Book review: Design as an Attitude by Alice Rawsthorn

Alice Rawsthorn’s new book, Design as an Attitude, proposes an expansion of what we consider as design, championing its social and facilitatory role

Alice Rawsthorn, JRP | Ringier Documents Series
Review by Peter Maxwell

Critic Alice Rawsthorn has spent the bulk of her career striving to make design appeal beyond the subject’s parochial boundaries.

Through her weekly column in The New York Times, which ran for more than a decade (2006–17), she did much to make design seem vital to those who might otherwise have dismissed the topic as ancillary to the business of organising an increasingly complex world. In fact her writing for that paper, and a wider range of publications, has been consistent in its agenda to position design as a lens by which we can analyse and address myriad societal bridgeheads.

Migrationlab works with migrants and refugees through co-design and creative projectsMigrationlab works with migrants and refugees through co-design and creative projects

Her latest book — a manifesto in 100 or so pages — acts very much as a continuation and concentration of this mission. Rawsthorn’s inspiration for Design as an Attitude comes from Hungarian painter and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy. ‘The idea of design and the profession of the designer has to be transformed from the notion of a specialist function into a generally valid attitude of resourcefulness and inventiveness which allows projects to be seen not in isolation but in relationship with the need of the individual and the community,’ wrote Moholy-Nagy in his posthumously published Vision in Motion (1947). ‘Ultimately all problems of design merge into one great problem: design for life.’ Rawsthorn’s argument is that this attitudinal turn has finally come to fruition in contemporary design, powered by the availability and proficiency of today’s digital tools and a growing cultural awareness that many of the systems and institutions that we once relied on are no longer fit for purpose and require reshaping.

The Ocean Cleanup develops technologies to reduce plastic pollution in ocean watersThe Ocean Cleanup develops technologies to reduce plastic pollution in ocean waters

Within this context, Rawsthorn describes how today’s most relevant practitioners are those who have unmoored themselves from ‘specialist disciplines’ and the commercial environments in which these skill sets are deployed. In short, if you’re tied to graphic or product or automotive design, you’re not acting attitudinally. Rawsthorn’s attitudinalists are instead those who we — and likely even they — might not necessarily place under the moniker of designer at all, or at least not at first. Her examples range from actor and model Aimee Mullins to prodigal environmentalist and founder of The Ocean Cleanup, Boyan Slat, as well as the (contentiously Turner Prize-nominated) Forensic Architecture (see page 25).

Taking the mean of this line-up sees the figure of the designer emerge foremost as a facilitator unmoored from the confines of the industrial complex to set foot into the academy, the laboratory, the court room and the policy unit. In Rawsthorn’s view, as these designers have gained more agency, so they have also positioned themselves as our central agents of change, bringing together experts from other fields and acting as the conceptual bridge between their competences in order to address a given issue, be that environmental degradation or the refugee crises.

Design as an Attitude catalogues the achievements of these new social agitators across a series of essays that seeks to delimit the key debates defining contemporary design culture. These shift from the revaluing of craft practices to the discourse around how we conceive objects, design’s troubled relationship with fine art and how, as an industry, it has failed its female protagonists.

Peek Retina, by social enterprise Peek Vision, is a portable ophthalmoscope. Image Credit: Rolex Joan BardelettiPeek Retina, by social enterprise Peek Vision, is a portable ophthalmoscope. Image Credit: Rolex Joan Bardeletti

These don’t always explicitly build the case for attitudinalism, but rather unpack the context from which Rawsthorn has deduced its importance. Indeed, the book is based on the column she wrote for frieze magazine up until last year, and as such is the distillate of a critic walking her beat, month after month, constantly reappraising the state of the art. Her introductory argument is not merely post-rationalisation to justify a publishing project, however, but more an opportunity to step back and see what those intense moments of scrutiny mean in aggregate.

As a primer on contemporary design, Rawsthorn’s book is efficient and engaging. However, its main achievement is to weave competing strands of practice both within and without the established confines of the discipline in such a way as to make a case for those confines to be eradicated entirely.

It achieves this not by making design functionally disappear — something those who deploy the term ‘design thinking’ have achieved to disastrous e.ect — but by instead revealing how it acts as a superstructure on which all other forms of enquiry can rest. In a world in which so much of the global narrative is defined by debates as dangerous to our collective wellbeing as they are intractable, that shift in attitude could prove valuable.

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