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Aneesha Dharwadker

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Global Design Practice: Themes, Critiques, and Radical Alternatives

Design practices today are having a moment: of transformation, of truth, and in some cases, of silence. Recent political and social reckonings like the #metoo movement, intolerable cycles of gun violence, declining detention center environments at the US-Mexico border, the high visibility of war and climate change refugees, and most recently, the spectacular failure of the federal response to COVID-19, have brought into relief new imperatives for some practitioners, whose moral and social attitudes are starting to undergird their firm structures, branding, project types, and clientele. These emerging practices contrast with more familiar corporate models —“full service” firms defined by building types or technological tools rather than by overt ethical positioning. Still more practices fall somewhere along this spectrum, as for-profit businesses providing professional services that are embracing large-scale issues, like climate change, police violence, or public school closures, as design problems.

A recent seminar I taught at the University of Illinois School of Architecture and Department of Landscape Architecture attempted to take stock of this broadening landscape of practice. We examined a cross-section of practices from around the globe, grouping them under general themes and discovering tensions between practitioners’ positions, in some cases playing out in real time. In addition to geographic diversity, each grouping also juxtaposed established practices with nascent ones. Though the course focused on practices producing the built environment, we also incorporated industrial and fashion design, where change may register more quickly.

The issues that we grappled with ranged from existential questions about the identity and purpose of design practices to ethical and practical considerations of the ways that they might be staffed and run: Should design practice first and foremost be a set of services provided for a fee? In what ways do “corporate” practices address, ignore, or gloss over social problems? How does the financial structure and organizational hierarchy of a firm affect its design philosophy and output? In what ways has feminism changed design practice? Can design practice be separated from its social, political, ecological, or economic contexts? And one I would add today is that while designers are capable of high productivity under stress—like pivoting on a dime to produce Personal Protective Equipment on commercial 3D printers (which, full disclosure, I am participating in)—is it truly our responsibility to fill the leadership vacuum in the land’s highest office?

For their final project, the students proposed their own hypothetical practices, developing philosophy statements, business plans, office structure diagrams, and graphic identities. They considered the future of financing through mixed revenue streams, including creative grants and fundraising; increased hybridity between architecture and landscape architecture, reflecting the highly evident interdisciplinary activities of the past decade; and the incredible potential of design practice tackling existential issues directly.

This multi-media list includes case studies from the course along with reading selections from key figures in contemporary design thinking and practice. These resources are organized into nine themes that reflect the breadth and urgency of the questions that are currently animating the field. It also suggests that design practice case studies—interrogating how practices represent themselves online through mission statements, graphic branding, and project selection—can be valuable when viewed through the lens of scholarly critique.

[Images: Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen, Oslo Opera House by Snøhetta, VM Mountain by Bjarke Ingels Group, The High Line by James Corner Field Operations, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and Piet Oudolf, via Wikimedia; Seattle Central Library by OMA/Rem Koolhaas, Makoko Floating School by NLÉ, National Museum of African American History and Culture by David Adjaye Associates, South Korean sentry near the DMZ, “Double Negative” by Michael Heizer, via Flickr.]


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