Alice Rawsthorn was in our new events space telling us all about her latest book, Design as an Attitude, and what her 'attitudinal' approach to design means for designers working in the world today.

Design critic Alice Rawsthorn has been delighting our social media feeds for years, casting her critical eye on just about everything from toys to national borders. Now bringing together for the first time a collection of her writings from frieze magazine, Design as an Attitude is the most comprehensive overview of her work and thought to date.

In our first talk of the year at our new dedicated events space, the Rivington Rooms, Alice outlined her thinking behind the book and what her thoughts are on design more generally, all followed by a lively debate with the audience. Despite touching on some of the biggest challenges of the day, from climate change to artificial intelligence, Alice is never disheartened by the possibilities design offers to create positive and meaningful change.

Here’s what we learned.

Moholy-Nagy’s pioneering spirit

To kick things off Alice started by telling us about one of her design heros, the Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy. For Alice, Moholy-Nagy encapsulated a very rare breed of designer; someone who was energetic, inventive, but also hugely progressive in his politics who wanted to open up the white, male-dominated forum of design to women and minorities. Throughout his life Moholy-Nagy was a creative pioneer of photography, collage and other new elements of modernist design. Most crucially for Alice, however, was how Moholy-Nagy “reinvented the concept of design by liberating it from the constraints of the commercial role it had occupied since the industrial revolution”. In other words, he showed a generation of designers that the process of design was not just a tool for superficial or decorative ends, but something that could encapsulate a way of looking at the world. In his posthumous treatise on design, Vision in Motion, Moholy-Nagy wrote: “designing is not a profession, but an attitude.” And hence the theme that brings everything together in Alice’s book.

Design before designers

For Moholy-Nagy, design should be “a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness”—and while he may have been writing in 1947, Alice feels no other conception of design feels more relevant to our contemporary climate. “The concept of design as an attitudinal discipline, steeped in experimentation, is a guiding force in design today.”

Often, however, this has been a difficult thing to articulate. The main problem with writing about design comes from the fact that design has been “many different things to many different people, and at different times.” For Alice, what brings all these disparate conceptions together is the way it has always been “an agent of change which can help us to make sense of what is happening and to turn it to our advantage.” It is the aim of her book to bring these diverse threads together, showing how design thinking can apply itself to social, political, environmental and technological challenges.

One point Alice is keen to stress is that the word ‘design’ as we use today is still a comparatively recent coinage, but that design thinking has been with us for millenia: “whenever human beings have sought to change their surroundings or way of life, modify their behaviour or the behaviour of others, they’ve acted as designers, but they’ve generally done so intuitively and unknowingly.” In prehistoric times, people who crafted bowls to hold food and drink water were applying design thinking; when the pirate Blackbeard created the iconic skull and crossbones flag as a means of intimating his enemies, he was utilising an inventiveness we would more likely find in a designer’s toolkit today. Even the symbolic gesture of raising a clenched fist, a symbol of empowerment and resistance against injustice for over three-thousand years, could be thought as a well-designed gesture that has stood the test of time.

Changing fates

The reason we may not consider these things as being ‘designed’ is due to our modern understanding of what design is or should be. From the 19th century onwards, “design was rapidly and radically formalised. Individual categories were invented, training courses were launched, design became more ‘proper’.” But this was also the start of its diminution, says Alice, “when it became used more as a promotional tool, something that was concerned with surface appearance over substance, as something that was almost always used to make money and exercised under the instruction of someone else.”

During the industrial revolution, design was a tool for industrialists to create cheaper products more quickly; in the following consumer age, those same design skills were used to make those products more appealing and enticing to buy. All of these changing fates have contributed to the marketing-heavy, commercial-centric view of design that is prevalent today.

Fortunately, there have always been exceptions to the rule who have tried to push design in other directions. Alongside Moholy-Nagy, Alice cites Buckminster Fuller as another design maverick who championed environmental causes as far back as the 1920s. With time, the number of design activists, mavericks and inventors has only grown, with designers turning their hands to tackle issues like women’s access to healthcare in Pakistan, or de-stigmatising migrants in Italy.

For Alice, one project that perfectly exemplifies this trend is The Ocean Cleanup, started by Dutch designer and entrepreneur Boyan Slat. Eschewing all commercial pressures, as well as initial ecological and technological doubts, Slat successfully raised $30 million for his venture to clear plastic out of the world’s oceans using new and prototyped technology. “Design has not traditionally been seen as an obvious solution to health care shortages, plastic pollution or refugee crises. But nor were independent designers expected to raise as much start-up capital to mount epic ecological ventures on the scale of The Ocean Cleanup.”

But being able to work beyond financial necessity is not the only thing that makes Slat’s approach that of a designer. “Just as Moholy-Nagy envisaged designers to engage with different disciplines by collaborating with specialists from other fields, as The Ocean Cleanup does with scientists and ecologists.”

The challenges ahead

The future of design is, undoubtedly, going in a positive direction—but challenges remain. For Alice, perhaps the single biggest obstacle design faces in the future is a lack of diversity. A perfect example she cites is the Dutch architect Jan Willem Petersen’s Task Force Uruzgan research programme, a Dutch government-funded project set on regenerating a formerly conflict-stricken area of Afghanistan. The programme was ambitious in scope, with proposals for new schools, libraries, hospitals and even an airport; Alice does not doubt the good intentions behind the scheme. Unfortunately, however, a lack of diversity in the design team, coupled by the fact local considerations were rarely called upon during the design process meant the outcomes were disastrous: of all the buildings constructed, only 20% remain in use today, with 50% deemed either useless or barely functional.

How big, ambitious design projects like The Ocean Cleanup fare will prove a turning point as to whether or not more projects like it will continue to inspire the popular imagination. Alice is certain that it is diversity, collaboration and cross-disciplinarianism that will ensure their success and inspire the next generation of attitudinal designers to reach out and realise their potential.

Questions and answers

To close, Alice took some questions from the audience. As many of our members work within commercial design environments, the question of where commercial design can fit into an attitudinal approach was a keen subject of debate. Alice was quick to point out the two are not mutually exclusive. “It isn’t a question of either or,” she said, pointing out that it was good business sense that escalated Boyan Slat to the position he is in. “Some of the projects I’ve talked about are ‘commercialisable’. Healthcare technology has huge potential to improve the quality of people’s lives in poor and remote areas, while also being able to work within a commercial context.”

One final question played devil’s advocate: if everything can be approached with a design attitude, does that mean nothing is in fact design? What makes something a design project and not an academic or scientific or political project? “The simple answer is that it is steeped within design culture.” It is when we approach something in a way only designers see, or are concerned with things others do not see—that, in essence, is what Moholy-Nagy means when he says design is more than a profession.

Alice Rawsthorn’s Design as an Attitude is available to read now in the YCN library.

All photography by Sam Bush

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