Continuing the Task of Translation: Narratives and Design Studies

Published on: March 10th, 2014

What follows are responses from those who attended the March 7/8 symposium Narratives and Design Studies at Parsons, sponsored by the MA in Design Studies programs. The conversation continues!

Design Can’t Do It All
Salem Tsegaye

The theme of narratives at this year’s symposium was quite fitting for a field tasked with interpreting, defining, and delineating design. The last—the task of delineation—is often the most difficult. While advocating for the crossing of disciplinary boundaries, we face the challenge of drawing parameters for a continually evolving, expanding domain. Many will argue the field of Design Studies is less about drawing parameters and more about exploring possibilities, but I would counter that the former holds equal significance. You see, if we don’t actually begin to say, “No, that isn’t design,” design scholarship becomes a futile project, and design, as title, will only be repeatedly co-opted for commercial interests.

The Mexico Biogas Program with Alex Eaton

In complete solidarity with panelist Alexander Eaton, I draw the line at social design. Think about it. If this is supposed to mean design that has some sort of positive social impact, then we should all be worried, because it implies that this do-good mentality is absent in modes of creative intervention that don’t share this name. This mentality, as ethical code, should be infused into existing design practices, not created into a new, separate one. Social design also attempts to make novel this idea of social change, which has existed for decades through the tireless work of humanitarians, community organizers, educators, etc. While professional designers undoubtedly bring technical expertise and a fresh perspective to the table, they too are operating within a broken system. In the absence of funding, scaling projects becomes an impossible task, calling into question (in this context) design’s innovative quality.

I use this response as an opportunity to say we do ourselves a disservice by validating the renaming of design into “__________ design” simply because it incorporates some new element from some other practice, discipline, or field. Certainly that isn’t the intention in our advocacy of interdisciplinary work, but we should err on the side of caution with this naming; otherwise, design will slowly lose credibility and meaning. The reality is design can do a lot, but it can’t do it all. It is our duty as scholars to be clear about design’s finite capabilities in these broader narratives.

Rethinking Terms
Laura Wing

In his talk on Narratives of History at the Design Studies Symposium Peter Hall proposed: “how it works is more interesting than what it signifies.” We can think of this in matters of the configuration of things. An example from our weekend, how woven and knit buildings and garments work differently in relation to environments and the body than, say, steel. And this generative capability of the ‘thing’, with its affordances and limitations (its agency), may be more interesting than what it signifies (gender, subversion, strength). Thinking further, even around the acts of ‘making-up’ and ‘making-real’—how these acts of design ‘work’ may be more useful to consider rather than what they signify. This is a way of rupturing and rethinking history, as Hall discussed. But I wonder what ‘opportunities to be otherwise’ might occur if we were to extend this consideration to language. I am specifically thinking about instances throughout the conference when certain terms—what they signify—took the conversation in a direction. An example might be the term social, that what it does in scripting and limiting conversations is more interesting than what it has come to be defined as. What might happen in purposely reconfiguring or inverting the term, what other conversations might be had?

Consider the terms used to frame distinctions of agency as either ‘staging an opportunity’ (Sean Donahue) or ‘joining a discussion’ (DESIS lab). More specifically, how the language works to frame the (design) opportunities in relation to artifice vs. opportunities in relations to persons.

How could the image of the rhizome or of the taoist diagram of the body translate into the use of language—moving away from fixed meaning and seeing possibilities for fluidity and motion?

In her opening remarks, Susan asked us to consider: “Where is the site of agency? Where is the gesture?” I want to talk about communication and language as one possibility.

Questioning Agency, Identifying Constraints
Rachel Smith

Unsurprisingly, the notion of societal structural constraints was raised by the sociologist at the table. I understood this notion to be the walls (ideologies) within which our living decisions must be made, but also the constraints within which design must work. The question is whether designers have the capability to work outside or push beyond these underlying structures in order to provide agency otherwise denied by existing structures. So the question is: what makes design the rare tool capable of expanding the ideologies or logistical restrictions that control how policy is formed, how people see the world, and what opportunity there is to rethink supposed “givens”? Lara spoke about the limitations of working within the semester schedules and the difficulty in maintaining relationships with communities after grant funding runs out. These, as Elzbieta pointed out, are structural limitations directly impeding design’s agency. Focusing on these particular examples, how can we move beyond the tedious but very real constraints of the academic and non-profit sectors in order to push the work undertaken as and with students into the realm of the real and permanent? And more generally, how often do designers truly provide agency for exceeding the obscured bounds of societal structure, and how much of design is produced to tacitly reinforce them?

Here are more thoughts on agency from Chris Bull, Professor of Engineering at Brown University:

An action supporting agency is creating an “enabling environment,” which ties to Sean Donahue’s mention of “activation of latent agency”.

One would hope that the elemental forces of society and technology might align and push/pull towards a common goal. Alex Eaton’s assertion that businesses are planning 20 years out in a very real sense; the rest of us are not. They are on to the how and we are still discussing the what.

From designer Marina Melani, an attendee:

I do have a comment regarding specifically one of the presentations, but that can be applied to most of them. I was particularly interested in Sean’s presentation, when he talked about the design of the Doritos’ bag, which exemplifies how design can encourage/discourage consumers to do something, to take actions. So obviously, as designers, we have a huge responsibility. (This was also later discussed with other presenters.)

The previous weekend I had a disappointing experience at the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago). I enjoyed an amazing exhibit called “you, the experience” which talked about how our body works, and also about health. It explained how portions have become bigger in the last decade, and it really succeeded in making you aware of eating healthier and exercising more. I spent about an hour on this exhibition, and it had a great impact on me. The impact was diminished when I walked out of the exhibit, and three steps from it, I found a huge range of vending machines, offering nothing but unhealthy snacks. I know vending machines are “a big issue” in this country, but it just didn’t feel right, I felt deceived somehow. So I wonder, what’s the point of all the theory when afterwards we don’t act accordingly? If I had been one of the curators, I would have definitely been more careful about that “detail”, that at least for me, meant losing credibility of the exhibition.

All in all, my point is that the importance lies in more than making the right design decisions to encourage positive results, but also in keeping the right attitude as a professional and as a person, otherwise we lose our credibility.

Design, Agency and Autonomy
Verónica Uribe

Defined by the dictionary as the capacity to act otherwise, the term agency and its concept suffers important variations among disciplines. In social and political science as Elzbieta Matynia pointed during the symposium, agency is understood as the capacity to generates radical change in one´s own life. Hence although agency is related, it is also different from the notion of well-being and the notion of choice or option.

In design, agency is mostly understood as options, more contemporary theories in design have approach this notion from the capability approach. Sometimes, however, important features of this approach are left aside. Many social design projects for example tend to oversee in its goals settlement that agency does not necessarily means well-being. These projects tend to focus in the well being of a community leaving aside the agency aspect of the individual. That may leave important moral aspects out of consideration in the problem definition. As Amartya Sen[1] states: “the conception of person in moral analysis cannot be so reduce as to attach no intrinsic importance to this agency role, seeing them ultimately only in terms of their well-being” (p. 186)

One particular sphere where agency is important is in the person’s own life. Although well-being is deeply related to agency and choices about a person´s own life, as Sen points:

This does not however, imply that the well being information it self could capture the important features of agency, or acts as its informational surrogates. (…) Even when the impact is positive, the importance of the agency aspect has to be distinguished from the importance of the impact of agency on the well being. (p.186)

As a said before, others social design project reduce the agency to mere choices in the sense of physical possibility or access to the public sphere for example. The danger in these cases is to take agency for grounded when not physical restriction is around. However some agent may have less freedom in the choices between A or B even when neither is physically blocked form taking an option—it might due to cultural, gender or linguistic restrains among others, as Phillip Pettit sustains in his article Agency Freedom and Option Freedom (p. 390)

Summarizing, I think the notion of agency that comes from social and political science is relevant to design because it, in a way, challenges the usual notion of social design and the role designers have in public policy making. It also deals with problem definition´s issues in design. Some broader questions that this matter raises are: Can design address the moral aspect of autonomy? How? Furthermore, taking Alex Eaton statement during the event, if design is inherently social, shouldn’t it necessarily aim to this kind of agency?


Pettit, Phillip. “Agency Freedom and Option Freedom .”Journal of Theoretical Politics. 15.4 (2003): 387-403. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.

Sen, Amartya. “Well-Being, Agency and Freedom: The Dewey Lectures 1984.” Journal of Philosophy . 82.4 (1985): 162-221. Web. 11 Mar. 2014.

[1]Amartya Sen is one of the main thinkers of this new economical and philosophical approach called the capabilities approach.

A Problem with Participatory Design
James Laslavic 

The symposium touched on hidden problems with the well-intentioned drive in Western design to make things universally accessible. Namely, there was discussion about how that pursuit often leads to taking things out of the community-owned sphere and making them commodities.

However, I couldn’t help but notice how it all still failed to really involve the affected communities in the act of defining their problems, and seemed to play a mostly decorative role when brought into the design of solutions. In the discussion of “participatory design” and the “participatory spaces” that it works in, it still all felt like the communities were not quite viewed as being a genuinely insightful source of solutions. I have issues with the idea of participatory spaces because of how they can be said to effectively quarantine the participation they intend to generate. It is as if designers have begun to realize that involving communities is desirable, but still can’t help but view things in prescriptive terms.

To end, I’ll quote Keely McCaskie, a friend with whom I was discussing this because I don’t think it can be articulated better: “I’d say that designers (and ‘development specialists’ and whoever) are the ones who should consider themselves ‘participants.'”

Program Contact

Caroline Dionne, Program Director

Program Update

Parsons is not currently admitting new students to this master’s degree program. Parsons is now offering a Graduate Minor in Design Studies that is designed to complement the MA History of Design and Curatorial Studies and other graduate programs across the university in design, liberal arts, and social research.