Critical Reflection on Design Tuition


Andreas Nobel

Five · Critical Reflection on Design Tuition

Critical Fashion Project

In this essay, Andreas Nobel – Professor in Furniture Design at Malmstens, Linköping University, and former staff member at the Department for Artistic and Contextual Studies at Beckmans – explores the relationship between design and textual thinking. He discusses the justification of critical thinking in design education, how the concept of critical thinking is interpreted and used didactically and what effect critical thinking has on the design practice. While critical thinking is deeply rooted in the theoretical academic subjects, Nobel argues that the understanding of critical thinking in a design context needs to be investigated further. “When two different fields of knowledge meet and are expected to collaborate, conflicts will develop on account of linguistic confusion,” he writes. “The question is whether we should try to overcome these conflicts or, in the name of promoting a richness of perspectives, should keep these fields of knowledge separate.”

Is an essential precondition for critical thinking within a specific area of knowledge that its practice is made conscious and conceptualized? Can we only speak about critical reflection in the design field when words are used to represent and to discuss effects and qualities of design? If this should be the case: What about design that at its starting point, in its process and in its ultimate goal is preconceptual and wordless communication between the person and her or his tools, objects and space? A communication that also acts on several levels of consciousness at the same time. This essay tests the thesis that critical reflection does not merely manifest itself in words and concepts and that, within the field of knowledge where teaching is based on this model, something is lost.

They are not very many, but there are still areas of knowledge and occupations that do not require critical reflection. No one talks about critical badminton, critical blues, or the importance of critical reflection for someone learning to swim, ride a bike or knit. Design has more in common with all of these activities, physical as well as aesthetic, than it has with many of the disciplines with which it has become associated in recent years as an aspect of the academization of art colleges. Disciplines like, for example, philosophy and sociology have been developed through the art of writing. Design has not. Design has developed through craft practice and through materials and has, only relatively recently, been textualized, firstly in the form of drawings and, in more recent times, also as text. Perhaps design, like sport and other physical fields of knowledge, should be left in its own uncritical condition. For when all is said and done, design may in no sense be a matter of understanding or of knowledge but, rather, of physical experience and of hope.1 Two entities that the Western world, in its fixation on language in general and the concept of knowledge in particular, have always suffered notable difficulties in addressing.

If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.
— Buckminster Fuller

All fields of knowledge develop with and by means of the technologies that their representatives use for thinking and working. There is no absolute thinking that is not influenced by the technologies with which the thinker thinks. Thus, for example, Western philosophy is not an expression of pure thought but, on the contrary, is the result of a tradition of thought within which the technology of writing is profoundly interiorized.2 It would be impossible to grasp the history of Western ideas if one did not know that these ideas had developed in and through writing. This is true of all aspects of the humanities and social sciences. Typical effects of the technology of writing, like abstraction, systemization, representation and symbolic thought, have so permeated all of the stages of thought and work that the representational form of various fields of knowledge (writing) has become one with the sciences themselves. One can no longer distinguish between knowledge itself and what is written (and how it is written) about this knowledge. Together these have formed an inseparable unit. Form and content have become one.3 The critical consciousness pertaining to this interdependence, between technology and knowledge, appears to me to be better developed in the fields of design and crafts than in many sciences. The designer’s aesthetically informed and concrete experience as to how tools and materials always influence both the process and the end result leads to this central, critical insight. Tools and materials give rise to resistance. The very fact that they create difficulties makes the designer aware of their importance and their influence on not only the material but also the designer’s own psyche. Physical limitations make the designer humble when faced with her or his part in the design process and aware of the fact that it is not a process that is concerned with materializing a specific vision but, rather, in collaboration and in conflict with material and tools compromising a form that more or less works. Materials, tools, techniques and one’s own body with its senses are, in this manner, the designer’s strictest and most critical teacher; but the critique that is offered here is non-conceptual and wordless. In this there is the potential of an alternative view of critical thinking with its point of departure in the various technologies that are used in different fields of knowledge. Letting different fields of knowledge study, analyse and develop their respective fields with their respective tools and languages effectively contributes to this critical thinking and to an increasing richness of perspectives which would seem to be a basic precondition for every form of critical reflection. On the contrary, requiring, as is the case today, every area of knowledge to develop and analyse its research with the help of a single, common technology, i.e. text, has consequences for the possibility of critical reflection since this one-sidedness limits the opportunity for a richness of perspectives.

“Materials, tools, techniques and one’s own body with its senses are […] the designer’s strictest and most critical teacher; but the critique that is offered here is non-conceptual and wordless.”

In the spoken or written word there are really no limits. As long as a thought does not meet with any opposition in the physical world one can imagine just about anything. This is the great strength of the written word: that with the help of words one can dream without physical limits. In this sense, every field of knowledge that uses writing as its primary technology is characterized by this condition of being limitless. In such a field of knowledge the need to formulate critical thinking rapidly becomes very important. One can dream with text but one can also falsify and manipulate with it. People in advertising, lobbyists, climate deniers and revisionists manipulate words to launch their own versions of reality. It is evident that, in the fields that are governed by such a boundless and uncontrollable technology as speech and text, the need of a conceptually formulated and critical reflection is essential. It is a question of preserving the legitimacy of a specific field of knowledge. Since design concerns itself with what is physically created and not in the linguistically imagined world, this type of conceptually formulated critical thinking is not relevant, and the risk with introducing this culture of writing is not only that one frequently misses the goal, but one also risks destroying other, more relevant paths of critical reflection.

The working drawing, just like the text in the humanities and social sciences, has become unified with the praxis and art of architecture as such. It would not be possible to explain to a man from Mars any of the styles that contemporary buildings and furniture represent unless that person had first been instructed in the logic of the plans and the image of the world that this has constructed for itself. Drawing is the technology from which all of our types of buildings have emerged and, without which, our architecture would be incomprehensible. We tend to understand and treat drawings or plans as an independent technology, a tool with which one can give expression to any vision whatsoever. But this is not the case. The system of drawings is so deeply embedded in every architect’s consciousness that any particular vision he or she has the capacity to envisage is already limited by the logic of the plan drawing.

This is also true of the furniture-design field, though it is not as tightly bound to the drawing as is the more academicized discipline of architecture. In design, the preconceptual methods for working are more alive. Contact with its origins and its craft are still unbroken even though, in many places, it is substantially threatened. In this essay, the notion of “design” is employed in its widest sense. Roughly speaking, the design of everyday tools and domestic wares is informed by material considerations viewed via artistic and technical factors. From this definition follows, for me personally, a view of design as a universal need or a species of fundamental instinct to build, construct and beautify practical items for oneself and one’s community. There is an empowerment issue to the design profession. As long as people design things, humanity cannot be reduced to the status of a passive and obedient consumer. Like a proud ancestor, man remains producers who assert themselves and the existence of their physical body with a powerful will to use that body and all of its senses in order to create objects of beauty and practicality. Thus I see design as some sort of original, universal occupation. But in order to re-establish a more intimate contact with this original, or Ur-aspect of design, the contemporary designer needs to hack her or his way through a dense thicket of later accretions and abstractions. A representational and cultural feedback which, at least since the Renaissance, has piled layer upon layer of flat (2-D) cultivated and cultivating images on top of each other.4

“A chair is just a chair.”

These layers of representational forms and images get in the way of the designer’s real task which is really quite simple. Design can be described as a task that strives towards concretion and everyday life. Perhaps design actually has nothing to do with sublimity. Design is not so much, as other forms of art, a matter of commenting, depicting, emphasizing or distorting reality and the existential dimension. A critical approach to the sciences, to literature and visual art posits some form of concern with the problem of representation. The designer does not really have to address this. A chair is just a chair. A table is just a table – a piece of ground that has been raised in the interests of practicality; dry and comfortable. The table is not a representation but, rather, a tool, a link between earth and the human body with which mankind lives his life on and with the earth. Furniture has more to do with nature than we are able and willing to realize today.

Historically, theory constructors have deployed combative metaphors. Sport, game, and war are common ones. These metaphorical schemes have contributed to an academic intellectual culture of hostility, argumentativeness, and confrontation.5
— Laurel Richardson

The above discussion of design as an Ur-occupation, together with the table’s character of a natural element, is my subjective formulation of the problems and possibilities of design. Together they form a working hypothesis which I use to create furniture and interior designs.

Is the argument reasonable and true? If the table I make turns out to be a reasonably good and practical item, then it is true. Or, to express it better, if the table acts as a constructive contribution in a discourse on design this means that the argument contains a grain of some sort of truth. One can hardly demand more of such a complex subject that is so difficult to define. Can I achieve my goal of creating the Ur-table? No. I am so immersed in an overly intellectualized representational culture that my chances of seriously linking up with the natural or Ur-status must be regarded as extremely slight. Can one criticize the argument? This depends somewhat on the particular field of knowledge, on the particular group of thinkers and the specific technologies used in presenting the critique. Using the technology of writing it is fairly easy to point to the holes in my argument or to destroy it altogether. But this risks possibly destroying the dialogue which, in spite of or because of the possible lack of written logic and good sense, can lead to a positive development in the field of design. With technologies specific to a particular field, that is to say with the same tools used for making my Ur-table (saw, plane, drill, etc.) to hand, one must question whether “critique” is the right term for describing what we are considering. What is “critical” has here the character of “uncritical”, taking the form of alternative variants of the form of a table: modified tables that can either be further developed or can distance themselves from technical and design solutions from the original table. The “critique” in such a field of knowledge (workshop environment) is less categorical and more dialogical in disposition because it is more modest with regard to the difficulties involved in creating a good table.

Evolution. Not revolution.
/ Robert Venturi

The technologies of writing and of printing have fundamentally changed how we think and what we can or can’t think. One of the effects of the practice of writing and reading is that this favours a moralizing and pedantic approach to knowledge, learning and thinking. The written word’s character of sign system combined with the fact that the text, when ultimately committed to paper, is both dead and immortalized at the same time, helps to draw all practices that use the written word as their foremost means of communication in a moralizing direction characterized by pedantry.6 In an oral tradition prior to the written word, thinking was much more closely associated with speech, with sounds rather than with visual signs. In a tradition of thought of this type, thinking becomes more spatial, more fleeting, more dynamically considered, more social and more corporeal. This later form of thinking has more in common with design and the designer’s work in that it is also informed by bodily, multisensory and spatial factors.

In design we are concerned with everyday human existence. How people with their tools live and enjoy their lives. Design does not have to be more complicated than this, and the risks involved in conceptually theorizing too vigorously are partly that the designer may lose focus and may move off in more or less irrelevant directions, but also that others will be confused; and, last but not least, that the strength of the design may suffer. Working with form requires concentration, experience, application and time. All of the elements in the profession and in design courses that limit the time that the practitioner or student has to develop her or his abilities need to be critically examined before being undertaken. At Beckmans College of Design there is, in my view, a relatively positive balance between theoretical intellectual courses and practical and artistic activities. Generally speaking, students have two weeks of theory each semester. As a former lecturer responsible for these courses for the design programme I see these two-week periods as an opportunity for the students to create a distance between themselves and their creative artistic activities. Artistic work in the design field is largely characterized by an absence of distance and by un-critical thinking.

“Artistic work in the design field is largely characterized by an absence of distance and by un-critical thinking.”

Students have to become one with their work and, to achieve this, they have to immerse themselves in a condition that allows communication between several levels of consciousness at the same time. Here there is an important role for pleasure, playfulness, imagination, naivety and uncritical thinking.7 This is a rather sensitive condition that is readily interrupted. A ham-fisted negative comment from a teacher and all can be lost. Should design students complete their training without experiencing any conceptual criticism whatsoever? Perhaps so. As already noticed, criticism is in constant attendance in the form of the laws of physics, in materials and techniques, and there is, perhaps, no good reason for adding to this barrage of criticism. It would be interesting to try out an educational model of this sort but in Sweden today the educational policies in force would not allow such a school so we must continue with a pragmatic approach. And it may not be such a bad idea to escape from time to time from one’s creative and possibly introvert bubble and look in at it from outside. Representational forms like writing and speech work automatically to achieve distance. Perhaps the artistic, non-intellectual phase acts as a means of entering into the object, the form, the material, while the intellectual discourse can function as a means of entering into the way in which the object may work in a context, a space in the surrounding society. From a didactic point of view I should also point here to the difference between speech and the written word in a teaching context. The oral conversation is often a better language for constructive dialogue in design than the written discourse. The written discourse always has the character of a hierarchical monologue.8

A significant difficulty is the fact that reflexivity is founded on representationalism. Reflexivity takes for granted the idea that representations reflect (social or natural) reality. That is, reflexivity is based on the belief that practices of representing have no effect on the objects of investigation and that we have a kind of access to representations that we don’t have to objects themselves. Reflexivity, like reflection, still holds the world at a distance.9
— Karen Barad

The types of issues pertaining to such objects and their relationship with space, with each other and with us as human beings are highly complex matters that are scarcely to be caught and fixed in text or visual image. Shifting conditions with regard to colour, light and shade. How these shape the spatial dimensions and objects in space. How the individual object relates to this, to gravity, to mass and air, to walls, ceiling space, floor and then the various objects’ relationships with each other. There are so many transitory and complex factors in circulation at the same time in connection with a three-dimensional object that every attempt to describe them inevitably leads to gross generalizations and simplifications. Every attempt at a description will lead to a frozen image and conservation of something that is, by its nature, flexible, spatial and changeable.

Here I would like to test the thesis that this is a matter of a form of knowledge that is concerned with recognizing patterns and connections in a non-systematized, flexible and indescribable mass of information and sensory impressions. Without an aesthetically trained awareness and a well-developed sensitivity to form it would seem impossible to grasp the entire situation. In a state of aesthetic glances one can perceive a pattern, an aesthetic order in what one otherwise perceives as meaningless chaos.

Pattern is the keyword here and a pattern always appears as form, that is to say that it has more to do with aesthetics than with concept. One can view things in different ways, and the way in which you study something will determine how you perceive it.

“There are so many transitory and complex factors in circulation at the same time in connection with a three-dimensional object that every attempt to describe them inevitably leads to gross generalizations and simplifications.”

An interior designer has to relate holistically to space. That is to say, she or he has to sense how the various parts relate to themselves, to each other and to the whole. The various aspects of the room are so intimately connected that they can only be understood in relation to each other and to the whole at the same time. Here there is a pattern, but since it is so complex and so hard to grasp it is extremely difficult to survey and almost impossible to describe. That is to say: It is impossible to represent other than as itself. This is probably a matter of a preconceptual problematizing which takes place on several levels of consciousness at the same time, and that simultaneously engages such a multitude of impressions, memories and intellectual, as well as non-intellectual, levels so that any attempt to conceptualize the event necessarily impedes the situation that one has to enter in order to maintain one’s concentration on the task.10 To introduce untested written critical models for reflection into such a sensitive situation is problematic. One means of critical reflection and perceptual richness that is often proposed in the academic research field is exchange between disciplines. This may sound reasonable, and often is, but at least from a design perspective there is good reason to problematize this culture too. Just as important, if not more so, as dialogue with other fields of knowledge with the aim of extending one’s views is turning one’s gaze inwards, towards oneself and one’s own field. Notably at the beginning of a vocational training and practice there is a valid argument for a limited and somewhat introvert approach. Students in the field of interior and furniture design, for example, during their training internalize the discussions or styles of thinking that pertain to their profession. Students are introduced to a tradition of knowledge and of community. A community of similarly-minded sisters and brothers from the same practice. This training, alongside know-how, technical and craft significance also has ritual and symbolic importance. Students grow into their professional identity and this, in turn, increases their self-esteem, their confidence and their professional pride. A base on which to stand, with a reasonably demarcated and graspable horizon. These are all characteristics and mental conditions that are essential preconditions later to be able to think differently and critically. Students’ horizons should not be extended until what is in front of the horizon has been internalized, in both body and mind.

Learning a new occupational role can result in some sort of crisis on the part of the student. Senses that were formerly just latent are activated. Accepted notions and values are questioned. Students become acquainted with new tools, materials and linguistic elements which, in turn, alter the accustomed perspective with which the context is to be interpreted and understood.

Thus, this is a process that is permeated with a critical reflection which, to a large extent, remains unconceptualized and that expresses itself more as a feeling in the mind which can be mentally fairly tiring for the individual student in that it can involve revaluing one’s entire world view. As an instructor, to then add further requirements over and beyond this process of critical change, that the student should absorb the scientific, intellectual and academic content of critical reflection, is asking a very great deal. In my view this is often counterproductive, excessive and, sometimes, directly destructive.

But to learn a profession, to become a part of a professional community, is perhaps not so much about relearning or learning new things as it is about recognition and finding a home. It is not so much a matter of relearning as of recognizing deep layers within oneself. Students at a design school come from all sorts of geographical, social and cultural backgrounds. The more, the better. Western culture is strongly influenced by a lack of understanding of deep-lying creative and artistic qualities. I believe that many of the people who apply for courses in design, art and crafts experience a longing for a context in which design, and aesthetics in general, are treated more seriously. There is some sort of conflict as well as a longing in many students. These students may not always formulate it quite like this for themselves, but this conflict expresses itself in various ways. This can seem like a sensation of not belonging anywhere, of feeling misunderstood, of feeling stupid, or just different or unbearably bored. For these students (possibly all students) the function of the art school is not so much that of teaching them something new, but of awakening, developing and reinforcing what they already know, but what they may not have realized that they know. For these students, becoming a part of this intellectual community gives a feeling of coming home.

“Every field of knowledge has its own vocabulary which is used like a tool for discussion within the profession and to solve problems.”

On occasions I have come across students who have been criticized by one of their teachers for using such terms as “nice, ugly, beautiful, classy, pretty”. The teacher has launched a critical offensive with questions and comments: “What do you mean by nice?” Or: “Define beauty!” The teacher may be motivated by a not unreasonable desire to broaden the student’s understanding of the concept of beauty. A somewhat different, underlying reason for the teacher’s robust reaction, however, may be that the teacher equates the student’s concept of beauty with a normative, bourgeois aesthetics. The teacher associates beauty with an aesthetic ideal that is related to such tendencies as promoting good taste and elitism. In this way of thinking, beauty is seen only as a tool for class repression and exclusion. This is an oversimplified and overly hasty conclusion which is, in itself, a typical example of creating a theory of form outside the design field in an exclusively textual environment. It is an example of dichotomous thinking which, in itself, also risks degenerating into an excluding technique of domination. A simplified and intellectualized world view in which beautiful and ugly are opposites is an impossibility everywhere but in the intellect. For most design students, the notion will seem so bizarre that they often fail to understand the question: “What do you mean by nice?” This risks them seeming stupid and shallow when, in point of fact, it was the question itself that was banal. Designers and craftspeople often have difficulty in relating to this form of conceptualized philosophizing, simply because they instinctively feel that it does not help their own development in their field of knowledge. One should also mention here that, in cases where spoken or written languages are used as the form of communication in design, aesthetic judgements like ugly or pretty have very different meanings and functions than they have in a written academic context. The designer’s linguistic dialogue is more related to everyday oral communication than with the academic linguistic system. Every field of knowledge has its own vocabulary which is used like a tool for discussion within the profession and to solve problems. For anyone who does not belong to this intellectual community the terms used will seem either unintelligible or naïve. When two different fields of knowledge meet and are expected to collaborate, conflicts will develop on account of linguistic confusion. The question is whether we should try to overcome these conflicts or, in the name of promoting a richness of perspectives, should keep these fields of knowledge separate. In spite of everything, I personally lean towards the latter.

Thus the issue that this essay addresses is not concerned with the possible justification of critical thinking within science and education in general, but its justification in design education and whether this criticism is constructive and whether it is at all possible to apply a critical approach formulated in a specific field to a different field; as well as why this appears to be a good idea. Thus it is not so much a matter of these seemingly reasonable demands on critical reflection when one reads them as text, for example in a course outline or description, that seeks to problematize the issue, but of how these formulations are interpreted and used didactically, as well as the effect that they have on the practice and on tuition that I consider it important to criticize.

The question posits itself: Is it reasonable and realistic to require people to internalize a critical consciousness from numerous other disciplines and traditions of thought as is the case in university courses in arts and crafts? And why, in that case, do we not demand of students in more theoretical academic subjects that they too should divide and duplicate their ability to critical reflection by introducing foreign styles of thinking (preconceptual artistic reflection) in their university courses?

In the name of critical reflection and a wealth of perspectives, we have to question the point of immersing everyone in the same linguistic marinade, of moulding everyone in the same form of knowledge. ⬤

Andreas Nobel is an interior designer (MFA) and Professor in furniture design at Malmstens, Linköping University, in Stockholm. He holds a PhD from The Royal Institute of Technology, School of Architecture, in Stockholm with the dissertation Shady Enlightenment – textualized thinking and its consequences for design. He is the co-founder of design and architecture collective Uglycute and was a Senior Lecturer at Beckmans College of Design 2016–2019.

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