of knowledge and reason with severe consequences.

** I am using the word 'tensions' because this is the word used in the call for papers. In the context of my paper it is an extreme understatement.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Ecology Games 2012 - The New Ecology Tube Map

Fancy some Ecology Games in 2012?


I need to know if anyone wants a silkscreen of the Eco-literacy Tube Map. £50 full-colour in an edition of 10. Please message me. Nice days left to support the Econopoly project (see below).

Monday, 20 June 2011

We win! vs. - Sanity prevails!

We have just received the good news that the vs. case at the National Arbitration Forum has been decided in our favour. Ten pages of legal case work conclude with the statement: 'Accordingly, it is ordered that the <> domain name has to REMAIN WITH Respondent.' Common sense prevails. In light of this decision, we expect that, the $5bn chemical cleaning and pest extermination company, will stop harassing us. We have more important matters to address than legal battles over our name.


I am grateful to the dozens of people who contributed to the the funding appeal to help pay the lawyers bills. I also need to thank Jim Killock at the Open Rights Group for convincing me that people would care and it was possible to ask for help! There are a couple website geniuses that came to my aid when the site mysteriously went down in the middle of this whole episode. Thanks Ian Green and Phil Isaac; if you had not swooped in, the arbitration forum would not have been able to see that is entirely legitimate and the entire case might have been ruined. Also thanks to our lawyer Rowland Buehrlen for a good defense and for subsidised legal fees. Thanks to friends and family for the their support. No corporation has the right to claim exclusive rights on any words in common use.


Thursday, 9 June 2011

The Issue of 100% Male Conference Panels

I was the woman who asked the exclusively male panel at Memefest's Festival of Radical Communications 'Inspiration day' why there were no women presenters. I think it's worth unpacking this topic a little with the  intention of helping Memefest develop into an network with strong input from women and other marginalised voices. Diversity of representation should by now be standard practice in any international  network, but is especially critical for one that aspires to represent a radical tradition.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Psychology of Crisis: Mapping Strategies of Denial

I am looking  forward to sharing my entire 'Environmental Communication Design' chapter with you (all 18,000w), but in the meantime here is a little preview. These graphics are based on Stanley Cohen's wide reaching cross cultural sociological studies including Nazi Germany, South Africa, Israel /Palestine, Rwanda and others zones of human rights abuse, genocide and state sanctioned or institutional violence. In States of Denial Cohen describes strategies of denial on a personal level as psychological and cognitive, and on societal level as communicative and political. Although Cohen’s analysis of how disturbing information is avoided is based on violence against people, this work on denial is relevant for environmental communications (as first suggested by George Marshall) and further developed in my thesis.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Lessons from Feminists for Ecological Education

I recently submitted this abstract to a conference and for some reason it was not accepted! Luckily the other abstract I submitted to this conference was accepted. Anyway, I might as well publish the abstract - here it is.

Endeavors to create conditions that will develop an awareness of context, political consciousness and the potential for social action have a long history in adult education. The remarkable shifts in women’s rights in the late twentieth century were the results of over a century’s worth of struggle by feminists, a struggle that finally became institutionalised in universities in the 1970s with the emergence of women’s studies. This radical education transformed the daily lives and political realities of thousands of women.


In a 1975 American nation-wide study of women’s education, Jack Mezirow identified ten phases often encountered during consciousness-raising process within women’s education and developed the theory and practice of transformative learning. Transformative learning has now been developed into a practice that helps learners critically examine assumptions and as well as develop social capacities to put new perspectives into practice. This pedagogy is a powerful tool with the potential to help learners cross the infamous value / action gap in environmental education.