Design Culture Salon

Design Culture Salon
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
From November 2012 to April 2013
Attended 27 November 2012, 29 January 2013, 29 April 2013

In November 2013 I participated in the first Design Culture Salon as a panel member asked to discussion, “What can museums do with contemporary design”. The brainchild of Dr Guy Julier, Professor of Design Culture and Principal Research Fellow in Contemporary Design at University of Brighton and the V&A, it was followed by four more in the series, until April this year.

Here’s the official description…
“The Design Culture Salons are occasional discussion events hosted by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. They provide a space to: develop advanced debate and discussion of the complex, dynamic and pervasive role of design in contemporary society; and consolidate discussion as to how design culture, criticism, representation and practice can be further developed. Each event features an invited panel, chaired by Guy Julier, University of Brighton Professor of Design Culture at the V&A. Panelists provide brief, personal overviews of the respective event’s theme. This is followed by open discussion. These salons are supported by the University of Brighton and the Learning Department and Research Department of the V&A.”

On the excellent website dedicated to the Salon, there are previews and reflections on each event, written by Guy and his colleague, Leah Armstrong. I attended three out of the five (bad winter weather being my excuse), and I’ve left comments on the website each time. Here are my comments again, but visit the site to read them in context.

My comment on:
Reflections on Design Culture Salon 1 — ‘What Can Museums Do With Contemporary Design?’

That “locus beyond the exhibition” (events, talks, workshops, Lates) is one place where the audience might participate, discuss ideas and also form content. There was some discussion of how the design museum’s website is crucial for this “feedback loop” too, and needs to be more porous and reactive, and I’d like to extend Louise’s example (she mentioned the microsite and the generative logo for “Decode”) by mentioning the various microsites created by the Architecture and Design Department at MoMA, which are used to gather material, by offering access to “contributors”, acting as an online documentation of the exhibition making process, and an online archive, keeping that research current even after the temporary exhibition has closed.

Stephen mentioned that, “we are on the cusp of involving audiences”. In some ways it’s already happening. One audience member mentioned to me after the talk that, “we’ve gone beyond websites, the V&A’s Twitter account is what keeps me informed and engaged, and the museum uses it well”. Looking at the effect of the Social Media stuff on what the design museum offers back to its audience is an interesting research topic. Another Design Culture Salon about the design museum, but this time considering how the museum interacts with its audience, how the audience is researched, how the museum is marketed, and how that information is fed back into curatorial and learning content, might push this discussion on. Jane mentioned that as a curator she has been involved in some of these processes, but it would be interesting to discover just how much they shape content.

Comment on:
Reflections on Design Culture Salon 2 — ‘Is “making stuff” back on the agenda?’

For me, this Salon was the most rewarding, challenging and frustrating of all the events in the series because the word “making” is such a broad and slippery term. We could have spent all evening discussing government policy for the manufacturing industries; or the role of crafting in building communities; or the concept of agency in design and craft practice, and all these interesting topics were introduced by one or other speaker.

It’s not a criticism, just an observation, but it highlighted a problem, with subsequent events too. Each speaker in effect presented on their specialism, and fielded questions aimed at them, but there was little interaction between the speakers. When speakers did interact, wires crossed as they didn’t seem to agree common ground, perhaps because the subject was just too broad.

There is much to discuss, and a more extensive programme of Salons could tackle a wide range of themes. If the theme for each event was more closely defined, the audiences might be smaller (not necessarily a bad thing as it could prompt more participation), but in the long run, the cumulative audience would be more diverse, and substantial!

Comment on:
Reflections on Design Culture Salon 5 – ‘How does design produce new publics?’

A question from Julia Lohmann (in the audience), hinted at the “elephant in the room”. She asked; “What skills should we teach the designers of tomorrow; what can we bring to design to deal with future problems?” I’d suggest that future problems are current problems and that the designers being educated today, like those educated over the past 40 years, are most likely going to keep adding to our problems. It’s a matter of expectations. Young designers at university may participate in a couple of “social good” projects, but on the whole their expectations revolve around getting a good job in industry, making money by making stuff, and paying off their student debt. And the education system is still feeding this expectation.

Was the debate suggesting that the notion of designing for the “individual” has been superceded? Looking at the history of design, that’s more or less been the industry’s raison d’être. If we’re honest about it, we’re a long way from that situation changing, and it’s not necessarily designers who are in a position to drive that change; they can communicate the need for change though. Not only is there a lag in the teaching of design that investigates the notion of “social good”, but when it does occur in universities is it more than mere window-dressing? Until the expectations of design graduates are fundamentally examined and changed, then it isn’t.

Part two of that process necessitates educating the public (including future designers who are still at school, and their parents), as to what design is and what it can be, promoting the notion that it is a tool for change and not an end in itself (in the form of a product); that’s when those career expectations will change. Museums, which are a powerful intermediary between education, the public, government and commerce, could enter into this conversation by staging exhibitions and displays that tackle issues rather than merely fetishizing objects.

And, here, the University of Brighton records the participation of staff and students in the proceedings.