Andrew Blauvelt | Essays

Towards Relational Design

Bionic Hamster, using the iRobot Create kit, c. 2006

Is there an overarching philosophy that can connect projects from such diverse fields as architecture, graphic and product design? Or are we beyond such pronouncements? Should we even expect such grand narratives anymore? 

I’ve spent more time in the field of graphic design, and within that one discipline it is extremely difficult to pinpoint coherent sets of ideas or beliefs guiding recent work — certainly nothing as definitive as in previous decades, whether the mannerisms of so-called grunge typography, the gloss of a term such as postmodernism, or even the reactionary label of neo-modernism. After looking at a variety of projects across the design fields and lecturing on the topic, new patterns do emerge. Some of the most interesting work today is not reducible to the same polemic of form and counter-form, action and reaction, which has become the predictable basis for most on-going debates for decades. Instead, we are in the midst of a much larger paradigm shift across all design disciplines, one that is uneven in its development, but is potentially more transformative than previous isms, or micro-historic trends, would indicate. More specifically, I believe we are in the third major phase of modern design history: an era of relationally-based, contextually-specific design.

The first phase of modern design, born in the early twentieth century, was a search for a language of form that was plastic or mutable, a visual syntax that could be learned and thus disseminated rationally and potentially universally. This phase witnessed a succession of “isms” — Suprematism, Futurism, Constructivism, de Stijl, ad infinitum — that inevitably fused the notion of an avant-garde as synonymous with formal innovation itself. Indeed, it is this inheritance of modernism that allows us to speak of a “visual language” of design at all. The values of simplification, reduction, and essentialism determine the direction of most abstract, formal design languages. One can trace this evolution from the early Russian Constructivists’ belief in a universal language of form that could transcend class and social differences (literate versus oral culture) to the abstracted logotypes of the 1960s and 1970s that could help bridge the cultural divides of transnational corporations: from El Lissitzsky’s “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge” poster to the perfect union of syntactic and semantic form in Target’s bullseye logo.  

The second wave of design, born in the 1960s, focused on design’s meaning-making potential, its symbolic value, its semantic dimension and narrative potential, and thus was preoccupied with its essential content. This wave continued in different ways for several decades, reaching its apogee in graphic design in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the ultimate claim of “authorship” by designers (i.e., controlling content and thus form), and in theories about product semantics, which sought to embody in their forms the functional and cultural symbolism of objects and their forms. Architects such as Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s famous content analysis of the vernacular commercial strip of Las Vegas or the meaning-making exercises of the design work coming out of Cranbrook Academy of Art in the 1980s are emblematic. Importantly, in this phase of design, the making of meaning was still located with the designer, although much discussion took place about a reader’s multiple interpretations. In the end though, meaning was still a “gift” presented by designers-as-authors to their audiences. If in the first phase form begets form, then in this second phase, injecting content into the equation produced new forms. Or, as philosopher Henri Lefebvre once said, “Surely there comes a moment when formalism is exhausted, when only a new injection of content into form can destroy it and so open up the way to innovation.” To paraphrase Lefebvre, only a new injection of context into the form-content equation can destroy it, thus opening new paths to innovation.

The third wave of design began in the mid-1990s and explores design’s performative dimension: its effects on users, its pragmatic and programmatic constraints, its rhetorical impact, and its ability to facilitate social interactions. Like many things that emerged in the 1990s, it was tightly linked to digital technologies, even inspired by its metaphors (e.g., social networking, open source collaboration, interactivity), but not limited only to the world of zeroes and ones. This phase both follows and departs from twentieth-century experiments in form and content, which have traditionally defined the spheres of avant-garde practice. However, the new practices of relational design include performative, pragmatic, programmatic, process-oriented, open-ended, experiential and participatory elements. This new phase is preoccupied with design’s effects — extending beyond the design object and even its connotations and cultural symbolism.

We might chart the movement of these three phases of design, in linguistic terms, as moving from form to content to context; or, in the parlance of semiotics, from syntax to semantics to pragmatics. This outward expansion of ideas moves, like ripples on a pond, from the formal logic of the designed object, to the symbolic or cultural logic of the meanings such forms evoke, and finally to the programmatic logic of both design’s production and the sites of its consumption — the messy reality of its ultimate context.

Design, because of its functional intentions, has always had a relational dimension. In other words, all forms of design produce effects, some small, some large. But what is different about this phase of design is the primary role that has been given to areas that once seemed beyond the purview of design’s form and content equation. For example, the imagined and often idealized audience becomes an actual user(s) — the so-called “market of one” promised by mass customization and print-on-demand; or perhaps the “end-user” becomes the designer themselves, through do-it-yourself projects, the creative hacking of existing designs, or by “crowdsourcing,” producing with like-minded peers to solve problems previously too complex or expensive to solve in conventional ways. This is the promise that Time magazine made when it named you (a nosism, like the royal we) person of the year in 2006, even as it evoked the emerging dominance of sites such as MySpace, Facebook, Wikipedia, Ebay, Amazon, Flickr and YouTube, or anticipated the business model of Threadless. The participation of the user in the creation of the design can be seen in the numerous do-it-yourself projects in magazines such as Craft, Make and Readymade, but they can also be seen in the generic formats for advertisements and greeting cards by Daniel Eatock.

Even in most instrumental forms of design, the audience has changed from the clichéd focus group sequestered in a room answering questions for people hiding behind two-way mirrors to the subjects of dogged ethnographic research, observed in their natural surroundings — moving away from the idealized concept of use toward the complex reality of behavior. Today, the audience is thought of as a social being, one who is exhaustively data-mined and geo-demographically profiled — taking us from the idea of an average or composite consumer to an individual purchaser among others living a similar social lifestyle community. But unlike previous experiments in 1970s-style community-based design or behavioral modification, today’s relationship to the user is more nuanced and complicated. The range of practices varies greatly, from the product development methods employed by practices such as IDEO, creators of the famed Nightline shopping cart, to the “social probes[,]” of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby who create designed objects, not to fulfill prescribed functions but instead use them to gauge behavioral reactions to the perceived effects of electromagnetic energy or the ethical dilemmas of gene testing and restorative therapies.

Once shunned or reluctantly tolerated, constraints — financial, aesthetic, social, or otherwise — are frequently embraced not as limits to personal expression or professional freedom, but rather as opportunities to guide the development of designs; arbitrary variables in the equation that can alter the course of a design’s development. Seen as a good thing, such restrictions inject outside influence into an otherwise idealized process and, for some, a certain element of unpredictability and even randomness alters the course of events. Embracing constraints — whether strictly applying existing zoning codes as a way to literally shape a building or an ethos of material efficiency embodied in print-on-demand — as creative forces, not obstacles on the path of design, further opens the design process demanding ever-more nimble, agile and responsive systems. This is not to suggest that design is not always already constrained by numerous factors beyond its control, but rather that such encumbrances can be viewed productively as affordances. In architecture, the discourse has shifted from the purity and organizational control of space to the inhabitation of real places — the messy realities of actual lives, living patterns over time, programmatic contradictions, zoning restrictions, and social, not simply physical, sites. For instance, architect Teddy Cruz in his Manufactured Sites project, offers a simple, prefabricated steel framework for use in the shantytowns on the outskirts of Tijuana — a structure that participates in the vernacular building practices that imports and recycles the detritus of Southern California’s dismantled suburbia. This provisional gesture integrates itself into the existing conditions of an architecture born out of crisis. The objective is not the utopian tabla rasa of architectural modernism — a replacement of the favela — but rather the interjection of a micro-utopian element into the mix.

Not surprisingly, the very nature of design and the traditional roles of the designer and consumer have shifted dramatically. In the 1980s, the desktop publishing revolution threatened to make every computer user a designer, but in reality it served to expand the role of the designer as author and publisher. The real “threat” arrived with the advent of Web 2.0 and the social networking and mass collaborative sites that it has engendered. Just as the role of the user has expanded and even encompasses the role of the traditional designer at times (in the guise of futurist Alvin Toffler’s prophetic “prosumer”), the nature of design itself has broadened from giving form to discrete objects to the creation of systems and more open-ended frameworks for engagement: designs for making designs. Yesterday’s designer was closely linked with the command-control vision of the engineer, but today’s designer is closer to the if-then approach of the programmer. It is this programmatic or social logic that holds sway in relational design, eclipsing the cultural and symbolic logic of content-based design and the aesthetic and formal logic of modernism’s initial phase. Relational design is obsessed with processes and systems to generate designs, which do not follow the same linear, cybernetic logic of yesteryear. For instance, the typographic logic of the Univers family of fonts, established a predictive system and closed set of varying typeface weights. By contrast, a Web-based application for Twin, a typeface by Letterror, can alter its appearance incrementally based on such seemingly arbitrary factors as air temperature or wind speed. In a recent design for a new graphic design museum in the Netherlands, Lust created a digital, automated “posterwall,” feed by information streams from various Internet sources and governed by algorithms designed to produce 600 posters a day.

Perhaps the best illustration of this movement toward relational design can be gleaned through the prosaic vacuum cleaner. In the realm of the syntactical and formal, we have the Dirt Devil Kone, designed by Karim Rashid, a sleek conical object that looks so good it “can be left on display.” While the vacuum designs of James Dyson are rooted in a classic functionalist approach, the designs themselves embody the meaning of function, using color-coded segmentation of parts and even the expressive symbolism of a pivoting ball to connote a high-tech approach to domestic cleaning. On the other hand, the Roomba, a robotic vacuum cleaner, uses various sensors and programming to establish its physical relationship to the room it cleans, forsaking any continuous contact with its human users, with only the occasional encounter with a house pet. In a display of advanced product development, however, the company that makes the Roomba now offers a basic kit that can be modified by robot enthusiasts in numerous, unscripted ways, placing design and innovation in the hands of its customers.

If the first phase of design offered us infinite forms and the second phase variable interpretations — the injection of content to create new forms — then the third phase presents a multitude of contingent or conditional solutions: open-ended rather than closed systems; real world constraints and contexts over idealized utopias; relational connections instead of reflexive imbrication; in lieu of the forelorn designer, the possibility of many designers; the loss of designs that are highly controlled and prescribed and the ascendency of enabling or generative systems; the end of discrete objects, hermetic meanings, and the beginning of connected ecologies.

After 100 years of experiments in form and content, design now explores the realm of context in all its manifestations — social, cultural, political, geographic, technological, philosophical, informatic, etc. Because the results of such work do not coalesce into a unified formal argument and because they defy conventional working models and processes, it may not be apparent that the diversity of forms and practices unleashed may determine the trajectory of design for the next century.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Business, Graphic Design, History, Product Design

Comments [59]

One could argue that these 20th century design movements appear to be linear and not relational in hindsight is because they fit into a tidy little timeline. Each of these "isms" you've mentioned in my opinion were very much relational and now it is too easy to compartmentalize them while looking back through the view of a well edited text book.

This is a great essay synthesizing many points. I just wanted to address one angle on the idea of "relational design" that you touched on. Contemporary designers have a great many options in terms of how and where to work and these decisions become part of the creative act. The context in which the designer is working has become an important aspect of their work and ethos. In the previous epochs of modernism the working conditions of the designer were not transparent.

I recently gave a talk on my misjudging of the cover of Nicolas Bourriaud's Relational Aesthetics. I thought it was going to be a book about how images and objects capture and are shaped by the human relationships that go into their making. Several people in the audience commented that they had made the same mistake. There is I guess a yearning for such a book or theory. It's nice to see that idea reflected here.
Dmitri Siegel

I think the essay raises many interesting points and is part of an engaging dialogue. An essay that lays out quite well the distinction between criticality and post-criticality is "Notes around the Doppler Effect and Other Moods of Modernism" by Robert Somol and Sarah Whiting, first published in Perspecta: The Yale Architectural Journal #33. The authors point out the transformation in architectural practice from the critical to the projective; from the organization, indexing, and interpretation of reality (or the creation of narrative that conveys an understanding of the world) to the diagramming of networks, the "production and projection of new forms of collectivity". Projective or post-critical architecture is "not for reading, but for seducing, becoming, instigating new events and behaviors."

In graphic design, I think one sees this reflected in many ways. One example is the rise of the brand, and the looseness of identity systems. While the latter produces objects to consume, the former produces subjectivities in which to participate. Another is the rise of the consultancy, which makes its money from research and prototyping; and the increasing rarity of the studio, which survives from services and production.

Manuel Miranda

I'm sorry.

Really sorry to say that as a young designer who came out of frustration from design school, graphic design education, graduated in April, I am so sorry to say that I believe design is not what 'designers' think it is anymore. 'Design' is beyond labels. 'Design' is application in everyday life, service and help for people. 'Design' is about making things better. I don't care who you are and what you practice, you are naturally a designer. The more we separate 'designers' from people who do things and get things done, the further we are from being a 'real designer'. I stopped reading design books, magazines and 'design' everything because I was so tired of thinking that it was the way I was going to learn more about design. It wasn't even close to what I really wanted to do.

I like the title of this blog because it uses the term 'observe'. Now, who is an observer? Are designers the best observers? Or are people just naturally observant if they have something in their head that they want to do? To me, that's design. Observe. Think. Make.

I like the term 'relational' design. I even like 'interaction' design. But why why why are we still labeling? Is labeling going to do us any good? Has it done us any good? I mean, are we not realizing that it's getting harder to explain things because we're finding how connected things are? We're getting closer to realizing that it's not status that we should be after but the cause, and how much impact we make with the manifestation of our ideas and imagination?

I say all this because I love people. People are my love. Diversity in observation will allow for effective 'relational' design because I agree, 'relationships' are everything. I call it community though. I think the challenge for us as creative leaders who really do have power with their creations, is to think about communities and places. That's my two cents.

Here's my philosophy and year end project: http://internetoflife.com

And here is how I apply it

After studying postmodernism and deconstructionism at Stanford and then moving on to the far happier pursuit of a graduate design degree followed by a decade now of practicing interaction design, this essay was quite fascinating to me.

I believe the overall point about our practicing design within a new era is made coherently, but I could argue that this key aspect of relational design wherein the designer is no longer the central auteur could perhaps be viewed as the final arrival of postmodernism theory to the practice of design. Postmodernism or at least deconstructionism is perhaps best characterized as the death of the author...yea verily, the death of god. And once Walter Benjamin identified the inauthenticity of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, it was all downhill for artists. Yes, I'm being flippant, but these negativist philosophies are hard for me to stomach today.

So I'm pleased to see that you've taken a positive tone regarding the potential outcomes of relational design. It's not about the death of the designer, but the expansion of the designer's concerns, methods, and spheres of study as well as collaboration. Interaction design practice most especially operates at the intersection of multiple areas of expertise, whether on a given project it's industrial design or communication design or mechanical engineering or software engineering. Thank you for finding meaning, rather than lack of meaning, amid the glorious madness.
E Bacon

Great article which maps out a useful summary!

In the first issue of the new academic journal Design and Culture, I have an interview I've done with sociologists Scott Lash and Celia Lury (authors of Global Culture Industry. In it we get talking about 'relational design'. Just to add to this discussion, let me cut and paste a bit as a tantalizer (hopefully).

Unfinished Objects
GJ: You speak of “unfinished objects” and this is what underlines their relationality. Things undergo continual development so that they are no longer fixed. We buy a version of a software program – 2.0, 2.1 etc. – or a particular generation of a mobile phone, for example.

CL: For me, what is interesting about Karin Knorr Cetina’s notion of unfinished objects is the way in which she links the relationality of an object to its membership of a series or system of objects. That is, the way in which I understand her notion of “unfinished objects” is that our relation to any single object is always in part informed by our relation to the object world of which that object is a part, whether that world is a network, a series, an ensemble, a closed or open system. And that the characteristics of the series, the ensemble, the system the network – as a specific organization of relations, with specific properties - are important in understanding relations between subjects and objects. And if you push this further then I think one of the questions being posed is whether and how such series, ensembles or systems have the capacity to be self-organizing – or at least whether and how the kinds of reflexivity that are produced in, for example, the series or the network, have properties or capacities which need to be acknowledged. So, for me, the unfinished object is not (only) to be understood as single, “user-friendly,” “multi-purpose” or “open-use” objects but as an open-ended series or system. It is about what an object might become, how it might evolve, how and with what (as well as who) it might connect, interact or evolve and so on.

GJ: Perhaps we could call this “relational design,” to transpose from Bourriaud’s (2002) idea of “relational aesthetics.” Nicholas Bourriaud is interested in open-ended and highly social art practice – the audience as community with the art being about human interactions. Does your notion of relationality demand a distinct approach to “object analysis?” Where would this process start, how and where would you recommend that the student of “relational design” begin their analysis and approaches and tools might they use?

CL: It’s interesting to think about the relationship of the unfinished object to an environment or ecology in which the individual human user is not the only or even necessarily the most important element of the environment. The “user” might thus be understood variously: as some kind of collective, mass, assemblage or ecology (including other objects and the natural environment). And of course the notion of unfinished-ness directly introduces the notion of temporality – thinking the future of the object as something to be considered as implicated in the present of the object.

SL: I think there’s something processual about the way we describe what’s going on in the global culture industry. Design surely does work in networks and its got a certain temporality and atemporality in that sense.

Anyway, for more on this, read the first issue of said journal when it comes out in March. That's a plug, by the way.
Guy Julier

Excellent blog! Interesting article and very informative! I will necessarily subscribe for this blog. http://lowsalego.com/map.html

Some readers might be interested in seeing a version of the lectures mentioned in the text with more examples and analysis. It's embedded as the first link in this essay. Here it is:

Andrew Blauvelt

Well said.

I am curious if you think the information design systems created by Vignelli and Otl Aicher (around the 60's) are part of the influence towards the third phase in which we are today.

On first observation, these types of systems did have an "end user" at the point of decision, and were in the context of their architectural surroundings, and naturally they do seem to be similar to interactive design today.
Noam Almosnino

@ghazaleh, I appreciate your frustration. But I believe, in fact, that what Mr. Blauvelt is verbalizing -- "labeling," if you wish -- is the very frustration that you, and many of us "[unknown modifier] designers" have come to feel, as the walls of the 20th century design movements have come tumbling down. It is our job to embrace the human, to be part of the audience. To create tools for the audience to use, rather than texts to consume.

The "labeling" is useful, because it gives us a handle by which to grasp the idea. I think @E Bacon said it perfectly: it's about "finding meaning, rather than lack of meaning, amid the glorious madness."
jay harlow

@jay - I in fact think the article is brilliant and I haven't read anything like it which is what excites me and wish more students and teachers were aware of such changes. I think this is a natural progression with technology and the internet which is allowing for us to open our eyes and see that everything is linked and all is connected now. Time is inconceivable as it has broken barriers we faced a decade ago. Information is much more accessible and design thinking is popping up in every field. Rotman for goodness sakes is being called Canada's top design school, when they are a business school.

I think the future of 'design' for the next century, is more 'inclusive' design for people and places. No one talks about places, events, celebrations, groups, collectives, teams and uniting visions. Because we haven't built systems for them. We like to talk about technology and advancements that we forget we don't socialize and listen to people...or care. We think our groups are better than others and we still like to hang on to status.

I have to be frustrated if I want to be a designer for the next century. If one is not frustrated with how things are going and the crisis we are facing, one will not be a 'future' designer but a passive designer who still listens to the industry and traditional way of getting things done, and not the gut. It's about revolution in thinking and making - equally radical.

One other thing I'd like to say:

Designers cannot be invisible anymore and only be visible through their creations. Designers need to design examples and live those examples, rather than design and leave. Make an art for living - and you're a designer. Get together with other people who are doing that and let the energy of your creation take over you.

Hard to imagine, but that's what I believe is the future of design.

Some quick comments:

Yes, my point about labels and categories is that we've had that easy way of grouping work and designers in the past, but with much of the work that I'm talking about here, there really isn't a convenient shorthand. What distinguishes it most is the process and approach and not a visual style. I know it's a bit of contradiction since I use the term relational design, but sometimes categories and labels are handy when you're analyzing things.

I like the idea of "unfinished objects" and look forward to the publication. I'm currently trying to map relational aesthetics against relational design, and there are major differences, but of course, also similarities.

I do think there are previous examples of this kind of design. I just think there is a critical mass of work now. Off the top of my head I might distinguish Karl Gerstner's systems from other 60s-era closed systems. Or, compare Enzo Mari's Formosa perpetual calendar (a kind of kits of parts for a calendar) with Vignelli's famous Stendig calendar.

Andrew Blauvelt

In a sense, isn't the term 'relational design' redundant? Isn't all design relational in that design objects by definition are embedded within networks, both social and production? 'Relational Aesthetics' and other writings of Bourriaud emphasize methods of production and the reach of distribution networks, and their subversion or aestheticization. Isn't the relational aspect already part of the practice of designers?

Thank you for interesting articles, very very very good information and informative! I`m young designer. All information very interesting

This article has a lot of complex ideas and words.

I think it suffers from taking design to be a serious discipline that has a set course.

Trying to depict design is a lot like trying to depict the weather. Too many factors to be able to intelligently guess - and that's if you spend your lifetime on it. How accurate are our weather reports? 2 days at best?

That's with all the effort put in... Now to talk of the future of design... To label the past and make guesses about the future...

Why not write science fiction instead? It gives you more freedom. I guess you'd have to stop taking design and yourself so seriously first and that might prove difficult for many people who write articles on the matter.

I like this article for it's historical value but must admit to being bewildered by the attempt to categorize the past in order to predict the future.


Design has morphed into an ever-self-referencing monster. Originality and innovation has become a process of sampling, re sampling, and producing originality out of what's already out there. While there is a definite movement to try to create content building systems and ways to aggregate information and make it more accessible, I think across the board, as designers, our job is to try to follow example of those in the past (or present who are more established) and be innovative only when we are absolutely sure we can see something to the end. There is nothing worse in today's day and age to start something and not see it through to it's functional completion. It ends up as misguiding information to those who are less informed and take your half baked idea as a final point.

I think now more than ever design experimentation has to be done within the realms of what works and has been proven to work. Things have changed so rapidly and continue to do so in very short spurts of time. It behooves us to slow down and take a look at the great achievements and contributions of the last 100 years and digest it for a change. I think that kind of study will help to ground generations of thinking designers and offer eventually a true revolution in what we all can do next. That is not to say that there will not be geniuses and great young innovators who bring forth a great new idea, method or set of principles to follow.

Building sites or designing with the idea of spewing out content or aggregating it for so-called easier access with an attempt or desire to build a community of like-minded people is in most cases creating a big mess and fails (not to mention there is plenty of it out there and therefore never really that original). And because it is increasingly easy to do, there is no end in sight and definitely no logical, user-friendly result.

There are many people working to try to return to a type of predictable modernism. Where a series of systems and rules are guaranteed to offer up an experience that is universally accessible. I am not sure that that will do much for design—except what it did the first time: Make it boring, flat and programmed. It is already all around us with the clothes we wear, cars we drive and kindles and ipods we all have (I don't have one... yet)

I don't have a major point to make here, but I feel that we are still very much in a post-modern aesthetic. Not much has changed in the role of designers in as much as the dawn and very grounded arrival of the information and technology age. We now can see, access and traverse much more territory. To certain people that will be advantageous and to others it will result in chaos (in the past, people knew what was quality and what was shit—now it is getting harder to tell). There are always those who will be out to make a change in the world, and those who are more passive and just want to make a living doing creative work. I do not think it is fair or practical to say that designers have any real responsibility other than to try to do nice work, appropriate work, and work that makes them happy. If designers are like everyone else, than why should we expect anything more from design and designers than what everybody else wants: Happiness.

I may be wrong in much of what I feel here, but it is how I feel after reading through a few of the comments and the piece.
ian b. shimkoviak

Thanks for sharing this essay! wonderful and thoughtful it speaks so well to current discussion form a truly design point of view that is not sociology, not engineering.

Didn't we just have a few posts back where a designer was irritated because the person didn't like how her student's answer the question why she used the font Futura?
Panasit Ch

Relational design strikes me as the most humanistic, creative, and yet basic methods of creativity. It's less about form, more about solution, and all about invention. Does this frighten the Modernists still clinging to the 'first wave'? I don't really care. Do we need to reconsider design education to better prepare them for the 'third phase'? Yes, and sooner than later. One might start at the elementary level, with the simplest of tests: give a young boy/girl a hat; turn the hat upside down, right-side up, sideways. What does the hat become when its orientation is changed? When its context is changed? Flower pot? Cup? Catcher's mit? Mask? We see this everyday. How many times have you noticed somebody in the office break room, when after microwaving popcorn, takes an empty coffee filter and uses it as a bowl for themselves, and then other staff members who share. To me, at least, this seems, and feels like the most human of design phases yet.
Jason Tselentis

It is worth noting that Relational Aesthetics was first used by Bourriaud as a loose category to describe a certain kind of artwork created in the 1990s, and that since then it has received its own share of criticism (by Claire Bishop, for example). In some cases the artists themselves have even rejected the term, while others have criticized so-called relational art for its complicity with the global art market. Which is just to say that Relational Aesthetics is itself a decade-old term with its own history of critical reception that should be taken into account. By putting forth the term "relational design" as a broad category in 2008 there is a risk of design once again operating as a johnny-come-lately to an ongoing critical discourse.
Ron Butterworth

Mr. Butterworth,
I'm very much aware of relational aesthetics and its debates. Despite your attempt to conflate the two terms, I chose not to "go there" because it doesn't offer a comprehensive enough theory that could possibly bridge the divide between contemporary art culture and specific design practices. There are parallels, of course, but I, like you, don't want to import ideas from art criticism and try to retrofit them to a practice as distinct as design.
Andrew Blauvelt

I understand your caution. Still, given the "designy-ness" of much of the artwork grouped under the term Relational Aesthetics it is difficult not to hear in "relational design" a strong echo of the earlier term. Despite your careful argumentation it seems to me that it will be tricky avoiding a certain hand-me-down quality. Just an observation.
Ron B

The implications of the so-called Web 2.0 era on design, is, I think a complicated set of things to grapple with. Much Web 2.0 technology has a tendancy to stratify users and designers / programmers.

Users are given the idea that they are "designing" because they can pick some colors for their myspace or twitter profile pages. I don't think that qualifies as design. Olia Lialina has a great article about the Web 2.0 visual vernacular, if you haven't read it.

If anything, I think real design innovation has become increasingly difficult in the Web 2.0 world because the bar is consistently being raised in terms of technical innovation, which is so much more inherent to the medium than in non-web mediums.

Justin Heideman

Thoughtful piece. The title of course calls to mind Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics, which appears to present a similar thesis, but actually remains quite different. Bourriaud suggests that what’s novel about some recent art is the way that a “work” has come to encompass less a specific object than a duration of experience, a being-there among others. The exemplar of his position is Rirkrit Tiravanija, who is known for cooking and giving away Thai food, water or even pudding at his openings. The work includes not simply the performance of the cooking, but the relationships developed among those who attend these performances. So inter-human relationships.

Mr. Blauvelt’s use of the term “relational” seems less specific to me. Judging by his examples, he’s not talking strictly about inter-human relationships, but also about what might be called reactive technologies. Things like a typeface that alters in appearance depending on changes in the air temperature at a given site, or Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Blur Building. These sorts of programmed reactions to variable conditions are certainly interesting, and I think it is accurate to say that they develop relationships with surrounding factors, but I’m not sure that they constitute the sort of radical break with the past that a “third phase” would suggest. It seems to me that these are rather familiar gestures that employ a strict set of conditions/constraints to execute a program. They use new materials/technologies to produce novel results, a formula that seems very near that of the Modern/avant garde tradition.

It also reminds me of the working methods established by Sol LeWitt and the Conceptualists - produce a set of instructions and run the program. The specific physical form is professed to be less important than the invariant code. Some call this anti-formalist, but I would argue that LeWitt’s move from Minimalism to Conceptualism can still be linked to the philosophical attempt to distill art to its essence (Plato to Hegel and beyond), which underwrote artistic, architectural and design formalism. I get the feeling that the above examples are similar in that the relationships they produce with surrounding factors are incidental to a very traditional reverence for the Designer and the Idea. Much more interesting to me are the examples of open-ended experiences where the "design" is the result of a multiplicity of unintentional developments (e.g., the John/Paul/Ringo/George meme or Eatock's Utilitarian Poster).

I think there’s a lot of important issues to work through around this subject - thanks for a good start!
Joe Magliaro

Why not simply call it DESIGN and stop trying to break it apart. DE-SIGN - that's all it is. If there's any word to precede it, it should be WISE.

I think you just saved my essay.
Sam Baldwin

if DESIGN actually had an agreed-upon definition that was acknowledged by its own diverse set of practitioners, researchers and academics (even by those within the sub-disciplines, like graphic design for example), it would not need to be 'broken apart' and could indeed be called, just simply, 'DESIGN'. I think it is good to debate the various meanings and practices of design so that we can better understand what it is we think we're doing. It's not a monolith, after all. Unless, of course, you'd like to offer an acceptable all-encompassing 'grand' definition? I doubt you could get anyone to agree with it, though...

I think the most profound aspect of this essay is the new position of the 'user/audience' of design--or, in the spirit of 'relationalism', the 'co-designer'. That the user/audience is also 'co-designer'--due to the democratization production tools, for one thing--is something that we designers, not surprisingly, have a hard time coming to grips with. Relinquishing control over one's design (if we ever *really* had it in the first place) goes against almost all the collective narratives we've constructed over the years about what it means to be a 'designer'.

So, it's not really about understanding design's 'effects on users'. The 'user', in participatory fashion, is right along side us. It’s not about asking people (through focus groups, surveys and ethnographies) what they want, only to sequester ourselves in the studio so we can give it to them--but, ‘How can we involve people in the process?’

Designers are now in the very liberating position of relinquishing the control we're so used to having--of involving people as a part of the process of designing. I find all this a very exciting time for designers. These ideas really bring design full circle, back to the ‘social practice’ we claim it to be... thanks for this great article!

I still disagree.

I think we confuse ourselves more when we try to break things down even more. It's time to look at all of it as design. The old school studios and firms are going to die soon if they don't think of everything they do as design without trying to define what kind of design it is.

Here're are some 'grand' definitions for you found in the dictionary:

"plan: make or work out a plan for; devise; "They contrived to murder their boss"; "design a new sales strategy"; "plan an attack"

blueprint: something intended as a guide for making something else; "a blueprint for a house"; "a pattern for a skirt"

purpose: an anticipated outcome that is intended or that guides your planned actions; "his intent was to provide a new translation"; "good intentions are not enough"; "it was created with the conscious aim of answering immediate needs"; "he made no secret of his designs"

invention: the creation of something in the mind"

In my opinion, the role of the designer (more specifically the graphic designer) is not appreciated amongst the general public within contemporary society. Graphic design or design in general shapes society in more ways that we, even as designers, can even imagine. Many people mistakenly simplifies the graphic designer’s role as someone who applies seductive forms to products so that people are manipulated to buy something that they do not need. Although, relational design and this exploration of user interactivity within design is a very necessary and intriguing route within these paradoxical, very subjective post-modern times; I wonder if we as designers will eventually design ourselves out of the equation.

What I mean by this is that because people have the ability to customize and in turn design so many of their products, some people would argue that this ability to “do it yourself” dilutes what we do as designers. The user does not see the complexity and intellect that goes into designing a system that allows the user to have the ability to customize. Thus, the user thinks that designing is simple. Will there come a time where the user feels they know enough where they do not need the designer and in turn will eliminate the designer (at least what we now consider a designer to be) and the systems that we design? Or will/has the designer evolved to include everyone who has the ability to customize the color on their shoes, the font on their MySpace page, the widgets that exist on their iPhone? If the definition of a designer has already changed to include all of these users, then where does that leave those of us who pursue design/graphic design as a vocation and who explore design on the academic and intellectual levels? Can we humble ourselves enough to be content with a category/label that includes everyone that has the ability to customize a product? Or do we become more elitist and esoteric and provide ourselves with a new label then what is now known as a “designer”?


Rather than deconstruct the definition of design in a general sense, I think we can learn more by discussing the points Mr. Blauveldt argues about the progression of design practice and whether they have merit. It's fascinating to track the application and relational experience of design today when contrast to the more orthodox method of documenting a sequence of -isms.
F. J.

Tracing the trajectory of graphic design is always helpful and Mr. Blauvelt's analysis of contemporary design practice and thinking is interesting to consider.

The broadening scope of contexts to which any type of design is applied ('social, cultural, political, geographic, technological, philosophical, informatic, etc.'), makes it increasingly difficult for any designer to say exactly what it is they do for a living. Describing the recent activities of some graphic designers as 'relational design' seems appropriate for establishing a term to discuss the recent and constantly changing environment of design practice.

Attempting to understand graphic design as it moves forward will require trying on new terms from other disciplines and creating new terms specific to graphic design itself. It is an on-going process to be worked through over time, most likely never reaching a consensus, but vital in order to not be washed away by the 'everyone is a designer/design is everything' idea. Mr. Blauvelt's essay is 'working through it' which is more important than having the answer.
Jeremy M.

It is interesting to see how he divides the progression of modern design into 3 phases. It is more clear when I see the examples, which he puts links for each phase. It makes me wonder what will be the next phase.
Hye Jin

It's an interesting categorization, the three periods Mr. Blauvelt lays out. I've only thought of design as a historical progression of the interplay of concept and tool, how we play off culture (or don't) to create meaning. Additionally, our point in the design time continuum is, of course, affected by what technology allows us to communicate with. It seems that our tools are becoming so sophisticated and even accessible, that our reach is extending far beyond traditional notions of design. It's exciting. It does seem that we're approaching a sort of threshold, that we're gravitating toward the relational design described above. All the while McLuhan seems more relevant than ever. There's increasing opportunity for broadness and of communication and how we can engage the viewer on multiple sensory levels. We can even create work that allows the user to generate design. There's a kind of democratization of tools. Of course there's bad design and the threat of lost jobs as untrained individuals take a crack at what we do, but there were similar worries with the invention of desktop publishing. Haven't the benefits outweighed any perceived threats? The designer can still serve as an editor/form-maker and create sophisticated work. Why wouldn't we want to orchestrate more engaging, memorable, and even generative work?
B. Segall

While I am excited about the possibilities of this new phase of design, I am a bit pessimistic about this design’s efficacy in the world. This new design will have to venture out from the safety of the designer’s studio and other familiar spaces and do battle with “the messy reality of actual lives.”

The true success of this third phase of design depends on the receptivity of its audience. The power of free speech is a dangerous thing, and, even today, there are those who would wish to quell such expression or simply ignore it.

I think too much undue attention has been given to the enabling of the audience as designer. Tools such as mass customization have been accessible for quite some time now and have not resulted in a paradigm shift in consumer behavior. They seem to appeal to a small niche market or as a novelty to the mass market. If anything, because of the multiplicity of choices these tools offer, it solidifies a designer's position as an expert and gatekeeper.

Can we define what a contemporary avant-garde practice is? Are there any limitations at other than it falls within the realm of the 3rd phase of design?Does it have to be linked to a group? Do ideas have to spread outwards? Even though there are no more isms, there is still a notion of the simultaneous. Even though there isn't a specific movement happening, we all are influenced by our culture at the same time. Heh, remember maximalism?

Is there a graphic design equivalent to Teddy Cruz's manufactured sites? I feel like this is a real way to be universal and social, and to reach a mass audience. I know that I have been interested in speaking to a large audience, but maybe there is something there about an under-served audience. Maybe I am looking for a specific audience, just not the elite one. What would this design be? How would this practice work? Sigh... How could something that doesn't have physical utility serve in this way? I remember when I was an undergrad I read about these backpacks that turned into tent-like dwellings for the homeless. I was pretty stoked about it. But a bourgy design student would be.

I can see how 'relational design' grabs the designer and forces him to design from within the society, not as an outsider. Because of technological developments, there's this constant two way dialogue between the designer and the audience, sometimes even leading to a role reversal(which I guess is what DW was driving at). The way I see it, it looks more like an opportunity and less like a threat to our practice.

So it appears that in the last 100 years the design community has turned 180 degrees, from the ideal "universal language" applicable to all, to the idea of "relational design," customized to fit around every conceivable restraint. Mr. Blauvelt's post is one of shrewd and concise observations, but does little to critique or expound this idea of "relational design." I was left with a feeling of emptiness after reading, punctuated by the old Peggy Lee song;

"Is that all there is?
If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing
Let's break out the booze and have a ball
If that's all there is."

It is my opinion that design is based in purpose and necessity, and to paraphrase Victor Papanek, a designer should have a willingness to volunteer. Design is not self-indulgent, masturbatory, or egocentric. It is not a race to see who can come up with the next product, object or system that can interact with the user just for the sake of interacting, simply because we've climbed that technological mountain. Why does a person need an interactive robotic vacuum cleaner? For the same reason a person needs a streamlined pencil sharpener?

I understand that phase one is concerned with form, phase two is concerned with meaning and content, and phase three is is concerned with context. But which phase is concerned with sustainability? Which phase is concerned with safety? Which phase is concerned with responsibility? Which phase is concerned with human needs? Which phase is concerned with environmental impact?

Design is a communication field. That design affects the user is not a new phenomenon. That the user can affect design IS. So how do we use this relational design with regard to the questions posed above?

I guess my point is that there are bigger issues at stake here (environment, poverty, illness, racism, sexism, violence & abuse) and we as designers are now in the perfect position to, if not help solve these issues, at least give society the tools to help solve them.
Lauren G

It’s interesting to see how Mr. Blauvelt has presented the progressive evolution of the shifting meanings, functions, forms, and use of graphic design throughout the 1960’s up until the present day.

Indeed design has evolved into a complex discipline that creates systems and offers a multitude of ideas, methodologies, and cultural contexts. The diversity of application in the context of social, political, cultural defines graphic design as complex and interesting and thought provoking. This is what I find exciting about graphic design it has evolved into an intellectual level of thinking and creating that it transcends the act of designing itself. I’m optimistic about what the future holds for graphic design and how conflates with various fields of study within our society.

At times I do feel it becomes difficult on my part to describe specifically what it is I do, it’s hard to give a definitive explanation summed it up in five words it’s more than that. With a plethora of tools within technology that grant the user the freedom to customize and design within the tools that they are given, calling themselves designers, is an issue I worry about. As it is a thought that I worry about I am also optimistic about the future of participatory, design collaboration that can overcome such obstacles because graphic design is ever changing and evolving constantly redefining itself in various fields of application and study.
M. Seirafi

I think the interesting question is:

Assuming we really are in the middle of the third phase of design history, one characterized by a context-sensitive focus on the user, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Of course, designers have to be aware of their audience. But a focus on the “user” seems to diminish the importance of the designer as the maker of meaning. Whose meaning predominates?

The kind of ethnographic research that Blauvelt cites – and that has now become de rigueur in lots of corporate design projects – almost always seems to favor the familiar at the expensive of the innovative. Users don’t always know what they don’t know… until they know they like it. So the primacy of the user has to be balanced with the vision of the designer, like coequal branches within this era of “relationally-based, contextually-specific design.”

What I thought was especially interesting about Blauvelt’s article were the connections made to print design, a medium not intrinsically linked to interactivity in the way that web or programming based design is. When the advances of new technologies are stripped away, as in the Eatock example, we can more clearly see the changing relationship with the viewer/user. As the current trend of DIY (Make, Readymade) and mass customization (MySpace, Facebook) subsides, what we are left with is design that is participatory as a result of its conceptual framework rather than as a result of the trend or medium. And so, as a designer primarily interested in print, I wonder how the idea of open-ended systems will impact print design. Assuming that print is not on its way out (and that the Kindle is not the wave of the future) how will this new ideology impact its role?

Bauvelt charts the brief history of graphic design in liguistic terms, "as moving from form to content to context." This statement clears the path for where we are heading next. A multi-disciplinary, cross-cultural realm that overlaps many fields. That being said, it sure sounds exciting and promising; however, it is a "make it or break it" phase that we face now. The trajectory can successfully have designers play a role in all kinds of different fields or have us deleted from the professional world and enter our dark age.

Designers have always honored or at least consider the audience. Now that audience is in part of the "play", the process and the end results. it blurs the line between designers and audience.


Design is surely steering away from merely form and content toward context, becoming more about the relationship and sometimes interaction between the designer and the audience. Design should be meant to help shape and inform society and culture so it's nice to see that more and more design asks the audience a question rather than gives it a solution, designing to the effect of some kind of response.. It is at once scary and exciting that design is becoming more and more open ended.
jessica h

Dear Mr. Blauvelt,

I'm currently an MFA student at CalArts. As you know, it was (along with Cranbrook) the epicenter of the postmodern graphic design movement, which promised to transform graphic design into a socially relevant practice. My thinking was that in coming to CalArts I would be inspired and learn how to revolutionize! as a graphic designer. (I was a bit idealistic.) But when I arrived I quickly learned that the CalArts of the 80's and 90's that I adored is now part of history. It has long since moved on and rightly so because today that movement has been demoted to a meaningless style.

I must admit this discovery has left me feeling a bit deflated and even hopeless. As part of the newest generation of designers I have sensed a kind of emptiness and have felt somewhat burdened by this absence of an identifiable movement, a set of beliefs (or forms) that we could rally behind (or against).

But after reading your essay I’m finally able to articulate something that I’ve been slow to realize. I didn't come to CalArts for the 80's or the 90's, but rather for what postmodern design represents—a sense of purpose, energy, and vitality. It inspired me to be a designer and to believe that an education was worth investing in, because it all serves to teach me that design has an effect on society, that there is meaning in everything that we produce, and what we produce should be (to the best of our abilities) meaningful. You remind us that despite our messy realities we have agency, both as designers and users.

“...the loss of designs that are highly controlled and prescribed...” I would love to see this be a norm because this is how new designs are made — by experimenting and not following prescribed conventions. Although everyone can now be a designer, that doesn’t mean that everyone has the talent to be a designer. I think the “pro” designers have nothing to worry about and should embrace all the new minds contributing to design. Advertising and printing companies are still going to employ the best designers so I have full confidence in those that I’m hiring and will hire.

An excellent 'map' or - tracing perhaps - of Design history but I wonder if the author has read Colin Davies's comments on Link
Davies, whilst clearly in sympathy with the conclusions of Blauvelt's article, queries avante-gardism as the 'start' of 'modern design', making this point: "I feel it is very important to place design in a historical timeline, which maps in commercial enterprise and not solely artistic innovation – to this end the history of design and the history of art are not perfectly syncopated historiography." Davies is trying to mark out a more complex territory for design history and our understanding of 'the thing designed'. Recommended!
Keith B

The Davies article by the way is on www.limitedlanguage.org Link
Keith B

The point about the user being somewhat incorporated into the design iteslf is interesting. Lets say, for instance, the user becomes so ingrained in design that everything that is designed becomes this sort of open ended thing. Since things will still need to be made for the user, designers will in essence be setting limitations on the objects they create. Will the way to make interesting design be more about figuring out a way to make an existing object into something that the user can also play with? like the roomba? I like that idea, but I also know that even though the user is smarter and demands much more from their visual stimuli, there will always be room for the designer to be the end of the creative line. People will always want others to make things interesting for them, because the user can only take things so far before the limits of their ideas are reached, and it's up to us, the designers, to come up with those ideas that are beyond their grasp. Isn't that what we've always done anyways?
Gregory Coats

Thanks Andrew- this is a great discussion about things- the posts are also indicative of the current malaise in practice.
Just an fyi- it's in undergraduate curriculum discussions as well!

Hope you are well.

scott townsend

As modern people's desire to express themselves increases, designer's role is being changed. Designers in the past could control pretty much everything from A to Z, but now they have to share their work with consumers who are big fans of DIY. Designers do not wait for a consumer who would like their final work anymore. They let a consumer create what he/she likes. In Custom Converse shoes Contest, for instance, the consumers can express their creativity and individuality and feel pleasure of being creators, because the company provides something that consumers can't normally do by themselves like the production of shoes. Just like Blauvelt says, it is now a new role of designers to design for making designs.
Hye Jin

check this one a Social Networking Site MyeReputation and watch the interviewed video here's the link below;

URL: http://www.foxnews.com/video/index.html?playerId=videolandingpage&streamingFormat=FLASH&referralObject=3472956&referra

Since DO itself has resurrected this essay in conjunction with Rick Poynor's critique in Print magazine ("Strained Relations," April 2009). Print doesn't offer comments on its site, so I'll place it here.

Poynor writes:
"Blauvelt must have known that his title, “Towards Relational Design,” would immediately bring to mind Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics for some readers (Parrinder and Davies imply the term, but don’t use it), but nowhere in his article does he explain the connections or differences." He continues, "why use the term “relational” at all, especially when this new usage also risks confusion with relational database design, a well-established term in computing?"

This criticism seems absurd to me at face value. I can't use the word relational because a French art critic used it before me or that it might be confused with computing? The word relational is not a neologism. It has a general meaning which in the context of the article and its examples would have provided a sufficient understanding without having to first explain Bourriaud's thesis and then further explain why I think it is insufficient for my own ideas. I'd rather put forward my own thesis in the limited space of a blog post. I would also encourage Poynor and others to pursue the first hyperlink in this post, which gives even more examples and analysis of what I'm talking about. It is much greater than "social relations and human interactions," which the term "relational aesthetics" has been reduced to. It is an attempt to account for a series of disparate approaches witnessed across a variety of design fields over the last decade, which seem to mark a departure from the past. Sure there are overlaps (and conflicts) with Bourriaud, who claims "not to offer a theory of art" through relational aesthetics, which would therefore make it all the more difficult to use as the basis of my own sweeping theory of design.

For Poynor the most damning criticism is that I do not address the political dimension of these relations:
"Yet Blauvelt doesn’t address these essentially political issues, preferring upbeat but vague allusions to “open-ended rather than closed systems” and “connected ecologies,” even as he acknowledges that the public is viewed instrumentally (by commercial organizations) as a social entity to be “exhaustively data-mined and geodemographically profiled.” Here, “relational” starts to sound like a euphemism for ever more subtle forms of social monitoring and control."

It only sounds that way because he splices two different sections of text from my post. Never mind the fact that any type of relational or contextual design is simply reduced to social, human interactions—the kind Bourriaud evokes in his writing and to which I am now apparently accountable (illustrating yet another problem of using his ideas). I agree it is important to examine the motives behind those establishing any kind of social relations, whether the crowdsourcing business model of Threadless or the terms of use for Facebook. This would be, and is already, true regardless of my own ideas because these things exist in the public realm where they are subject to such scrutiny and debate.

Poynor insists that I tow the line on relational aesthetics and then condemns me with its critique! Ironically, Poynor could have simply asked me what I meant or why I didn't think Bourriaud's thesis was particularly relevant, but he didn't. So all we get is "Strained Relations."

Andrew Blauvelt

Andrew describes a legitimate reaction to his post as “absurd” so I will reply in similarly direct terms. My Print column about this subject can be read here.

Your exaggerated response misses the point. I never suggested that you were “accountable” to Bourriaud, or should “tow the line” on relational aesthetics, or that you couldn’t use the word “relational” under any circumstances. But the cultural context in which your post appears cannot be ignored. The English translation of Bourriaud’s book, Relational Aesthetics, was published in 2002 and the concept has been highly influential in the art world. I can’t speak for Minneapolis, but seven years on, the book is still prominently displayed and selling steadily in London art book shops. As you acknowledged when questioned about this in the comments above, you are “very much aware of relational aesthetics and its debates”.

So you used the term “relational” knowing that there were two possibilities for readers of your post – either they would know about relational aesthetics, or they wouldn’t. If they didn’t know about it, then it’s not helpful, and is even misleading, to advance a new theory that uses the term “relational” without acknowledging that an influential theory of relational communication is already current in the visual arts – remember that many of DO’s readers are students who use DO texts such as yours in their essays. (As for the computer link – a side issue that we don’t need to pursue – try googling “relational design”.)

You must also have been aware that anyone who is familiar with relational aesthetics would immediately wonder how your notion of relational design related to Bourriaud’s ideas. Contrary to what you suggest, there is no lack of space in a blog post: all it needed was a couple of sentences to establish the existence of this earlier theory and to say briefly that your focus was different. Or, even better, you could have devoted a paragraph or two to explain how your own theory differed. Not doing either of these things was an oversight. This is so obvious – you work as a curator explaining things to the public – that I’m surprised you are bothering to argue the point now.

There are very few attempts to develop new theories of design. I responded to your post because I found it interesting, though aspects of what you are saying seem to me to be needlessly unclear. That was certainly the case when it came to the political implications of your analysis. It’s for you to clarify what you are getting at in this regard. Surely, though, it’s a good thing if people think about and react to your writing? “Strained relations” was Print’s headline, not mine. There are no strained relations here.
Rick Poynor

Is the point here that over-used words become dead-metaphors?

Grant McCracken in Culture and Consumption (Indiana,1990, p62) suggests a dead metaphor “threatens to conceal as much as it once revealed. It now dulls our critical senses as it once stimulated our imaginative faculties.”

This is a danger for ‘relational design’ as much as other modes of thinking about design: semiotics, form-follows-function etc.

Take semiotics… it is based on the metaphor of ‘reading’ (or mis-reading) design like a correctly punctuated sentence. The semiotic, interpretive ‘era’ isn’t over per-se but we’ve become more aware of its limitations. Design isn’t read, it is lived. Semiotics finds this hard to account for.

The relational is appealing because the relationships metaphor is about design as being with people and in the world. It is art or design which concerns itself with encounters. These encounters may be between people, between media, between contexts. This is can account for some of the ways that design is lived.

This is, inevitably, a departure from Bourriaud’s original sense of the term (where Relational Aesthetics is “A formal arrangement that generates relationships between people.” ‘Relational Aesthetics’, 1998) but it encapsulates the way it’s been adopted in architectural, spatial and communications practice over the last ten years.

The departure isn’t the problem. The problem is that ‘relational’, like all terms, is in danger of being over-used. It will come to mean everything and nothing. This is why historical context is important, and any uprooting from the moorings needs to be accountable. You don’t have to stay faithful to those moorings: but it’s the only way you can see the shifts – from 1998 to now, from art to design, from live to on-its-death-bed?-metaphor. I think this is what Rick Poynor is getting at in his Print article. (However, I would note that this also means that a 2005 use and relevance of the term relational, even in design, can’t be critiqued un-problematically today, as if it was the same).

A condition for critical, situated practice seems to be that it needs to ask this: What do my ways of thinking and tools enable? And, perhaps more crucially, what do they disable? These are the more political questions that Claire Bishop advocated that Relational Aesthetics asked back then. They are equally relevant questions for designers now.

So, if we don’t want to kill the metaphors that once illuminated new ways of thinking – what to do? If we think outside of metaphors, to direct processes, then we might call the kind of design that seems of pertinent interest now and which Andrew addresses and others, reciprocal. For design to be reciprocal, there has to be genuine dialogue and, in any design scenarios, the particularities of interactions, context and events have to be taken into account or even fed-back and looped into the process.

Here I’m not doing an about-turn on my own use of relational thinking (www.limitedlanguage.org)... but, I am mindful of the way that changing the term to the colloquial, can be a great way of testing what it over and under determines. Using reciprocal reminds us how design – and the minutiae of everyday life – have always worked in this way. In itself it isn’t specific to one era of the twentieth century (and Andrew Blauvelt does make this point) – but now we can undoubtedly see it become the conscious structural practice of much new work.

However, if we are really interested in re-understanding design in terms of recipricosity… then it’s not enough to see it as being between design and its context (within one design scenario or encounter). Design is also reciprocal in a temporal sense (the way new designs kick off old ones) and in a spatial sense (designers are networked both literally by the www and metaphorically by influences).

This is why we need to transcend any ideas of seeing design as being in a new ‘relational phase’. in terms of impact. Or contextualising it in terms of previous movements that it has surpassed. We would do better to continually trace and re-trace design shifts as increments.
Monika Parrinder of Limited Language

A really engaging essay!
Are there any design books about relational design?

This is a nice piece for yer on design innovation. Thanks for sharing this one!
Chuck Smith

If anyone is after more information on this topic, I wrote my thesis on Relational Design, using this post as one of the main springboards in which to explore this new field. It uses logo design as a means of exploring some of these ideas in depth, while also taking a much broader view of design, culture and science.


Would love to discuss this topic in further depth if anyone is interested.
Daniel Neville

Andrew Blauvelt Andrew Blauvelt is Curator of Architecture and Design and Chief of Communications and Audience Engagement at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. A practicing graphic designer his work has received numerous awards and has been published and exhibited in North America, Europe, and Asia. He has organized numerous exhibitions.

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