A sublime design week of ideology

Posted on Oct 23, 2021

This week, the annual Dutch Design Week took place in Eindhoven. This blog is an adaption of a talk I did at an event about design and activism, organized by Ruben Pater.

As industrial designers, our two main objectives are to create new desires and markets with new technologies and to maintain an ideological fantasy which covers up for our miserable state of affairs. To me, Design and Activism is about exploring how design could do something different. I do that by returning to its core, industrial design is about designing the materiality of future everyday life. This material everyday life, according to Slavoj Zizek is where ideology is at its strongest, which explains why current design is so excruciatingly neoliberal in ideology. Dissecting the ideological mechanics in design can offer a chance to design an alternative mundane everyday. Here, I will give some sublimely ideological examples from the DDW. I am not highlighting these projects because they are terrible, some are actually quite nice, whilst others unmentioned are the most hardcore capitalist crap ever. I am highlighting these because at the surface they seem positive or perhaps even subversive, but when we look closer they function well within neoliberal capitalist ideology. Each in their own way was born to keep capitalism going but maintains a different ideological fantasy in its own way.

ABN Amro paviljoen Let’s start with an obvious one: the main sponsor, ABN Amro. Why are they sponsoring the DDW? Online they admit that they sponsor the DDW because the design of new products and markets keeps the economy running. But this isn’t enough, at the ABN Amro paviljoen they want to remind us that design, and thereby capitalism, makes the world a better and more beautiful place. The paviljoen showcases how capitalism is a fair game, with design projects about equal opportunities for everyone in the Netherlands. This results in a #workplacepride bench which literally brings people closer together when they sit on it; queer people, they’re just like you! Or gigantic 3D glasses which makes one see things differently: because it are mere individual perspective shifts which challenge systemic problems. And thus an obvious sponsorship for economic stimulation becomes a kind of ideological amusement park where we revel at the amazing things capitalism produces, in a system which is supposedly fair for everyone. The facts that if one does not win the game they live a miserable life and that the planet becomes unlivable is not mentioned anywhere.

Eindhoven participatory citizens Moving on to a more sympathetic project is the citizen participation outside the station. Cities are always changing because capitalists need to use their surplus value and spend their profits on investment and consumption. The city is the perfect ever-expanding arena for that. Gentrification, increasing tourism, lack of social housing are results of this process. But! This is a liberal democracy, and therefore people should have a chance to speak. Citizens must be consulted to validate urban development plans. That’s how we arrive at the VVV office in front of the station. Eindhoven’s inhabitants are asked to stick a set of stickers on renders of the future public space. Or they can place a marble in a bucket, representing which buzzwords they cherish most in their city. It is a paradox of offering apparent agency and right to the city with predefined labels selected by project managers and designers. The project is a streamlining and sanitization of the desires of the people of Eindhoven. Visitors were complaining of feeling manipulated. Why is it that the confinements always fall on the end of citizens but not the developers? Designers are brought into an impossible position when the right to the city is not given but must be simulated by designers, whilst capital still expands and shapes the space. Citizen participation cannot be real without political power. Design is acting as a decoration of the process and can be used as an excuse. Please, designers who want to do citizen participation, get on your little bike and bike it around town, look out of empty buildings, visit a nearby squatter-support-hour and squat a place! It’s the ultimate design project! You can do anything! These streets are ours!

From the police with love Speaking of the right to the city, less than a week ago my friends got beaten up and arrested for peacefully protesting the housing crisis. And cynically enough, at the same time the DDW was saying: From the police with love. I know people who ended up at first aid with glass from their glasses in their eyes, because the police tried to smash their skulls in with steel batons at the end of a cop’s long arm of connection. The police was created and still exist to protect the private property of the bourgeoisie. They exist to keep us in check with their monopoly on violence. Every officer from the IT guy to the Romeo’s to the neighbourhood cop keeps this system in place. All cops áre bastards and no amount if social design can fix that. But the DDW exhibitors stand undeterred, and thus I came across see this series of social design projects with the police. Just to highlight one of the projects: Humanity states that cops must foster a feeling of family with other officers in order to endure horrors such as being cussed at. Humanity is all about sharing the humanity of police officers with citizens in the neighbourhood. It is blatant propaganda. The design team also display a special police uniform sleeve to reach out and connect to citizens, and there is a ‘language tool kit’ to share perspectives. All of this kumbaya bullshit to whitewash the police rather than to face is fundamental oppressive nature.

Leela Finally, a winner of the Design awards in the category of fashion. Leela is a digital fashion platform, which “enables a new economy that democratizes fashion design. Creators can sell their own digital garments to create new revenue streams. No matter where they are in the world [a flashy cyborg avatar walks digital streetwear through an alien desert] In Leela we can explore our identities through digital fashion.” This is a classic example of industrial fashion design creating new markets with new tech. The phrase late stage capitalism is often deemed too optimistic, but this is definitely the latest stage of capitalism. Leela is the total disappearance of use value, only exchange value and commodity fetishism remain (Baudrillard would call it sign value). Leela is a beautiful new market ready for exploration and exploitation. But to preserve the ideological fantasy, all of this must happen under the “social and ethical” guise of sustainability, expressing identity and empowerment through entrepreneurship. For everyone. The game isn’t rigged. We can all fairly play <3

I for one cannot wait for the end of the Live Love Laugh design era.