Critically debating the future of design, architecture, and the creative sector

Welcome to 2020, a year that should, as the expression goes, provide much clarity and sharpness of vision. Especially given the tumultuous end to the last decade, that has done much to tear many assumptions apart.

Our job is not to try and stick together the broken pieces, hoping we can somehow repair the past. Rather we need to imagine what might happen next, what we have to look forward to. As such, The Dissenters Design Network is about challenging orthodoxies. Those that come between us and prevent fresh thinking about the future.

In this spirit, this month’s feature by fellow dissenter Alex Cameron challenges the agenda of so-called ‘Social Design’. He highlights its anti-design and anti-people assumptions. As Cameron says, ‘social design is anti-social’. This year, we aim to challenge more of the views of the creative establishment. By saying the unsayable, as Cameron’s piece does, we aim to open up new conversations that have been for too long off-limits.

We want to help create a new space where new and better ideas can flourish. That also means closing the undeniable chasm, between ourselves and the public, who have shown time and again that they want something better.

So, join us and spread the word, encourage colleagues or anyone else to take on this challenge with an unbridled sense of optimism about the future. Welcome to the new decade.

Alex, Alex & Martyn

About us

We are a network of independent designers, architects, planners, writers and researchers who challenge orthodox thinking, encourage much-needed critical debate, underpinned by a limitless sense of what is possible.

We came together because we felt there is not much of this spirit around at present — especially in the creative sector — and with many who feel isolated as a result.

Acting alone can be difficult; hence, our network provides an intellectual space to meet other like-minded creatives, exchange ideas and promote tolerant-yet-questioning debate about the future of the creative sector.

Contact us if you want to know more, or want us to speak at your event.

Follow us @dissenterdesign email

Sign up for our regular Dissenters Design Network newsletter, with commentary, news and upcoming events.

January feature

Down with ‘social design’

Originally published in spiked.

The recent launch of a group called Designers for Extinction Rebellion may seem at first to be small potatoes. But this is actually the latest manifestation of the design world’s elitist and illiberal ‘social design’ agenda. This is an ideological outlook that is deeply problematic for two reasons: it is anti-design and it is anti-people.

Design has always, of course, operated within and alongside the economic and political worlds, but it is not a political entity or enterprise in itself. It is, or at least ought to be, independent of politics. It is this characteristic that allows design to permeate, engage with and service various cultural and social groups simultaneously. Its independence gives it its dynamism and impact. If designers, as individuals, decide to join political parties and organisations, that’s their business. But when design as a whole, or a significant section of it, takes sides politically – then we have a problem.

Something like Designers for Extinction Rebellion is a classic example of design ‘overreach’. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. For a while now, the design elites have been arguing that so-called ‘social design’ is an antidote to the ‘consumer society’. So First Things First 2000, a design manifesto that was influenced by a manifesto published in the Sixties, advanced with fanatical hyperbole: ‘Designers who devote their efforts primarily to advertising, marketing and brand development are supporting, and implicitly endorsing, a mental environment so saturated with commercial messages that it is changing the very way citizen-consumers speak, think, feel, respond and interact.’

The contempt for ‘consumers’ here is apparent, as if we are all easily shaped by our surroundings. This lays bare an historic reversal of priorities in the relationship between design and its audience. Advocates of social design no longer believe in a participatory relationship with the audience; they no longer believe that people are active and discerning agents. They consider the consumer as a problem to be constrained, corralled and socially engineered. It is arrogant in the extreme.

This is an assault on the historic role of design. The design elite is so full of loathing for 20th-century mass culture that it is willing to ignore and even reject the history of design’s intrinsic relationship to the production process. This elitism is an affront to the millions of designers who have made enduring, transformative, life-changing, engaging, entertaining, witty and desirable products that have transformed our world. We are not all designing adverts for butt-toners, as is glibly suggested.

Over the past few decades, design writers and academics, alongside design schools and professional institutions, have published numerous books, anthologies and papers promoting the social-design agenda. It has felt almost evangelical. The attack on consumer society is no longer a thinly veiled attack on the consumer: it is outright and unashamedly hostile. From their patronising support for no-brand cigarette packaging and ‘nudge’ theory to their wholesale rejection of all design that is viewed as being in some way ‘unethical’, these social designers see themselves as the saviours and shapers of ordinary people.

Considerable intellectual effort has been made to give social design academic legitimacy. This has been a magnificent failure. Perhaps this is because social design it is not a distinct academic or practical field – it is an ideological imposition. Yet despite the lack of academic validation, decades worth of cheerleading by the design elite has nevertheless embedded social design as a new orthodoxy. It permeates design discourse and has infected design criticism. The ‘ethical designer’, ‘climate designer’ or ‘social designer’ is as untouchable as he is vainglorious. The social-design agenda is an ideologically motivated attack on the historic function and role of design in society, and on design’s unique relationship to people. For all its claims to the contrary, social design is actually anti-social.

Alex Cameron, Dissenters Design Network

November feature

"The creative industries are misreading the public"

Originally published in Dezeen.

With Brexit the British people have shown a greater appetite for risk than the creative sector, which needs to take the public more seriously or risk becoming irrelevant, says Martyn Perks of the Dissenters Design Network.


September feature

Seven questions we should all be asking

The Creative Industries Federation’s Open letter to the New Prime Minister calls on the Government for its continued support.

Here we offer The Dissenters Design Network’s responses, for much-needed debate about the future value of the creative industries.


News and comment

Our views of what's going on and how to make sense of it.

If something catches your eye, do tell us and we'll include it in our next round-up.

January news

From Extinction Rebellion to Virgin’s Varga girl: designers’ biggest moments of 2019 Design Week

‘It’s been a year marked by protest and politics, which has in turn given way to a host of memorable design moments’. Memorable perhaps? But mostly because ‘design’ has become inseparable with countless causes. Yet has left many cold. One designer sums this up perfectly in nominating the Extinction Rebellion logo as being the ‘…epitome of visual protest language; a graphic design icon for the people and their planet, and for me, the ultimate sign of the times.’ But it also illustrates a disconnected and unrepresentative ‘movement’ made up of right-on wealthy middle classes. Whose major achievement has been to scare ordinary people about planetary (yet unproven) armageddon? Who remembers design that could raise expectations of a better life instead of threatening us with extinction?

Humans Must Be Displaced From the Center of Design Metropolis

Peak-existential crisis on full display? In a review of two major exhibitions exploring the relationship ‘between humans and nature’. Broken Nature: Design Takes On Human Survival at the Triennale di Milano and Nature—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial at the Cooper Hewitt in New York, the reviewer ends up in an ecological meltdown. To the point, he even questions the environmental footprint of writing his article, given the cost of the technology, electricity, data storage and so on, that made it all happen! Asking out loud, ‘[S]o on balance, am I doing more good than harm? I cannot tell.’ But to design, is all about impact, and displacing nature to the betterment of everyone. Why not celebrate what we can achieve instead of thinking the opposite?

Design Justice The MIT Press

A forthcoming book by Sasha Costanza-Chock boldly attacks design universalism with what can only be called ‘design wokism’. Asking ‘how design might be led by marginalised communities, dismantle structural inequality, and advance collective liberation and ecological survival’. She introduces the new category of ‘design justice’, apparently necessary to defend the marginalised who are oppressed by ‘white supremacist heteropatriarchy, ableism, capitalism, and settler colonialism’ (anyone left?) to rise up, to build a better world, ‘where many worlds fit’. Yet, perhaps unbeknown to the author, we live in one world only. The real injustice is in opposing the idea of universalism that will create an even more disjointed and disaffected sense of humanity. Design should have nothing to do with it.

12 new buildings to look forward to in 2020 Dezeen

Could 2020 deliver us with some much-needed inspiration? According to Dezeen’s Lizzie Crook, there might yet be hope. Take the Poem Pavilion at this year’s Dubai Expo 2020. Designed by Es Devlin, it’s a ‘performative Poem Pavilion’ that will meld AI technology with its extruded exterior to animate poetry on its facade. Another is 425 Park Avenue by US, Foster + Partners. With its enormous glass exterior reaching up to 41 stories, it’s the first office tower to occupy a full block on Park Avenue in 50 years. All achieved with an ‘external structure that creates column-free interiors’. And unsurprisingly, Thomas Heatherwick’s Asian expansion continues, with EDEN, a 20-storey residential concrete tower of luxury apartments in Singapore’s opulent Orchard Road area. So while some fret, others’ imagination continues to reach for the skies.

MIT scientists made a shape-shifting material that morphs into a human face Ars Technica

Ars Technica reflecting on science stories we may have missed looks at where 3D printing could be heading. A new technique called ‘4D materials’ developed by MIT labs has taken the familiar additive printing technology further by developing an innovative shape-shifting lattice structure that can ‘deform over time in response to changes in the environment, like humidity and temperature.’ Drawing upon a 200-year-old mathematical model developed by Carl Federich Gauss, potential applications are endless. Structures that can shape into a human face, unfolding tents, scaffolding for artificial tissue, synthetic muscles that flex in soft robotics, to robotic jellyfish propelled by changing shape stimulated by water. Even when an established technology appears to have run its course, discoveries — even ones based on centuries-old mathematics — are there to be found. We live in an age of endless possibilities. The only constraint is our imagination.


Year end news

Trends of the Year: Creativity and activism Creative Review

Clive Russell, design director of This Ain’t Rock ‘n’ Roll and head of the Extinction Rebellion art group, explained his design approach to Creative Review. He has illuminating and interesting things to say about XR’s graphic design and why central design decisions were made. It could have been an insightful article. But, as is too often the case today, the ‘design’ writer seemed to want to talk about anything but design, preferring instead to offer platitudes on, ‘climate emergency’, ‘unconscious bias’, ‘equal pay’ and ‘diversity’. Creative Review is at its best when it offers insights into design. In a design forum the politics of the writer is irrelevant.

"The past has a lot to offer to contemporary debates", says Museum of the Home director Dezeen

The £18.1 million capital development fund that will transform the Geffrye Museum (closed in 2018) into the Museum of the Home (opening 2020) is welcome news. The architectural redevelopment and expansion of the building, which is more public facing and outward looking, is indicative of the rebranding of the museum’s mission - to contribute to debate and discussion. There is much to be said about innovation and aspiration embedded in changes to ‘the home’ throughout history. But according to museum director Sonia Solicari, ‘people are looking to the past for more eco-friendly, sustainable solutions.’ But ‘people’ are doing no such thing. The Museum of the Home should indeed be a space for discussion and debate, but not ideological position-mongering.

sven signe den hartogh designs inclusive and 'transparent' flag for humanity design boom

Netherlands-based multidisciplinary artist and designer sven signe den hartogh created a new installation. Usawa – a flag ‘for humanity’ – is unique in that it is completely see-through. Justifying the work, he says it ‘stands for equilibrium and equality in the world regardless of (country) borders, skin color, sexuality or other labels … to hopefully restore the balance and to show people that there is no need to indicate a difference through labels.’ As an exercise in virtue signalling, this is exemplary. The object is transparent, literally signalling nothing. Its value is outside its physical presence relayed by the pious words of its creator.

General Election 2019: Labour has designers’ vote Design Week

Prior to the election, a poll showed that ‘an overwhelming 55%’ of designers were going to vote Labour. While up from 46% percent in 2017, it also showed a perhaps surprising degree of ambivalence among designers towards Labour, especially considering that before the 2016 EU Referendum, an overwhelming 96% percent of the creative industries said they were pro-Remain. Labour has always been traditionally supported by the creative sector. Perhaps, as the public has shown, the old labels are wearing thin.

San Francisco’s curb on tech tests in public spaces could sink pogo stick plan Digital Trends

San Francisco, the focal point of so much technology, has just announced that companies will have to apply for ‘permits before putting new tech on the street’. In part as a reaction when last year, hundreds of dockless electric scooters swamped the cities sidewalks unannounced, officials have created an Office of Emerging Technology to reign it all in. Now, any start-up tech firm will need to convince city bureaucrats that any innovation is for the “net public good”. Reasonable? Partly yes. But deciding what is in our interests cannot be left to soulless regulation. Instead, we need to try out ideas ourselves first. Only then should regulation help to encourage winning tech to flourish instead of banning it before it’s had a chance to be tested by real people.


December news

Eye Magazine — Typographic hints for the next generation

‘The New Art School Rules!’ is an exhibition of 121 type-based images designed by current design practitioners. Our very own Dissenter Alex Cameron explains why it stands apart from other exhibitions. It elevates design (and of the designer), as Cameron writes, without any ‘infantilising ideological parameters’. Each piece is meant to inspire and inform, using a maxim taken from each designers’ own experience. What you get is a collective visual manifesto ‘for the next generation’. The exhibition is free of ideological constraints and engages its audience in an essentialist discussion about design. It deserves and 'needs a life beyond Design Manchester 19 Festival'.

Dezeen — Savannah design studio reimagines cardboard box as chair

‘After more than a year of prototyping…’, design studio Donttakethisthewrongway recently showed off the fruits of their labour: a cardboard box that is a chair. Without irony, one of its designers said: “I think a cardboard box has the potential of being a chair without trying to…” But unlike early-years children, who get to creativity explore the multiplicity of an objects’ many uses for the first time. Is this an example of cynical 'anti-design' and sustainable virtue signalling? Perhaps a better use might be to use the box to hide away such inexcusable ideas?

Dezeen — “Our dependency on growth, like on concrete, must be abolished”

According to Phineas Harper, one of the co-curators of the Oslo Architecture Triennale, the pursuit of infinite economic growth is driving climate breakdown and producing ecologically toxic architecture. But surely, being so against growth and architecture is itself a rejection of the very essence of what design is: to consciously transform the world around us — as we see fit — for the better. If you reject that, then how can we even begin to solve issues like climate change?

Time — The 100 Best Inventions of 2019

A talking hearing aid, a revolutionary face wash, inventive bike navigation, a pair of listening sunglasses, a simple-to-use shower caddy, plant-based burgers, elderly care robots and a hands-free vibrator, are some of the many examples of human inventiveness and creativity from 2019. Each one was selected because they demonstrate ‘originality, creativity, influence, ambition and effectiveness’. We get 100 brilliant ideas, each illustrating what can be achieved when the designer is free to explore many different creative possibilities without any overarching moralising constraint.

South China Morning Post — Designer of Shanghai’s 1000 Trees development, Google’s new London HQ, Coal Drops Yard and Singapore’s The Hive on connecting to the human scale

The Future Cities Project’s Austin Williams speaks to renowned architect Thomas Heatherwick about his latest 1000 Trees development in Shanghai, and of his broader philosophy to “integrate our buildings with the human experience.” From China to his Coal Drops Yard project in London, show his design ethos of finding ways to reassure people, considering the grand scale of his architecture. Such as even designing the lift buttons in order “to make the place memorable, enjoyable and human”. Heatherwick’s architecture always seems to find a way to give a human perspective, even in the most demanding of places.


November news

Bawaba — Anti-Manspreading Chair Was Supposed to Be a Genius Solution. Instead People Are Rebelling Against It Al

What was lauded as an award-winning feminist design to keep men’s legs closed when seated (and another seat that pushes women’s legs apart) has become ridiculed online. Designer Laila Laurel said she was motivated because men were “infringing on [her] space in public”. But others commented the seats unfairly shame how anyone chooses to sit. Apart from stigmatising men, it makes children of us all, of how we negotiate our pubic spaces.

Nesta — How evidence should guide manifesto promises on the Creative Industries

With the General Election looming large, Creative Industry researchers NESTA argue that the UK Parliament risks ignoring the sector’s well-established economic potential moving forward. Citing concerns that businesses are contracting, the majority of whom are in London and the South-East, with skilled vacancies unfilled. Where evidence is needed of how to integrate the creative industries into the broader economy, rather than arguing for its uniqueness. Up until now, that has often been the focus of any ‘evidence’ used to justify the sector.

Architects’ Journal — Modular design should be on architects’ syllabus, says government tsar

With continued severe UK housing shortage, more needs to be done to invent innovative building methods. Mark Farmer, the new government tsar for modern methods of construction (MMC) rightly argues that architects should welcome this as an opportunity, liberating them from monotonous work, with ‘more time to work on the more creative aspects of design’. With more manufacturing options to explore, creativity will be in short supply to keep up. But more importantly, why has it taken so long to even get to this point, with dwindling housing stock being a decades-old problem?

Eye Magazine — Blog | (Typographic) Noted #95

Throughout November, the Centro Cultural Recoleta, Buenos Aires will drape a huge banner, covering its façade, with the words ‘SOY YO’ (‘It’s me’). Using the colours of the ‘Pride’ flag, designer Guille Vizzari says ‘I am what I choose to be today. It’s me. Soy yo.’ This is now standard practice. The ever-expanding and elastic question of gender is every national and international institution and corporation’s favourite brand extension. It is an ideological imposition dressed as a moral good. Once radical, now mainstream elitism.

Dezeen — Patrik Schumacher and Harriet Harriss clash over long-hours culture at Dezeen Day

In a heated debate, Schumacher argued capping hours worked will cause a slow-down, stagnate creativity, and reduce competitiveness. Whereas Harriss said, the widespread toxic-hours culture is causing a decline in productivity and mental health. Yet, is top-down employment regulation the answer? Will it remove any basis for both employers and staff to argue for flexible working conditions, along with higher wages? Can that work in what continues to be an ever-changing dynamic sector?


October news

Design Week — Hostile design is still a problem in our public spaces - here’s why

Spikes, bars on seats and other tactics that stop people, homeless or otherwise, from freely using public spaces are illiberal and strike a blow at our humanity. Designers see this for what it is, but are less critical of other initiatives that also try to nudge us, such as schemes intended to promote the use of stairs over lifts and escalators. Is design for behaviour change wrong only when it is obviously cruel?

dezeen — Design Museum saved by £3m loan as finances deemed “not sustainable”

Why can’t the museum get the public through its doors? Design, as we are constantly reminded, is apparently pivotal to economic prosperity, the survival of the planet, and our well-being. What’s going on? Could it be that design is over-hyped, misplaced or misused?

CBI — UK creative industries crown must gleam brightly Post-Brexit

On one hand, we are stellar performers with the creative sector being held up as an example of worldwide British economic success. Yet in the same breath, we told to adopt a pro-European, protectionist outlook. Which is it to be? The sectors’ success is because of its worldwide global outlook, not in spite of it.

aeon — How smartphones silence what the urban landscape tries to say

How do we interact with the built environment? Why should we care about “how the built environment can be designed so that people are ‘nudged’ to act in ways that are safe, sustainable and socially desirable”? Why are “safe, sustainable and socially desirable” the best qualities to aim for? More and more democratic protest, from the Gilets Jaunes, to Hong Kong, to Spain, is coming out on to the streets and in to cities. Is this socially desirable?

Design Week — Protest by design: the creatives performing acts of political sedition

Right-on Led By Donkeys, the anti-Brexit campaign, has just been shortlisted as one of the Design Museum’s Beazley Designs of the Year. Perhaps no surprises that a remain campaign is short-listed? But when is design design, and when is it straightforward politics? Designers agonise over working for business – shouldn’t they agonise over working for other causes too?


September news

dezeen — Architects should give up concrete say experts at Architecture of Emergency climate summit

Apparently architects will no longer use concrete floors or plastic pipes. Next to go: energy-intensive glazing, steel and brick? Is this a progressive, or a reactionary idea?

Design China Beijing — Nature’s Way of Telling Us…

DesignBeijing's theme is "Nature’s Way of Telling Us…" Is this simply a shorthand for Chinese restraint? Does this represent a new and exciting sense of "innovation and invention" or is it the same ol' same ol'.

Politics Home — Tom Watson MP: Investing in arts and culture will create jobs and regenerate communities

Labour's Tom Watson says: "we’re looking at a model for a tax relief for literature." He adds: "Creativity and imagination empower us." Are we all Situationists now?

Design Week — Nicolas Roope: “A different design language is taking over”

Since leaving Poke, Roope says he's focussed on behaviour change arguing 'design needs to be a part of fixing it together.' Just why are so many designers fixated on behaviour? Wasn't design about opening up more possibilities over how we choose to live?

Become a Dissenter!

Sign up and receive our Dissenters Design Network newsletter, with commentary, news and upcoming events.