“Research & Destroy: A Plea for Design as Research” by Daniel van der Velden

I must admit that I’ve never had a good understanding of what designers mean when they use the word “research” (e.g. as the title of Ellen Lupton’s book and former design studio, Design, Writing, Research or in the title of this essay, “Research & Destroy: A Plea for Design as Research). I’m sure it differs from my understanding of the term, since my experience doing research is very traditionally scientific and academic.

But more importantly than the details of how research is done differently in the contexts of design vs. science, research almost seems like the antithesis of design. Research, as I have come to understand it, is about uncovering truths; design seems to be about legitimizing fictions (this idea on how form takes and loses meaning is also covered in previous essays in this series on objects and things). That is, design is the invention of things we take to be true in our culture. It is the source of all contrived truths. This is something I touched on briefly when I referenced Michael Rock’s Bloomberg Businessweek Design 2016 keynote in my last response to Karel Marten’s “What Does Design Mean to Me.” In his talk, Rock mentions design’s incredible power to make things in our world coherent:

Design is a faith-based proposition. For design to work, we have to believe in it. And design is the physical manifestation of fiction, and those fictions are the fictions that we live our life by. So the purpose of design, when we ask, “what is design for?” I would say the purpose of design is to create coherent worlds, that coherence in itself is the function of design. And when you look at coherence, what is coherence? Coherence is to stick together, somehow to make something stick together. So the way we divide the world and make it stick together is the essence of what design does. Another way you could say that is that design projects our desire onto the world.

This statement really stuck with me when I first heard it. Design is the method through which we impose order on our lives. Design gives things value, meaning, and purpose. Daniel van der Velden echoes a very similar understanding: “Design is added value. En masse, designers throw themselves into desires instead of needs… Design only generates longing. The problem is the problem of luxury” (Jessica Helfand’s Design: The Invention of Desire explores this idea even further). From this perspective, it becomes obvious as to why design plays such a huge role in commoditization and thus constraining and oppressing people rather than empowering them.

van der Velden also finds that designers themselves are becoming increasingly commodified, and spends a section of his essay on the degradation of the role of the designer as someone whose value comes from their ideas to someone who “holds a mouse and drags objects across a computer screen.” The solution suggested in “Research & Destroy” is for designers to turn to research: the designer needs to be valued for the knowledge they contribute rather than their labor. van der Velden is vague on what research means exactly in this context, but the result of it should be ”knowledge that makes it possible to seriously participate in discussions that are not about design.”

It’s an interesting proposition, but as to whether it would prevent designers from being used for their labor, I’m not so sure. I think the trend van der Velden is describing is extremely relevant today, and I have to say that it’s very apparent that the companies and institutions investing heavily in design today are most likely not hiring designers for their ideas.