Design Culture: Object, Discipline and Practice

September 25, 2014

Press releases, exhibition catalogues, design magazines, cultural policy wonks and TV commentators have been increasingly talking about ‘the design culture’ of a place, a particular historical period or even a studio. In this, they are attempting to shift the emphasis away from the finished objects of design to a broader analysis of everyday understandings and outlooks relating to design, ways of working, the human and physical resources available, as well as the many things of design themselves, in order to demonstrate how these relate to each other.

But this isn’t just found in popular media. Hard on the heels of the relatively new academic disciplines of Visual Culture and Material Culture, we now have Design Culture. Indeed, there are already undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes in Design Culture at the London College of Communication, VU University Amsterdam and the University of Southern Denmark.

On 18-19 September, 55 academics from 17 countries gathered in Kolding, a small city at the southern end of the Jutland peninsula, to share research at a conference for this emergent specialism. Entitled ‘Design Culture:  Object, Discipline and Practice, this was an inaugural conference for its scholars, itself inaugurating a majestic new university campus for the University of Southern Denmark, designed by Henning Larsen Architects.

Conference delegates inaugurate the SDU Kolding Campus lecture theatre seating.
Conference delegates inaugurate the SDU Kolding Campus lecture theatre seating.

Papers presented ranged from ‘Danish Camping in the Global Outdoors’ to ‘Crafting a Culture of Difference in Contemporary Indian Fashion’ to ‘New Generation Game Systems and Parental Controls’ to the more heady ‘Culturing Design Culture’.

These and many other talks revealed a panoply of challenging questions about the world we live in. They also demonstrated that Design Culture studies can strike out in various directions.

First, we can study design cultures, undertaking close observation and sophisticated analysis of the relations between designing, how design comes into being and how it is used, talked and thought about, at various scales and in numerous contexts.

Second, this type of academic study draws on a wide range of other disciplines outside design, including cultural studies, media and communications, sociology and human geography.

Third, Design Culture can produce new ways of intervening in the world:  in its breadth but also its real-life focus, it can equip people to be strategists, policy-makers, consultants and activists, of for many more possibilities that we don’t yet know about.

Design Culture can be an object, discipline and a practice, therefore. While it draws on advances made in design history studies in the past 30 years, it is resolutely concerned with studying the contemporary world and future possiblities. Indeed, in the latter it shares much with the philosophy of the University of Brighton’s Design Futures department.

Of course, I have a vested interest in this field, given that I am a Professor of Design Culture at the University of Brighton, although based as a Research Fellow here in the Research Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum. The V&A Design Culture Salons that Leah Armstrong and I organise are another platform where we develop this interaction between practice and theory. We attempt to open up debate onto new questions, bringing together a wide range of academic and professional perspectives.

The Museum is a space for objects, demonstrating the skill, knowledge and beauty that makes design. But it is also a place of opinions, ideas and debate.

Talking about design culture is not just a pursuit of punditry. Neither should it be confined to specialist research done by academics and curators. Growing numbers of students study it. But it is something that we are all doing. In different ways we all participate in producing design cultures.

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