There is a tacit language held within every designed object we encounter. And as consumers of physical products we understand, perhaps subconsciously, that objects embody all sorts of references and qualities, such as safe, clean, reliable, futuristic, fashionable, hi-tech, manufactured, bespoke, corporate, ethnic, male or female. These references are delivered through design and really it’s the language of design that we understand.
It is this literacy that self-described ‘technology idealists’ Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby are seeking to harness in order to pose questions about how our use of technology may affect our lives in the future.
Design is seldom used in this way, to ask hypothetical questions about wider social issues or the moral conundrums arising from changes in science and technology. But since forming Dunne & Raby in the mid 1990s, the pair have used their grounding in design to create physical objects that propose often quite difficult questions about the impact, use, control and distribution of new technologies.
‘We’re pursuing the idea that design can be a vehicle to pose questions,’ says Dunne. ‘For us, product design is a medium to explore ideas. We use the language of popular design and industrial processes, which people can relate to, to reflect back the types of questions they might normally expect to find in art.’
Both Dunne and Raby lecture at the Royal College of Art and since 2005 Dunne has led the Design Interactions course there. Many of the same lines of investigation are to be found on this course, where there is a blurring of the boundaries between design, art, science and academic investigation.
As a studio, Dunne & Raby also works with industry, usually with companies that see value in a freer, more questioning look at the future use of technology in society. But it is clear the pair feel most engaged when dealing with thoughtful, discursive ideas, free from commercial objectives. As well as this, Raby notes that much of their work undertaken for industry is restricted by non-disclosure agreements and so cannot be openly discussed, rather undermining its strength.
But in an exhibition of new work, created for the 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial, Dunne & Raby will present a series of ‘possible futures’ built around subjects as broad as synthetic biology, ethics and multiculturalism, neurotechnology and euthanasia. Four scenarios portray fictional futures where certain technological applications, all feasible, have caused society to change in some way. The exhibits ask: Is this good or bad? Do we want this? How and why might we end up here?
Writer Alex Burrett and photographer Jason Evans collaborated with Dunne & Raby to visualise these futures, introducing outline characters and mildly unsettling narratives. The scenarios are clearly fictional and not intended as predictions of, or designs for, the future. So in what way is the work a design project, as opposed to a science fiction vignette?
‘The objects we create are a fiction, and often we’re sliding towards science fiction, but they are designed to look realistic and mundane. If we move too far away from that it becomes more like sculpture or art,’ says Dunne. Raby elaborates: ‘Design can show the ordinariness and banality of objects, so the scenes are plausible enough to contain their own questions and contradictions.’
For Dunne, this work uses design to access our ‘consumer side’ – our understanding of the language of designed products – to engage our ‘citizen side’ to think about their impact. ‘In society, it’s not until we buy things that they become real. And in terms of changing and questioning things I think we may be more powerful as consumers than as citizens, so we are using design to bring these two together.’
It may not be design as we know it, but Dunne & Raby’s ‘critical design’ could offer a philosophy to a new generation of multidisciplinary designers wishing to work within a wider social dimension. Or perhaps it is an approach for the growing number of designers already jaded by the unfettered market forces that regularly drive their work.
The 2010 Saint Etienne International Design Biennial runs from 20 November – 5 December – www.biennale2010.citedudesign.com
This article was written for Design Week, 28 October 2010.