08.17.09
John Thackara | Interviews

Get Out of Your Tents!

Coffee and meringues with John Thackara. Photo: OK Do

While in Helsinki, the director of Doors of Perception and a former director of Research at the Royal College of Art, John Thackara, met with OK Do for coffee, meringues and a chat about the responsibilities, methods and education of designers.

OK Do:
What is your definition of design and its purpose?

John Thackara:
I resist making definitions. Herbert Simon said: “Design is the first signal of human intention.” So, for me, it's less important to define design in abstract than to figure out how we want the world to be, and how to achieve that.


OK:
You have said that design should look for questions rather than answers. Could you explain this further?

JT:
Designers have been trained to believe that their job is to produce artifacts, which can be a piece of print, or a website, or a product. The trouble is that every arfetfact that's produced has consequences for biosphere which are often negative. If you are in a culture that celebrates personal authorship and novelty, then you're more or less committed to making new things. But that age is over.

OK:
How does the current idea of a designer and design need to change in order to make the future good and sustainable?

JT:
Rather than thinking about the designer’s new role in abstract, it's more important to engage in conversations with people who are actively looking for ways to organise daily life in more efficient and joyful ways. Working with those people will make your contribution as a designer meaningful. Introspection is boring. The pressure is for less, not more stuff. We all need to avoid production rather than expand it.

OK:
What kinds of emphases are needed in the design (and other) education in order for the change to take place?

JT:
I gave a talk in Helsinki recently to a group of people who are setting up Aalto University. I proposed that Aalto University should stand for something more that “innovation” and “creativity” in abstract. I suggested that a university should stand for an unconditional respect for life and for the conditions that support life. It follows, for me at least, that design schools should be more open for interaction with the rest of the world.

OK:
You have said that "the transition to sustainability is no longer about messages, it's about activity" Could you explain this further?

JT:
The world is increasingly saturated with communication, so much so, that it becomes ever harder to make sense of what's happening, or to make priorities. More importantly, communication impacts the biosphere. It's not a choice between paper or digital because the life cycles of both print and digital media have positive and negative impacts. Both need to become more sustainable.

OK:
In your opinion, "the focus for design schools should be existing grassroots and regional activity where their contribution can be to create frameworks that enable these actions to grow and develop." What is your message to the students who would rather travel to the other side of the world?

JT:
Doing things in the community you know best is more productive than traveling to the other side of the globe to “help poor people." Locally you can get more deeply into the subject, and have make a positive contribution to the community.

OK:
Do you have any good examples of a collaboration where (young) designers have been able to do things in their way while being able to benefit from and support an already existing project?

JT:
Setting up and running an organisation, even a small one, takes a huge amount of energy. My tip for you: find an issue that interests you and collaborate with people who are a source of positive energy. If the work begins to accumulate, then think about starting a more formal structure like a business. But do the projects first.

OK:
Having been asked what makes people attend the Doors, you have said that what the audiences really value, is that you bring together different disciplines and communities that would not otherwise meet. How do you get the people together in the first place?

JT:
The most important thing is to pose a question that excites people, that seems meaningful. That question becomes a shared focus for a wide variety of people to join the conversation. We have stopped organizing Doors as a huge group of people sitting passively in a room listening to other people talk. Our focus in recent years has been projects and events that become the occasion for a two-way exchange of ideas and experiences. This was the concept of City Eco Lab that we did in France last year, for example: it was all about real-life grassroots projects that included permaculture, mushrooms, spin-farming, open money, peak protein, alternative trade networks, dry toilets, sustainable urban drainage, alternate reality games, watershed planning, seed banks, de-motorisation, and VeloWalas. The idea was for designers to learn ways they could improve or multiply what they were doing.

OK:
Earlier, you criticised projects where designers travel to the other side of the world to help people. When do you think projects like this are worth doing, despite the issues of cultural barriers and the negative effects of transportation? 

JT:
The word 'development' implies that we advanced people in the North have the right, or even obligation, to help backward people in the South to catch up with our own advanced condition. Which to me simply does not not make sense.

OK:
We've also heard you state that collaborative innovation is the way of the future, but it needs to be organised. Can you name examples of projects that have managed to do just this?

JT:
The Middlesbrough food growing project in Dott 07 is a good example of what I mean here. The idea was born out of my interest in food and cities. But it took David Barrie, our producer, to locate and talk to the town officials and a whole variety of citizens and persuade them to join the experiment. The project was all about organizing people to grow food — a cultural intervention with a lot of help from a good city government, which enabled us to do bigger things.

OK:
How do you go on with communal design projects?

JT:
I don’t use a fixed method: I talk to people and ask what challenges they face in their project, and whether they would like some help from designers. In my experience you can too easily fall in love with methods and stop talking to people.

OK:
Would you say that collaborative innovation builds on openness and what's your view on the open sharing of design ideas in general? How and where should they be shared (online, "on site", through the grapevine etc.)? 


JT:
I never copyright anything myself. In my work as a newspaper journalist I quickly learned that yesterday's s story is old news and has little value, so journalists don't worry about protecting their finished work. We go and look for the next good story. I think the same approach would liberate many designers. If you want to gain respect, put ideas out in the world — free for all. Some designers make money with authorship but it’s very dispiriting if that’s regarded as a norm. Openness is more fun. I don’t understand why people try to protect things. It just gives negative energy.


OK:
Could you please provide us with a list of top qualities you think a designer should possess?

JT:

Learn to ask good questions. Learn to listen well. Learn to look for real people who have ambition and positive energy. Learn how to coordinate mixed groups of people in co-design activities, or find someone else with that talent and make him or her your partner. In summary, get out of the tent and get real.


Posted in: Cities + Places, Community, Global + Local


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