Steampunk, cosplay, food trucks, mumblecore, anti-perfumes, and World of Warcraft, plus typography and class differentiation at the mall;
Apple and value;
True Blood and queer brand communities;
Campus architecture and science fiction;
Place-making and foodways in a Filipino restaurant chain:
These are some of the topics that students developed in their final research papers in courses I taught and co-taught at UC Irvine from 2010 to 2013. My main job these days, though, involves running our humanities center and a new arts and culture program. Design touches everything I do. I churn out fliers, postcards, and web materials, and I use my knowledge of fonts and printing processes to work with professional designers on more demanding stuff, like logo design and annual reports. When other folks on campus ask to be “put in touch with my design person,” they are surprised to learn that I am doing most of the work myself. The two people who’ve taught me the most in the last three months? José, the civil engineering major who was my coach for a TEDx talk, and George, the UPS guy who handles my print jobs.
But design, as Benjamin Evans points out, is not just visual or object-oriented. Design is increasingly about “management practices.” In my case, that means building audiences, considering outcomes, and boosting visibility for humanities research. I’ve become a brand manager for my own events and a brand consultant when I work with other faculty. I’ve learned to ask questions like these:
- What are you trying to achieve with your exhibition?
- Who’s the audience of your panel discussion and how do you plan to reach them?
- Where do you see this works-in-progress series taking you and your collaborators a year from now?
- What kind of experience do you want to provide for the students in the audience? For the scholars?
My colleagues are sometimes taken aback. Isn’t the value of our work self-evident? Why should I have to sell my event? And what’s wrong with reading a paper out loud for the better part of an hour? Meanwhile, we are upset when our projects are left out of university-wide campaigns, and we are surprised by flaccid enrollments in our courses and majors.
This is what design thinking looks like in the humanities: my colleagues are prototyping when they try out a new programming format (such as a charette, a skill share, or a research slam). They are brainstorming when they imagine possible outcomes of their research. And they are being iterative when they retool an academic article for a broader audience and then use that effort to reframe their academic work.
I doubt Benjamin Evans would object to any of this. After all, he is after bigger fish (the MFA industry! IKEA!! Death row!!!). In the process, though, Evans reinforces the “anti-business, as usual” attitude that keeps humanists locked out of conversations that we actually have a lot to say about, such as the nature of creativity and the history of innovation. We also dull our ability to stretch our communicative capacities when we identify change with cooption.
At the core of Evans’ article is the distinction between design for use and art for play:
Most people who get seriously into something such as philosophy do so not because it might get them a good job in the oil industry, but because they see it as intrinsically valuable and rewarding.
OK, so oil = bad, and philosophy = good, but how about the humanities major who wants to work in content management, user experience, or branding and marketing? Can she have enjoyed studying English or philosophy for their own sake in college and still find meaningful employment outside academia? And can her humanities courses incorporate exposure to real-world applications and remain intellectually rigorous? I think so.
Benjamin Evans turns to the Situationists for his anti-design inspiration. My response? The Situationists were experience designers. Contemporary cinema and fiction, but also the plays of Shakespeare and the fantasy pavilions of Chaucer, are scenes of convergence among architectural, economic, theatrical, and narrative designs. Psychogeography and unitary urbanism are Situationist concepts with a lot to offer contemporary designers and design interpreters. I’d also draw on the Italian Autonomists, whose discussion of the General Intellect speaks to the role of communicative platforms and design tools in self-organizing efforts in the arts, politics, business, micro-financing, and the nurturing of counter-publics. Design may have gotten us into the Anthropocene but it also may play a role in helping us adapt to new conditions, including the difficult communicative task of changing human behaviors.
Hannah Arendt’s accounts of speech as action and objects as world-building can also help us place design for the humanities. In The Human Condition, Arendt writes:
Action and speech go between men, as they are directed toward them, and they retain their agent-revealing capacity even if their content is exclusively ‘objective,’ concerned with the matter of the world of things in which men move, which physically lies between them and out of which arise their specific, objective, worldly interests.
Design thinking cultivates the in-between that connects places, persons, and things through communicative action. Much contemporary design — including, yes, the design of more humane prisons and probation centers as well as retail, work, and housing spaces — aims to create environments that encourage speech and co-presence. Isn’t the crafting of time and space to enhance conversation and inquiry part of our art as humanists, too?
Design can’t save the humanities, but incorporating design and design thinking into my own syllabi and management style has certainly made me a stronger teacher, administrator, and advocate. The humanities are in a unique position to cultivate critical distance between students and their stuff while also exploring the many scenes both past and present that actively put literary and rhetorical techniques to work in the building of retail environments, brand communities, media platforms, and alternative economies. Our students might use their design-enhanced writing and research skills for consumer hacktivism, for employment in design, marketing, and communications fields, or as tools for organization-building and social marketing in educational, non-profit, and community settings.
On a recent transcontinental flight, I met a young woman who graduated with a BA in English from McGill and is now working for LinkedIn. She reads for pleasure, is a member of several reading groups, and continues to recall the joys of studying Spenser. I love working on publicity projects with a former student who now runs the marketing department of our campus bookstore, and I enjoy getting updates from a young poetry alum who wants to start a floral business with her mother. Another UCI English alum has her own PR consulting firm, while one of my former “Marketing Fictions” students works for the local public television station. I am also proud to collaborate with colleagues in the arts and computer science on programs that explore the social and creative potential of design. For me, these are all design + humanities success stories. We need more of them, not fewer, and they will only happen if we find ways to advance rather than react to the evolving conversation about design in contemporary life.
3 thoughts on “Designing the Humanities”
Great stuff! Without question the humanities in general should try to compete a little better in the shopping mall of ideas, even if there is something more than a little weird to me about calling the humanities a “brand” (must EVERYthing be a brand?). And if “design thinking” means being responsive to students and “prototyping” different kinds of teaching, it obviously has much to recommend it.
And, without question, English majors can (indeed, generally must) find work outside academia, and their background will very likely help them in whatever they pursue. Ideally everybody should have some kind of fundamental training in the humanities, not so that they can acquire skills for making a living, but so that they can have the skills required for living in general, so they can be thoughtful, engaged, critical citizens able to respond to the difficult issues around us. As for “humanities courses involving more real world applications”, I guess I’d have to hear a bit more about this. In my experience, both philosophy and literature are already all about the real world. Humanities courses are, after all, mostly about humans and their activities. I’ve no objection to teaching courses on writing a good cover letter, just so long as we keep arguing about more practical matters like Toni Morrison, multiculturalism, environmental aesthetics and such. I believe these are all very practical (honest!), even if there are few opportunities to make money talking about them. Just so long as “design thinking” doesn’t come to replace “critical thinking” I’m all for it. So long as the focus always remains on the students themselves and providing them with meaningful ways of thinking about the world (and not just tacking on well-designed bells and whistles), I’m on board.
And a small correction: I’m not much of a fan of the Situationists, honestly, though part of me admires their rebellious spirit. I must have expressed myself poorly. In fact, my whole polemic had nothing to do with the humanities at all, or even the evils of design thinking, but more to do with ART. I was also a bit nervous about the way some of the language of the Harvard Business Review seemed to suggest that “design thinking” meant “designing consent”, finding ways to “overcome resistance” and so forth. That does creep me out, I must admit. Surely we can agree that, just as not every humanities course is marvelous, not everything calling itself “design thinking” is to be celebrated?
I don’t even think “oil = bad” and “philosophy = good”, nor that all business is somehow evil. On THAT topic the question for me is “How to be a business without being a jerk?” (I.e. without gruesome exploitation, without instrumentalizing everybody and everything, without being unfair). It strikes
me that having people with rigorous backgrounds in the humanities, and armies of “design thinkers” might well help out in answering that question. As I think I pointed out, there have been many good examples of designers making the world a better place. However, I still insist (and I doubt you’d disagree) that no matter how good their design skills, students won’t be in much shape for “design + humanities success stories” if the fundamental questions of the humanities are continually ignored and denigrated as impractical.
I agree with Vince that design research is allied with social research (look at the growing role of ethnography in design and design education, for example). I think Benjamin and I are ultimately in more agreement than disagreement about key matters, but are approaching it from different positions.
I am a humanist with design interests and I see design as a way of linking humanities training to expanded employment opportunities for our BAs and PhDs. Design can also help us be better advocates of the forms of knowledge we love. But that doesn’t mean that I espouse the position, which turned up in today’s Chronicle in a good piece by Michael Clune, that “Design is the new humanities.” Design offers a way of conceiving and cultivating new forms of connection between the classic study of the humanities and evolving ecologies of communication. Each needs the other.
Never have understood why some New Schoolers have balked at the mission of combining social research and design. What is called “design thinking” (at term which most designers I know loathe) is on some level a kind of social research. Perhaps if Weber had been able to write an essay on design as a vocation people might have been more amenable to it.