Work in Progress
by Ponto

Towards Collaboration

Nowadays, participation and interaction are playing an important role in the relation of Design and designers with Society, particularly since new media tools were brought to the masses[1]. The work of the designer is gradually becoming more open-ended, interactive and user-centered. Andrew Blauvelt’s ongoing critical observations on graphic design at IDEA, Walker Art Center Design blog and Design Observer, argue that we are in the third major phase of the design history “an era of relationally-based, contextually specific design”[2]. Henk Oosterling also shares a similar view to Blauvelt in “Must Design Save The World?”[3].
They both argue that at first (twentieth century), designers offered us infinite forms and rules and they were interested in the rationality and universality of the form, where the public was not invited to interpret or contribute to the creation of meaning and the artwork became a pure celebration of form.
The second phase (1960s) was focused on the notion of meaning-making through the exploration and interpretation of content, celebrating expression, visual experimentation and meaning rather than form and structure. These so-called “postmodernists” designers were exploring complexity rather than simplicity. In the words of Umberto Eco[4], the viewer was free to explore and interpret what he saw, making every piece of design incomplete until the viewer interprets it. Then the author was “dead”[5] and gave birth to the reader. However with the claim of “authorship” by designers in the 80s and 90s[6] the providence for interpretation was viewed as a gift presented by designers as authors to their audience.
The third wave of design named by Blauvelt was “Relational Design” which began in the mid 90s by exploring the performative dimension of design by looking into the effects on the users and the ability to facilitate social interactions; by being pragmatic and programmatic with the real world constraints and contexts rather than idealized utopias; in summary a design that’s more relational, more contextual, that thinks about how design fits within the environment and how that contributes to the project and its form.
According to Blauvelt, in under a century, there has been a shift from form (syntax) via content (semantics) to context (pragmatics). In his article, Oosterling (2009)[2]resumes these three phases into three questions: the first phase “How does it look?, the second “What does it mean?” and the current phase “How does it work between us?”. This hypothetical phase that we are living can not only be a movement, but a new understanding of design.
Today there has been a difficult consensus regarding the use of the word “relational” on this hypothetical movement that Blauvelt calls “Relational Design”, because since the word appeared in design writing, the definition of “relational” tends to vary. Rick Poynor pointed out on his article “Strained Relation”[7] that the term relational is colonised with the term “Relational Aesthetics” that has its roots in the theory brought by Nicolas Bourriaud ten years before in his book Relational Aesthetics (1998). In this book, Bourriaud talks about a specific art practice from the 90s where artists explored interhuman relations and their structures on their work as a response to the present social context that restricts the possibilities of interhuman relations, by creating spaces planned to this end (img1). For Bourriaud “(…)the essence of humankind is purely transindividual, made up of bonds that link individuals together in social forms(…)”. This observation comes in as political and acts as a wake up call to society in general, and also shares Karl Marx’s point of view on human nature which defends that human essence is the set of social relations.


IMG 1 : Rikrit Tiravanija’s Thai food at 303 Gallery in 1992 (image from t)

In the article“Part of the Process”[8] by Monika Parriender and Colin Davies, they attempt to appraise certain graphic design projects with direct application of Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics discussion and combined this concept into the design practice, while Andrew Blauvelt’s “Towards Relational Design” views the word “relational” more as contextual nomination for a certain design practice rather than a term for specific social or interactive design outcomes, and also avoids getting into art related principles by making comparisons with Design history, but yet choosing this word —relational— loaded with meaning to name this new hypothetical movement. Is the term “Relational Design” misrepresenting Blauvelt’s analysis of this kind of design practice?
But isn’t in a way all design relational? For Europa “…any piece of work has an intrinsic relationship with the spectator as a result of their interpretation of it.”. By producing effects, some small, some large and because of its social intentions, all forms of design are then relational. Duchamp also described this relationship in Creative Act (1957)[]: “The creative act is not performed by the artist alone, the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualification and this adds his contribution to the creative act.” Here, the act of looking and interpreting the piece makes the spectator just as active as a physical interaction with the artwork, leading us to the point that all design is inherently relational whether you are conscious of it or not.
However what is different in this phase of design is the primary role that has been given to areas that once seemed beyond the purview of design form and content equation. Giving the design not only a relational form but also transdisciplinary, by moving away from the idealized concepts, and towards the complex reality of behavior.
So if all design is relational, it is also conceptual. At first glance, all design is conceptual in the sense that it depends on the conceptualization of problems and solutions. But for example when reflecting into the work of studios like Europa and Åbäke, which often make references to details found in research undertaken for the project, we might say that the final form is a product of the process, and therefore it is more conceptual.
Ryan Garden shared this same point of view in conversation with Alex Coles. He says “…good designers go into a project open and generate something that interprets the specific situation they are in (…) they take a long time trying to understand the situation before they design anything.” and later says “…they are conceptualists. They instigate things and it doesn’t really matter what area it’s in. (…) it doesn’t matter which because it’s about generating ideas and proposing problems and solving them.” [9]
Perhaps more than a new movement, this is a phase of a new understanding of the designer’s role. Norman Potter makes this clear in his description of a designer [10]: in this book, the author compares the practise of a designer to that of a doctor, both with responsibility for an accurate diagnostic (problem analysis) and for relevant prescription (design proposals). By making this analogy, Potter stresses that the role of the designer is to essentially operate through and for other people illustrating how interpersonal relationships, collaboration and transdisciplinarity are important to the design process and how the process of design is in some ways an intrinsically social and relational act and therefore important for society.
In summary, in the first phase of design, there was no reader, in the second, the author died in favour of the birth of the reader and in the current phase, and according to Blauvelt, the viewer is taking an active part in the design process. However this new phase is not only resumed to participation of the user into the design process. This is a new understanding of the role of design within society, as referred in Potter’s book. The work of the designer is to become more aware of society’s needs. That’s why many designers currently require a transdisciplinary and collaborative studio model to deal with these new institutional conditions and opportunities. This studio model is not confined by disciplinary boundaries and can lead to a form of practise where issues are explored and rigorously tested in an open ended format rather than a closed system.

[1] See project Turner Prize Twitter Wall (2010) by A Practise for Everyday Life in collaboration with Hellicar&Lewis (, as an example.
[2] Blauvelt, A, 2011. Towards Relational Design / Para um Design Relacional. PLI, 1, 7 to 13.
[3] Oosterling, H. (2009) Dasein as Design Or: Must Design Save the World? [PDF]. Available from :<> Last accessed December 2012.
[4] Eco, U (1962). The Open Work. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[5] Barthes, R. (1967) The Death of Author. [Internet Article]. Available from: <> [Accessed 16 October 2012].
[6] Rock, M. (1996) The Designer as Author. [Internet Article]. Available from: <> [Accessed 16 October 2012].
[7] Rick, P. (2009) Observer: Strained Relation. [Internet Article]. Available from: <> [Accessed 16 October 2012].
[8] Parriender, M & Davies, C. (2006) Part of the process. [Internet Article]. Available from: <> [Accessed 16 October 2012].
[9] Coles, A (2012). The Transdisciplinary Studio. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
[10] Potter, N (2002). What Is a Designer: Things, Places, Messages. London: Hyphen Press.

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28 May 2013

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